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History of Mayan Hammocks

History of Mayan Hammocks
The history of the hammock is the development and transformation from a practical pre-Columbian bedding source to the luxurious backyard and beach item used by today’s suburbanites. This change in use and image is one aspect that makes the story of the hammock interesting. No other functional piece of furniture has survived and undergone such an image transformation as the hammock. A surprising fact for many, the hammock has been around for over 800 years. Its origins are somewhat unclear, as different pre-Columbian civilizations began using the hammock about the same time, thus it is not known which culture was the first to utilize this form of bedding. With no form of written history prior to the arrival of the Europeans, it is difficult to pinpoint the hammock’s exact origins.

The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, Central and South America all used some form of a hammock in their everyday lives. The first European acknowledgment of the hammock came from Columbus, who returned to Spain with a load of hammocks he acquired in what is now the present day Bahamas. And soon, with the influx of European conquistadors in search of gold, the hammock became a part of life in the New World. The Portuguese explorer, Pero Vaz de Caminha, noted in his journal in 1500 that “in their thatched houses the natives sleep in nets that are attached with cords to wooden beams above. Below always burns a small fire to keep them warm and to repel insects.” This strange, yet practical method of sleeping intrigued him. Vaz de Caminha also noticed an Indian sleeping on the beach in his drying fishing net. He gave the first European name for the hammock, penning the Portuguese phrase “rede de dormer”, simply translated as a “net for sleeping”. Today, five hundred years later, “rede” is the Portuguese word for hammock.

In English, the word "hammock" came from the Spanish conquistadors, who derived the word “homoca”, of the present day “hamaca”, from the Carib Indians, who wove fibers of the hammok tree. The vicious Caribs learned the craft from a people they had conquered, the inventive and more peaceable Arawak tribe, whose own word hammock translates as "bed-threads." The term perpetuated and soon became an acceptable word of the New World.

Hernan Cortes, conquistador of Mexico, observed the hammock as a staple of Indian life in the region he ventured. Especially in the Yucatan region where the hammock industry is now a major segment of the local economy. The hammock was also prevalent throughout Central America. Vasco Nunez Balboa wrote of “hammocks of cotton” as he made his way through the Isthmus of Panama towards the Pacific Ocean. He observed that every hut, every village had hammocks as the primary source of bedding. With each region and each different climate, the material, make up and design of the hammock changed.

Originally, the hammock was a simple, functional device that was used for comfort as well as protection. Most of the earliest known uses of the hammock were by Native fisherman, who used the fishing nets for both work and rest. When drying the nets, they would hang them up and sleep in them. Besides a great place to sleep, these early hammocks also offered a more functional aspect to daily life, protection. Most of the pre-Columbian dwellings were open air huts with bare flooring, making it accessible for snakes, scorpions, rodents and other dangerous and potentially fatal vermin to enter. They found that by sleeping in a suspended state, they were not only comfortable, but safe. Poisonous snakes of South and Central America will not climb higher than their body length, so hammocks were a logical way to protect oneself. The hammock also offered an escape from water, dirt or other unsanitary conditions that existed within the early New World. In essence, the hammock was the only safe and viable method used for sleeping.

The earliest known hammocks were woven from the bark of the Hamak tree. The Sisal plant {similar in looks to an Aloe Vera plant} later replaced the bark as the material of choice because it was more abundant, and its fibers could be softened by rubbing. These sisal or rope-style hammocks were coarse in nature, and not nearly as comfortable as they would later become with the introduction of cotton and other cotton-like fibers. Because of trade, wars and international travel, the hammock and its many variations soon found its way into the daily lives of the various pre-Columbian cultures. As with every good invention, people worked to improve it. Instead of the taut and stringy fishing nets or the rough sisal, the hammocks were soon being made from softer, more pleasant indigenous fabrics and materials, which resulted in a vast cross section of styles, colors and designs that have been constantly evolving ever since. That is why each region can be identified by the type of hammock they produce and use.

It was the colonists’ turn to be acclimated to the hammock next. In 1570, Portuguese colonist Pero de Magalhaes wrote that “most beds in Brazil are now hammocks, hung in the house from two cords. This custom they took from the Indians of the land.” Soon, most colonists were using hammocks as their primary bedding. From Mexico all the way to southern Brazil, the hammock became a vital part of culture. The hammock was starting to get noticed by the powers of Europe, quickly becoming a part of the maritime world and an important aspect of maritime history. By the late 1600s, England was utilizing the hammock as a fundamental part of her growing Navy. Prior to the introduction of the hammock, sailors slept on the deck, and this was difficult due to the ship’s natural rocking and rolling as she cut through the rough ocean waters. This would make sleep virtually impossible during a storm as the sailors would be thrown across the deck, into each other. Sometimes this would result in injury and, on occasion, even death. With the hammock, the sides would wrap around the sailor like a cocoon, making falling out virtually impossible. So the hammock was widely embraced by all, becoming standard issued gear for the Navy.

