All You Wanted to Know About Spanish Moss!
There is probably nothing more "Southern" than the striking beauty of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides (L.) Linnaeus) draping the limbs of an old live oak (Quercus virginiana). This odd bromeliad is an epiphyte, but unlike other epiphytes, Spanish moss has neither roots nor hold-fasts. The plants can attain 6 meters (20 feet) in length. In a growth pattern called scorpioid dichotomy, alternate branches are dominant. The non-dominant branch terminates and functions like a leaf. This dichotomous growth twists; Spanish moss tangles about itself and/or its support.
Spanish moss lives on air taking sustenance from dew, rain, and particulate matter. It absorbs moisture and nutrients through the tiny silvery peltate (umbrella shaped) scales that cover its surface. Should it fall to the ground, Spanish moss dies within days or weeks. The epidermal and other tissues decay leaving a snarl of thin dark resilient fiber--"vegetable hair".
As early as 1795, vegetable hair was used as binder in plaster for walls and mud/clay bricks. Where available, it replaced horsehair. (Anyone who has renovated an old house and knocked the plaster from the lath walls has come across either horsehair or Spanish moss fiber.) It was noted in the 1950s, that the vegetable hair taken from 150 year old plaster was still resilient and the plaster was in relatively good condition. The fibrous material also made good packing for shipment of fragile materials. This packing fiber came to the attention of furniture upholsterers.
After the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), "moss gathering" became a big business in Louisiana and a somewhat smaller business in Florida. Itinerant workers pulled masses of the bromeliad from oaks or, using rafts, from cypresses in swamps. The plants were heaped and wetted or buried to speed rotting. When much of the exterior of Spanish moss had rotted, the fibers were lifted and hung over fences or wires to dry. The fibers were hand cleaned of large debris and sent to a gin which combed out the fine debris. The cleaned fibers were baled, loaded onto barges, and shipped to furniture manufacturers.
The fibers from Spanish moss had a number of benefits over the use of horsehair or feathers (down) for stuffing mattresses, couches, and chairs. The vegetable hair did not attract vermin, it was durable, and it was cool. Vegetable hair allowed air circulation through upholstered furniture. Horsehair and down were warm and excellent in colder climates, vegetable hair mattresses were an absolute necessity for babies during hot summer months of the Midwest and South. And lady's fainting couches needed to be cool for a lady dressed in a corset and petticoats.
Natural fibers for padding came to an end with the advent of foam rubber, nylon, and polyesters. It was simply a matter of economics. Moss gathering, wetting and rotting, hand cleaning, ginning, baling, and shipping were labor intensive activities. A ton of Spanish moss yielded only a quarter ton of fiber. Simply, vegetable hair became too expensive for manufacturers to use.