The Waving Girl
This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Alison Lechner as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2016.
The Waving Girl historical marker was dedicated in 1958. View The Waving Girl marker listing.
1. Florence Martus, 1931. Photographer Unknown. Courtesy of Bull Street Library, Georgia Live Oak Libraries.
2. Cockspur Island Lighthouse, 2016. Courtesy of Alison Lechner.
3. Fort Pulaski, 2016. Courtesy of Alison Lechner.
4. “Waving Girl” Statue on River Street, 2016. Courtesy of Alison Lechner.
5. Detail of “Waving Girl” Statue on River Street, 2016. Courtesy of Alison Lechner.
6. “Waving Girl” Postcard. Date and Creator Unknown. Courtesy of Bull Street Library, Georgia Live Oak Libraries.
7. The Waving Girl Marker Text at Fort Pulaski Park, 2016. Courtesy of Alison Lechner.
8. ‘Waving Girl’ Visitor Gets Into Spirit of Things, February 7, 1972. Courtesy of Mike Martin of the Savannah Morning News.
9. The Florence Restaurant, February 16th, 2016. Image courtesy of Instagram @theflorencesav.
The following essay is by SCAD student Alison Lechner, 2016.
Florence Margaret Martus (Figure 1), known as Savannah’s “Waving Girl,” greeted ships to the city’s port over a period of forty-four years, from 1887-1931.[i] Born in 1868 at the Cockspur Island Lighthouse (Figure 2) near Fort Pulaski (Figure 3), Martus eventually settled at the Elba Island Lighthouse with her brother, George Washington Martus, and every day waved to ships as they entered port with a handkerchief and even occasionally by night with a lantern. Her persistent hobby of greeting the vessels made her famous around the world, as her story was carried to ports near and far. The common folklore surrounding Martus was that she was awaiting a long-lost love to return from war on one of the many ships she waived to. This added to the mystery and aura of the “Waving Girl,” and part of her world-wide allure. But in truth, Martus admitted her aims were much simpler:
I was young, and it was sort of lonely on the Island for a girl, so I started to wave to the ships which passed. They would return the greeting and sometimes salute. Gradually they came to watch for my friendly wave from the shore. We had many friends on the tugboats and among the bar pilots.[ii]
Her impact extended far beyond those who indulged in her supposed tale of awaiting a long lost love; she became a beacon of hope for many sea-wary travelers. James Mack Adams, writing for the Savannah Morning News in 1998, believed that she was a reminder of what awaited many seamen when they finally returned to shore:
Lonely sailors strained their eyes to look for her. They called her the ‘sweetheart of seafaring men of the world.’ She represented the wives and sweethearts they had left on distant shores.[iii]
For others, it was her consistency that earned their fancy. During her forty-four years on the Island, Martus waived to an estimated 50,000 boats.[iv] “In the twelve years I was on a yacht, she never failed to come out and wave at us,” wrote New York sailor Rudolph Anger in 1959.[v]
Despite greeting visitors well into her sixties, Florence Martus always maintained the nickname of “The Waving Girl.” This was partly due to her starting her waving at age 19, but also due to an aura of childlike wonder that others assigned to Martus. She never married and a common colloquialism of the time would assign unmarried females the title of “girl” rather than “woman,” despite age. Her unusual hobby of persistent greeting, no matter the time of day or weather, was and still is quite peculiar, leading some to think of her as simple, perhaps a recluse, or possibly of a mental age much younger than her actual age. This, however, was simply untrue: while Martus did enjoy the quiet of her secluded island life, she was by no means a recluse and often enjoyed meeting with neighbors while in town. Martus lived with her brother on Elba Island before there were easy access roads, such as the Island Expressway, to allow them to travel to Savannah with ease, often visiting just once or twice a month to pick up supplies and books.[vi] She and her brother were voracious readers, and she kept a detailed diary during her forty-four years of greeting, leading one to believe she was in fact, quite intelligent and well-versed. Unfortunately, Martus destroyed her diary upon her retirement in 1931, so the public may never know the truth behind the “Waving Girl’s” disposition.
