- 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
The Methodists in their Ocean Grove fortress went even further than Mrs. Sherwood would have dreamed of in regulating behavior. They locked their compound at 10 P.M. and permitted no organ grinders or peddlers at any time, no smoking, no drinking, no swearing (even when boating on Wesley Lake), no dancing or card playing, and no theatrical performances. In addition, on Sunday there was no bathing, riding, or driving; no milk or newspapers. Furthermore, “the practice of the sexes in assuming attitudes on the sand that would be immoral at their city homes or elsewhere” was specifically forbidden. If the rule was violated, “It becomes the duty of the police to serve a small card on the offending person.”
Finally, to take a regretful leave of New Jersey, there came the beach open to all classes—Atlantic City, which introduced the Ferris wheel, lifeguards, saltwater taffy, rolling chairs, and the steel pier, where one could gaze at the hypnotic horizon line or buy a frankfurter or
And year by year the women’s bathing costumes shrank, a most interesting subject of inquiry and observation. The hat was discarded. The neckline fell. The arms and legs were bared. The skirt disappeared and the cut of the suits became so brief that the city fathers employed viewers equipped with tape measures to check the legality of the exposed epidermis.
The end of this line of thought was the Atlantic City beauty pageant, which from 1921 on served to extend the tourist season at Atlantic City beyond Labor Day and give the visiting firemen a good look at the svelte figures of young women with measurements approximating 35-23-35. Seaside resorts used to depend on sea serpents for free advertising, but the boardwalk mermaids proved to be a better drawing card, especially after the introduction of the onepiece bathing suit.
In the sober years following the Second World War, Atlantic City’s “image” was strengthened by the requirement that the beach beauties demonstrate talent as well as an undulating figure. But in the harumscarum early days of the bathing derby no one, certainly not the judges or the taffy shops or the press photographers, cared whether the pretty creatures could whistle “Dixie” or play the bassoon. The opportunities open to a well-endowed workingclass girl in the princess business bring the Cinderella story right up-to-date. She starts at the bottom, let us say, as Arkansas Poultry Princess, earns a few dollars, and perhaps gets some free frozen chickens. But the power behind the leggy promotions could, if she were lucky, sweep her on to a tiara, a hundred thousand dollars, and a year of riding in shiny new Oldsmobiles and boosting Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy. Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent Miss America from picking up walking-around money by reigning simultaneously as National Cotton-Picking Queen.
The beaches, climate, and real estate of southern California began to attract national attention in the 1880’s, when railroad rate-wars made it possible at one time to buy an excursion ticket in the Middle West for as little as a dollar, good for the long trip to Los Angeles or San Diego. Santa Monica, only a shepherd’s cabin and a few tents in 1874, became within the space of a few years California’s all-year answer to Coney Island, only an hour’s run by electric trolley from Los Angeles, with other seaside towns, such as Venice and Redondo, equally accessible.
The California resorts that catered to the elite ignored the competition of the eastern seaboard. After all, there were no palm trees, no swimming on Christmas or New Year’s Day at Maine’s Old Orchard Beach or Narragansett Pier. The comparison California preferred was with the Mediterranean littoral, which was delightful but far, far away. The Hotel del Coronado, one of the finest in California, stood close to the ocean on the outer arm of San Diego Bay. Its literature promised less than fifty rainy days in a year’s time and declared that its beach in summer was “ten degrees cooler than any of the five world-renowned famous Mediterranean resorts.” And the latter, for all their tropical beauty and Old World prestige, could not provide abalone steaks, avocado salads, a visit to an ostrich farm, or the sudden, dramatic Pacific Ocean sunsets.
Santa Barbara, too, whose population, not counting Spanish and native, consisted in 1884 of “intelligent, cultured and refined people of the best New England type,” preferred, according to Baedeker’s reliable annual volume for 1909, to be known as the “American Mentone,” its pleasant society sheltered by the Santa Ynez Mountains, as the Maritime Alps guard Mentone. There were adobe houses in the side streets recalling Mexican and Spanish rule, a profusion of flowers everywhere, and the old Mission to be visited, “chief lion of the place.” The horse cars descended through the pepper, acacia, and olive trees, past the Arlington Hotel with its broad piazzas, cupola, and flag, to the gently shelving bathing beach; no surf, no sharks, no undertow.