In 1841, the term “hammock” was listed in the English Dictionary of Sea Terms as “a piece of canvas, hung at each end, in which seamen sleep.” The hammock was easily stowed when not in use. The sailor, upon waking up, simply rolled his hammock up and slid it into the storage area, thus freeing up space for other uses. The sleeping area could double as either a dining or recreational space, the hammocks strung up only when in use. The hammock also allowed for warmth during the arctic expeditions of the Royal Navy. George William Smith D.S.M. of the Royal Navy’s HMS BORODINO, a ship with the North Russian Expeditionary Force, wrote in his journal in 1919 that “the interior of the ship is wet, caused by the steel sweating with the cold outside and the hot steam pipes inside, so that moisture drops on to your face while sleeping in your hammock, which provided warmth.”

The hammock also prevailed in the United States Navy, and in a Civil War era US Naval manual the canvas hammock was a part of a seaman’s issued equipment. Being closely modeled to the Royal Navy from both a functional and a practical fashion, the hammock was an integral part of Navy life. This soon spilled over into the merchant marine, and by the late 1800s the maritime hammock was as necessary as any item on board. The sailors learned to love and appreciate their hammocks as it allowed them some respite to the day's difficult labors. It was these very seamen who, through their travels and in their retirement from the sea, made the hammock an item of leisure. By the late 1800s, the hammock began appearing on land as the sailors took their hammocks ashore. Many had grown so accustomed to sleeping in them that they continued the practice on land. It gave them the feeling they were still at sea. It also was a very inexpensive method of bedding. All one needed was some rope or a couple of hooks and he was ready to sleep. It also fit into the nomadic lifestyle of the merchant marine. The hammock on land offered the same benefits that it did at sea. It was comfortable, easy to set up, easy to pack away and easy to carry.

It didn’t take long before the landlubbing American public took notice of this strange, yet practical piece of furniture. The first known hammock manufacturer in the United States was in Pawleys Island, South Carolina in 1889. Captain Joshua John Ward experimented with several types of hammocks, and finally came up with what would be the classic American-Style hammock. He used knotted cotton rope with wooden spreader bars. His original design, although modified, still exists today in what is the standard hammock. The image of the hammock as a leisure item came from the first users. Most people who owned hammocks were sailors, and when on shore leave, most didn’t work. They relaxed. So the image of these men lounging around became synonymous with a life of leisure.

At the turn of the century, as the United States began to expand its frontiers, the hammock began to take on a more tropical appeal. Once again, the use of the hammock was based on practical and sanitary reasons. During the construction of the Panama Canal, 1903-1908, Col William Crawford Gorgas was given the task of cleaning up the malaria-ridden Canal Zone, as thousands of workers were dying. The use of the hammock was one way he was able to do so. The hammock not only kept the person off the wet ground where he would be susceptible to other insects, but it was also easier to enclose the small hammocks with life saving mosquito netting. The images and photos that returned home of the workers or sailors, swinging lazily between two trees in these far away, exotic tropical locations gave rise to not only hammock awareness in the mainstream, but relaxation. With the outbreak of World War One, a whole new generation of soldiers and sailors were exposed to the hammock and at the war’s conclusion, returned home with their stories as well as their new found appreciation for the wonders of suspended sleep.

During the 1920s, the hammock remained a staple of the Navy, but also began crossing over into the mainstream. It wasn’t a long shot to see a hammock on someone’s porch or strung between two backyard trees. The upper class started to take notice as well, as the hammock made its way up the social ladder. Soon, it was a part of the summer home. A place to lazily swing away to a summer’s breeze, and the hammock made its turn from practical to luxurious. The Great Depression changed all of this. Luxury items were a thing of the past. Homemade hammocks were prevalent once again as thousands of homeless people used the hammock as an inexpensive bed. Shanty towns, or Hoovervilles, sprung up all over the country, and it was not rare to see hammocks strung from trees or tents. With the arrival of World War II, a throng of new soldiers and sailors were exposed to the wonders of the hammock. Photographs graced the pages of magazines, showing sailors and soldiers alike sleeping, resting and using the hammock in various locales. A lot had to do with the war time press, many of the photos staged to make everything look great. Thus the image of a soldier resting in between two palm trees in the South Pacific became common fodder for the public. Even young men, who never in their lives would have seen a hammock, were now using them for their livelihood. Robert Bradicich, a private with the 28th Infantry Division, 110th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company E of the Pennsylvania National Guard, wrote in his memoirs of the hammocks they slept in on their cross Atlantic voyage. “We managed to leave the mess hall and get to our bunks. The hammocks were five high, attached to the wall of the boat.” After the war, the hammock once was introduced into mainstream. The baby boomer families of post-war America embraced the hammock as an item of relaxation. Cartoons sprouted up showing the father in the backyard, lounging in a hammock with a cold lemonade in hand. Hammocks became the image of backyard leisure. Then, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation declaring the 3rd Sunday of June Father's Day. President Richard Nixon signed the law which finally made it permanent in 1972. Since then the hammock has become the unofficial symbol of Father’s Day.

In the past twenty-five years, the hammock industry has exploded, becoming a multi-million dollar industry. There are now over 20 US hammock manufacturing companies. The styles have varied, with the Classic American Rope hammock, the more traditional fabric hammock, the imported ethnic hammocks from Nicaragua, Mexico, Columbia, Brazil and China. Buyhammocks.com invites you to take part in the history, and enjoy the supreme comfort of our hammocks.