- 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
Newport also contributed to the nomenclature of shore architecture the idea of the “cottage,” which didn’t mean what the dictionary says, but a palazzo on the scale of Grand Central station; and soon the centers of fashionable shore society developed manners as formal as their seaside palaces. Consider, for example, the tremendous trifle of who was supposed to call first upon whom. Those who owned cottages graciously made the first gesture toward those who merely rented. Renters called first upon each other according to priority of arrival. Both those who owned and those who rented called first upon the socially certified who were staying at the proper hotels.
The New Jersey shore was first opened up for summer pleasures at Cape May in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Sedate Philadelphians arrived regularly with their gripsacks and “mosquito fans” to stay for the season, once they discovered that the immersion of the whole body in salt water, if well sheathed in flannel, was pleasurable and healthful. And shortly thereafter, at Long Branch, New Yorkers depleted by a winter of town life also enjoyed a change of scene and occupation in an atmosphere of fish dinners, clambakes, and holiday relaxation.
One trial from which there was no easy escape was the celebrated “Jersey skeeter,” a formidable pest with such biting powers that it became the subject of a musical composition for piano, called “The Mosquitoes’ Parade, a Jersey Review.” The music endeavored to reproduce the menacing hum, the flight and savage attack of the dipterous insects as they punctured the skin of man. One recommended home preparation consisted of an ounce of glycerine, a half ounce of rosemary water, and twenty drops of carbolic acid. This mixture, which unfortunately smelled much like creosote, was the suggestion of Mrs. Susan C. Power, author of The Ugly-Girl Papers , an 1874 compilation of beauty hints, but she frankly conceded that “many people consider the remedy equal to the disease …”
As the big hotel replaced the modest boarding house around the time of the Civil War, with its teas and cotillions for the ladies and billiards and bar for the gentlemen, some of the simpler pleasures of earlier times, like shelling on the beach or drying starfish, faded away. Yet mixed bathing, as it was called, made slow progress. At the elegant Mansion House at Cape May a white flag was run up to signal the ladies’ hour and a red one for the men’s; the same decorum was observed at Long Branch. When men and women were finally permitted by the social code to enter the ocean at the same time, it was carefully emphasized that the bathers be completely dressed. Bathing, it should be understood, was not swimming. It consisted chiefly of skipping into the water and jumping up and down.
Perhaps the most absorbing occupation of the Victorian seaside vacation was the interest the visitors took in each other. One could see everybody who was anybody and many who were nobody. President Benjamin Harrison cut a good figure in a bathing suit. General Philip H. Sheridan shone on the dance floor. There were other guests who possessed lesser credentials but perhaps even greater interest—the dashing widow who, she said, was waiting for her estate to be settled; “Diamond Jim” Brady with the glamourous Lillian Russell on his arm; or Lily Langtry, the famous “Jersey Lily,” so called not because of her attachment to Long Branch, but because she was born on the island of Jersey.
Nostalgia can lead one astray, but it is hard to resist the impression that “those were the days, my friend …” when lively ladies took the air under tiny parasols to avoid freckles, and every first-rate shore hotel had its own brass band, which played on the hotel lawn at train time to excite the new arrivals. Four dollars would cover the cost of a room with a view and four meals a day, while Appleton’s Illustrated Handbook of American Summer Resorts , published in 1876, could assure its readers that it was “not necessary to fee porters and waiters in the United States, as it is in Europe …”
The conduct of young American women who bounced lightly into the surf wearing “sleeveless bathing dresses” drew the unfavorable attention of foreign observers from the time of the redoubtable Mrs. Frances Trollope, whose Domestic Manners of the Americans was published in 1832, down to George Augustus Sala, the British novelist and journalist, who died in 1896. For the honor of her country and its women, Mrs. John (Mary Elizabeth) Sherwood, a Washington hostess who knew Europe well and had been decorated by France for her literary endeavors, advised the American girl to tread water, socially speaking, in her public appearances. Addressing “Young People at a Watering Place” in a book on etiquette in 1884, Mrs. Sherwood admonished the girls who set out to create a stir and so “flirt, dance, swim, eat, drink … unrestrainedly.” Her strictures also fell upon “the rather passée , fast, married woman, who is nursing her rapidly decaying powers,” the adventuress who touched up her eyebrows, and the men “who sit at the smoking end of the piazza and say dreadful things of women.”