- Historic Sites
Once More On To The Beach
Pilgrims and Puritans, naturally, hated the water, but by the turn of the century certain pleasures had been rediscovered
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
For some two hundred years the Europeans who planted themselves on our Atlantic shoreline turned their backs on the sea or merely farmed it. Those who did not head west for new lands remained to mow the salt hay, harvest the beach plums, fish for the sacred cod, or rake up oysters from East Jersey’s abundant beds. Beaches were simply convenient places for digging clams, drying fish, or landing cargoes without the inhibiting presence of customs officers. But the seashore was scarcely thought of as a pleasure ground.
There is, to be sure, incidental mention in colonial writings indicating that some males, at least, knew how to swim. Wealthy New Yorkers paddled around wearing cork swimming jackets, small boys used a pair of hog bladders, and at least two famous Americans whose boyhoods fell in the eighteenth century are remembered as expert swimmers —Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams. But man, unlike most animals, does not swim naturally, and most Americans born before the nineteenth century never learned the art. Moreover, the question of females immersing themselves in salt water did not arise until the belles of the last century put aside their stays and learned to embrace the curling breakers.
Chronologically, Newport, Rhode Island, whose fame as a watering place dates from the 1720’s, came first in the back-to-the-beach movement, and Florida last, with resort life rapidly expanding in the century and a half that lay between Newport’s and Miami’s beaches. Geographically and socially, it was a long trek from Maine’s Bar Harbor, with its money-bags, its balsam-scented air and heated pools, to the swarming beaches of New York and Boston, where “day-trippers”—the descriptive phrase used in Baedeker’s United States issued in 1904—cavorted in a carnival atmosphere. The mob scene on a fine summer day at great urban beaches like Coney Island, or Revere and Nantasket, both near Boston, “beggars description,” Baedeker declared.
And socially, if not geographically, the Jersey shore also presented bizarre contrasts. Presidents of the United States, Cabinet officers, and Civil War generals gave Long Branch a special cachet. Ocean Grove, colonized and quarantined in 1869 by the Methodists, provided sea bathing laced with camp-meeting religion, protected by a high board fence; while Asbury Park, just across Wesley Lake from the tents of the Methodist Camp Meeting Association, attracted a worldly clientele with a more genial atmosphere, including the lure of alcoholic beverages and an equally erood beach.
Somewhat later Atlantic City and its satellite towns extended an enthusiastic welcome to all who were able to produce the rail fare from Philadelphia, the price of a room at any one of the nine hundred hotels and boarding houses on Absecon Island, and pay a modest bathhouse charge. (Bath, with dress, twenty-five cents). In brief, the seashore became the playground of everybody, Morgans and Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, grandes dames and giggling shopgirls, tired businessmen and beach gigolos, eligible bachelors and matchmaking mammas, married flirts and rocking-chair gossips. All converged upon the gently slanting, white sand beaches by stagecoach, by boat, and by steam cars as the railroad network pushed out to connect the cities with the sea and financed hotels to accommodate the tourist trade. From Mount Desert off the coast of Maine to St. Augustine, Florida, the seaside resort presented the human comedy in its full range, a Vanity Fair with salt in its hair and sand in its shoes. (The plutocratic tradition is still evident at Palm Beach, a fourteen-mile sandspit preserve for the very wealthy that Henry Morrison Flagler founded when he ran his Florida East Coast Railway to it in the 1890’s.)
Long before the American Revolution, wealthy planters from the southern colonies and the West Indies discovered the cool summer breezes of Narragansett Bay and joined with New Englanders of quality who had prospered in rum and the slave trade to plumb the recreational possibilities of Newport. These agreeable diversions included beach races of the famous Narragansett pacers and sailing a sloop over to Goat Island for a “turtle frolick,” with dinner prepared by a skillful Guinea boy and dancing later under the stars. By the decades 1830-50 Newport had firmly established the concept of the social seaside watering place, bustling in August with “horsemen and chariots,” reported Harper’s New Monthly Magazine , and “all that is gayest and most fashionable from every quarter of the country …”
Women of chic changed their costumes three and four times a day, for bowling, driving, dancing the polka, and the obligatory morning dip. It must have been a charming sight: the clean-breaking combers, the slap of the rollers on the shelving beach, the excited ladies in their fetching ankle-length pantalets and red frocks with long sleeves and high necks, their crowning glory topped with a coquettish straw hat, laughing and splashing, while the gentlemen, according to a feminine observer—the year is 1839—“handed about their pretty partners as if they were dancing water quadrilles.” It is a sharp reminder of both social and environmental change that a hundred years later Mrs. George Henry Warren attended a costume ball dressed as “Miss Bailey’s Beach.” “Her ensemble,” wrote Cleveland Amory, historian of the privileged classes, “consisted of a sea weedylooking dress liberally ornamented with clamshells, bones, banana peels and orange rinds.”