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Once More On To The Beach

April 2024
9min read

Pilgrims and Puritans, naturally, hated the water, but by the turn of the century certain pleasures had been rediscovered

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.”


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.”


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

… take my Kate, For a roller skate On Young’s Million Dollar Pier.

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.


The artists and pictorial reporters of the nineteenth century have delineated zestfully on canvas, stone, and woodblock the American return to the beach, with all its social subtleties, high and low. They do not, however, tell us why our forebears came back to the beach; for that we shall have to rely upon the interpretation of more prosaic data relating to the rise of the cities, the industrial expansion of the Gilded Age, and a new-found leisure. But, in their various styles and media, the artists have captured for all time that return to the seas of unchanging beauty and majesty.


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