Eelgrass in History

Eelgrass wrack washed up on local beaches was collected and used for a variety of purposes.

Seri Indians of the Baja peninsula, Mexico

Maryland  Crabs were exported in eelgrass

Frigidaire refrigerator 1921

Radio City Music Hall

Cabot's Quilt insulation-photo courtesy Jane Kokernak

Columbia Bronze Propellers developed the "weedless wheel"

Old oyster and clam boats of Great South Bay, NY

Historically, eelgrass has been used for a variety of purposes by humans, both locally and globally, including:

  • Food, mainly rhizomes and seeds
  • Made into high-grade paper
  • Insulation for houses
  • Burned for salt and soda
  • Roof Thatching
  • Stuffing for Upholstery, mainly mattresses
  • Mulch and Manure
  • Packing material for glass-ware and exporting crabs from Chesapeake
  • Bedding and Food for Livestock
  • Stacked to make dikes
  • Zosterin-Gelling agent
  • Woven into baskets, rugs, dolls

Interesting facts:

  • The Seri Indians of Mexico ate rhizomes and leaf bases either fresh or ground them into cakes for winter food. They also used the grass to smoke deer meat, to weave baskets, to make dolls, and for medicinal purposes such as treating diarrhea. Much of their culture was influenced by eelgrass; the month of April in their native tongue translates literally to “the month when the eelgrass seed is mature”.

  • Early settlers on Long Island used eelgrass as an insulating material for homes as well as a bedding material for livestock and mulch for gardens. There are still folks on the far east end of Long Island that insist on using eelgrass wrack as mulch because "it's the best".

  • Frigidaire’s 1st refrigerator in 1919 had wood-paneled cabinets with porcelain steel liner panels with eelgrass insulation that absorbed moisture, making cabinet walls damp and smelly. The eelgrass was later replaced by corkboard by the mid-20's, ending the smell issue.

  • In search of a use for the huge clumps of eelgrass washed up on Massachusetts beaches, Samuel Cabot in 1893 created Cabot’s Quilt, a type of insulation, consisting of layers of eelgrass stitched with layers of heavy paper. The product was quick to market and was the company’s primary products until the wasting disease epidemic caused them to stop production in the 1940’s. Samuel Cabot Inc. still sells wood stains and other exterior finishing products to this day.

  • Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center in New York were built with eelgrass insulation due to its excellent insulating and sound proofing qualities as well as its non-flammable nature. Early historical records indicate that in the United States eelgrass brought $20 to $30 a ton as insulation and sound-deadening material.   One study indicated that a six-inch layer of eelgrass spread to a density of 1.5 pounds per square foot has the insulation efficiency of six inches of fiberglass insulation. Further studies reveal that Zostera will burn if subjected to a flame but will not support combustion by itself.

  • During the first half of the 20th century, the Columbia Bronze Co. of Freeport, LI developed the “weedless wheel”(an S shaped propeller that prevents the grass from becoming entangled), and the “South Bay Strainer” (protects the intake from cloging with grass) due to the large mats of floating eelgrass in Great South Bay. Many modern freshwater propellers follow this design, and are used in shallow lakes and rivers where weeds are troublesome. Below is an excerp from a manuscript depecting life in the "good old days" living on Oak Island, Great South Bay. As you can see, eelgrass was considered a nuisance, and many locals to this day still feel this way.

    "While numerous improvements in motorboat power and design evolved in reaction to Prohibition, other improvements developed in response to more natural problems in our immediate vicinity. As the bays became choked with eelgrass and seaweed, the "S" shaped weedless propeller was developed for boats to successfully cross the Bay. The plague of eelgrass that descended on the entire Bay area sometime in the late 1930's remains as one of the unexplained phenomena of nature. I have heard many opinions as to its origins and disappearance but none of them were official pronouncements by responsible marine agencies of the government. Good as the eelgrass was for shellfish, crabs and fish life, I doubt that any of us today would like to see it return to these waters. Who can forget the sight of the Bay clogged and choked from shore to shore with enormous beds of eelgrass and seaweed? It became necessary for the ferries to have to reverse their engines two or three times during a crossing to clear their wheels of grass and weeds. This chapter in the life of the Great South Bay was a dramatic example of Nature gone awry, for a period, with no known cure. Eventually, Nature found its own cure when the eelgrass disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as it came. And following suit, the higher rpm 3 and 4 bladed propellers replaced the old "S" shaped two bladed "weedless wheels" which did not provide enough speed for ferries and pleasure boats in general. Today, there are a few isolated patches of grass that appear, but no vast impenetrable beds suck as then existed. One hopes that the Bay will remain clear of suck plagues as the uncontrollable spread of eelgrass clogging all channels, creeks and marshes."


Next: Threats and Human Impacts on Eelgrass


© 2012 / Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program

SeagrassLI Home CCE Suffolk Home