Her story was nevertheless perpetuated by the locals and those who promoted Savannah tourism as a mystical girl who remained stationary on the island, causing many to draw their own conclusions about her purpose. Whatever the reason, her popularity within Savannah continues to this day as a symbol of the welcoming hospitality of the southern port “Hostess” city. In 1943, a Liberty ship was named for Florence Martus shortly after her death and was launched on Armistice Day.[vii] In 1972, the City of Savannah built a permanent statue replicating “The Waving Girl,” located on River Street (Figure 4), the first monument dedicated to a Georgia woman in a state park.[viii] The statue was designed by Felix de Weldon, who also sculpted the Iwo Jima Monument in Washington, D.C.[ix] De Weldon was moved by the fidelity of her consistency and the significance of her gesture:
It is not the waving of the handkerchief that is so significant but the welcome, which is much more forceful – that is why I show a large sheet [in the sculpture] which expresses the warmth of her heart.[x] (Figure 5)
The Savannah Ballet even presented a performance entitled, “Legend of the Waving Girl,” in 1977.[xi] In addition to postcards (Figure 6), souvenirs featuring “The Waving Girl” are sold throughout local stores downtown and on River Street. In 2014, famed chef Hugh Acheson opened The Florence Restaurant in Midtown Savannah, taking its name from Ms. Martus, with its logo featuring a ship as an homage to those to whom she waved (Figure 9). Florence Martus’ congenial greeting earned her worldwide fame during her lifetime and is still felt decades after her passing, with the story of her waving gesture continuing to welcome visitors for many years to come.
[i] Lisa Summerlin, Florence Margaret Martus (1868-1943) Savannah’s Waving Girl, un-published paper in vertical file “Florence Martus,” Georgia Historical Society, 1989.
[ii] Ruth S. Healy, “The Waving Girl,” Prepared for the Program Meeting of the Altrusa Club of Savannah. January 19, 1967, found in “The Waving Girl” File at the Savannah Materials at the Bull Street. Georgia Live Oak Public Library.
[iii] James Mack Adams, “Savannah Continues to Honor ‘The Waving Girl’” in The Savannah Morning News. June 18, 1998.
[v] Author and date unknown, AnchorAge article found in “The Waving Girl” File at the Savannah Materials at the Bull Street. Georgia Live Oak Public Library.
[viii] City of Savannah’s “Monuments Website,” accessed May 1st, 2016 http://www.savannahga.gov/index.aspx?nid=768.
[ix] Dorothy Stewart, “The Waving Girl Monument in River Front Park,” in The Monuments and Fountains of Savannah. Savannah, GA: Armstrong State College (1993): 547.
[x] Carol Hardigee, “His Goal: Depict Warm Heart,” Savannah Evening Press, February 4, 1972.
AnchorAge, Savannah Materials at the Bull Street Georgia Live Oak Public Library.
James Mack Adams, “Savannah Continues to Honor ‘The Waving Girl,”The Savannah Morning News, June 18, 1998.
City of Savannah, GA Monuments, Accessed May 1st, 2016, http://www.savannahga.gov/index.aspx?nid=768.
Carol Hardigee, “His Goal: Depict Warm Heart,” Savannah Evening Press, February 4, 1972.
Ruth S. Healy, “The Waving Girl,” Prepared for the Program Meeting of the Altrusa Club of Savannah. January 19, 1967.
Dorothy Stewart, “The Waving Girl Monument in River Front Park,”The Monuments and Fountains of Savannah, (Savannah, GA: Armstrong State College (1993): 542-570).
Lisa Summerlin, Florence Margaret Martus (1868-1943) Savannah’s Waving Girl, un-published paper in vertical file “Florence Martus,” Georgia Historical Society, 1989.
“The Waving Girl” Marker Text, Georgia Historical Society Website, Accesssed May 1st, 2016, http://georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/waving-girl/.
Waving Girl Collection, Massie Heritage Center.