Unapologetically masculine. Seventy five years ago, US Navy Officer Capt. John Webb, blended the local bay rum with the island’s tropical bay leaf oils and spices as the genesis of our collection of distinctive men’s fragrances. Our iconic hand woven palm frond bottles were inspired by Virgin Island fishing baskets, and we continue that Caribbean tradition today.
Bay leaf oil has always been sacred to Caribbean culture due to its healing nature and rich fragrance, and once Capt. Webb caught wind of this, he knew the whole world could benefit. Bay leaf oil plus native spices equals an unapologetically masculine scent—which is why St Johns Bay Rum® has been going strong for 70 years and counting. We know the importance of staying true to tradition, which is evident in every whiff and every handwoven Fishpot Weave® bottle. Quality like this doesn’t come along often...so when it does, it’s best to not tamper with perfection.
How Bay Rum Came to Be
The history of St Johns Fragrance Company™ has its origins deep in the island culture of the Caribbean—which is what still inspires the modern, timeless brand you see today. Our trademark bay leaf oil comes directly from the bay rum tree, a tree that thrives on the island of St. John and has long been acknowledged for its healing properties in the Virgin Islands.
When Danish chemist AH Riise mixed bay leaf oil with the exceptional rums of the Virgin Islands, he created an uniquely scented medicinal potion that quickly received a worldwide reputation. This led to the prominence of bay rum as an important export throughout the world—it is estimated that 1,000 gallons of St John bay leaf oil were blended into 35,000 gallons of bay rum at its pre-prohibition peak.
Once the United States enacted prohibition in 1921, bay rum could no longer be exported at such a great quantity...but crafty manufacturers were quick to find a workaround. By adding aspirin to bay rum the laws could be skirted, and the product was then advertised as a heal-all drink for aches and pains. Even after prohibition, this reputation stuck and industry production rose to a peak of over 100,000 gallons annually. A popular song of the day, titled “The Bay Rum Hounds,” even lauded the end of prohibition by singing “Roosevelt is wet, Hoover was dry / Grab a bottle of bay rum and let Hoover by.”
How John Webb Created a Legend
Born in Minneapolis, U.S. Naval Officer John Webb found himself stationed in St. Thomas during World War II. He understood the importance of bay rum to the Virgin Islands and set out on a mission to revive the industry in a fresh new way. By blending bay rum with spices native to the area, he began producing the signature fragrances we still make today.
The signature Fishpot Weave® bottles were his vision as well. Inspired by local fishermen using handwoven baskets to fish, he created the iconic palm frond weave around the bottles. Even today, each bottle continues to be hand woven by island artisans with fronds from the Tyre Palm tree. This unique packaging, plus the high-quality fragrance it contained, generated exponential growth and popularity for our Bay Rum Aftershave and Cologne.
In addition to having a strong product vision, John Webb also had the gift of timing. In the post-war era, the market was ripe with men hoping to update their grooming routine and elevate their style. By commissioning innovative ad campaigns that highlighted the tropical origins and timeless quality of the products, St Johns Fragrance Company™ rose to become a household name throughout the 60s and 70s.
The business changed hands several times in the 60s, including finding a home with corporate giant Warner-Lambert in 1963. Ohio retailer Jerry Woodhouse then bought the brand from Warner Lambert and relocated to St. Thomas to be close to the business and its heritage.
With major retail distribution deals with Saks fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor and product placements in iconic films and TV shows such as M*A*S*H, Lenny, A Single Man, Archer, Joan & Betty, Scent of a Woman, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the Fishpot Weave® bottle became synonymous with masculinity, status and authenticity.
How the Islands Have Shown Resilience
In 1995, Hurricane Marilyn struck the Virgin Islands, destroying not only the St Johns factory, but also many Tyre palms used to create the Fishpot Weave® bottles. Dedicated employees worked around the clock to salvage what they could, enabling shipments to resume within just a few weeks.
Despite the fast recovery, the brand was still struggling and had lost its way. In 2016, it was purchased from Mr. Woodhouse by the Welles Brothers, who knew the brand was a favorite of their father’s. They assembled a leadership team to rebuild the business and bring the brand back to its rightful place in the American male’s daily grooming routine.
In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall on the islands within just 5 days of one another, devastating the St Johns factory once more. Not one to be kept down by bad circumstances, the brand prevailed once again. Leadership created a special “Hurricane Series” featuring untouched fragrances and digitally printed Fishpot Weave® bottles, donating a portion of proceeds to relief efforts taking place across the islands. While island life is wonderful, Mother Nature can be unpredictable—but the spirit of St Johns always prevails.
How St Johns Has Carried Through to the Present Day
After all the growth and a few setbacks, St Johns is stronger than ever. With a continued focus on handcrafting quality products and honoring the rich history of the brand, gentlemen of a new generation are discovering what the St Johns lineup has to offer. The classic fragrances are still true to the original formulations, and new scents have been added over the years, creating a sophisticated aromatic offering for any modern man.
In spite of hurricane damage, the Tyre palms of the islands are now flourishing once more, and a network of local basketweavers still craft each Fishpot Weave® bottle by hand. Each bottle is just as unique and exceptional as the island itself, and we are proud to call this tropical archipelago our home.
St Johns is proud of its history—and we are proud of the future we’re creating, too. By staying true to our distinct and authentic product, the brand has demonstrated a resiliency and a timelessness that is unparalleled. From the original St Johns Bay Rum® to new iterations of universally appealing scents, St Johns Fragrance Company™ is a brand that is truly made for the modern man.