When I was growing up going swimming near home usually meant going to a public pool, or possibly a nearby man-made lake. But when we visited relatives in the summer swimming more often was at the beach, at a lake, or at a quiet section of a river. I liked swimming in natural waters, but soon learned that they are all different, and it took some special knowledge to swim in such places. Is the bottom rocky or sandy? Is there a current or rip tide to avoid? What kind of critters might show up and do any of them bite? Where do you swim to keep out of the way of fishermen?
Swimming for pleasure and relaxation, vacations at the beach, and beach resorts are relatively modern ideas. Bathing customs and ideas about health and getting wet are, of course, very old. In much of northern Europe, getting wet was considered risky, while the Greeks and Romans developed elaborate bathing customs and spread these to the peoples they conquered. Scandinavians have age-old customs associated with saunas and plunging into cold water that have surprising similarities to bathing customs in Japan. European doctors had been recommending “taking the waters” at spas for health since the 17th century and this was taken up by the upper classes at spas like Bath. But this did not translate into bathing in the ocean in Europe or America until the middle of the 18th century, and then ocean bathing was first seen as something to do for health rather than recreation. The first such ocean-side spa was in Scarborough, England, where a spa first established for drinking local spring water and then developed into a place to plunge into ocean water for its invigorating effects.
In Cape May, New Jersey, a similar spa for those seeking healing effects of the sea was created in the 1760s, the earliest in what became the United States. The idea of the beach as a destination for recreation developed from the first beach spas. Ocean resorts open to the general public began to appear the 19th century. The rise of the middle class, the creation of the weekend, and paid holidays all contributed to the discovery of the beach as a playground. In the United States, an early ocean resort was Coney Island, New York. A stereocard of Coney Island from 1885 shows people sitting and walking on the beach, as the title says, “Health and Pleasure by the sea,” with perhaps a few wading into the water in the distant background. Bathing in salt water for health was already happening by this time, but perhaps was not something that could be photographed. The image from a stereocard above of Brighton Beach, Coney Island, in 1891 shows how much things had changed. People are playing in the surf or holding on to ropes placed throughout the bathing area. Notice that most wear costumes that cover their torsos with pants or skirts of various lengths between the knee and just above the ankles. The bath houses were segregated at this time, and African Americans could not use certain beaches. But they were also enjoying the ocean, as this photo of young women and a girl shows (1896). During this period, a dip in the ocean still meant standing in the surf rather than swimming for many beach-goers. But a photo of a woman diving, “A Dive Coney Island (Lady Island),” (1896) shows that not everyone was wary of swimming in the sea.
A consequence of the change in attitudes towards the ocean in the 19th century is that it is hard to find a folksong about fun at the beach. Beaches are mentioned in ballads as places that couples might meet and walk, often in dangerous liaisons, but the couple does not go into the water! Popular music reflects the change in attitudes. “On Coney Island Beach,” written by H. P. Danks and published in 1878 is a song that follows the common pattern of a couple strolling on the beach, but there is no implied danger and in the background they see people splashing in the water having fun. Perhaps at that early point, suggesting that the strolling couple might go swimming together was too risqué for printed music. “Come take a Swim in my Ocean,” recorded by the Haydn Quartet and featuring Billy Murray in 1909 (Victor), uses metaphor to be a little more playfully suggestive. But ideas of propriety were already changing and, in 1914, the popular song “By the Beautiful Sea” by Harry Carroll and Harold Atteridge actually puts the couple in the water.
The kinds of local knowledge people gather about places to swim are of interest to ethnographers. There are also local customs about food, games, and activities at such places. There may be stories and legends attached to these places as well. In ethnographic projects undertaken by the American Folklife Center, there is documentation of activities at beaches, lakes, and ponds.
In the 1977 South Central Georgia Folklife Project, one of the Center’s earliest projects, fieldworker David Stanley went to talk to swimmers at one of South Georgia’s most famous swimming destinations, Crystal Lake in Irwin County. The lake had once been a pond. In the 19th century Willis Bone set up a grist mill at the site and the pond became known as Bone Pond. Willis Bone was famously hanged near the pond. This judgement was a result of his murder of a Justice of the Peace in 1865. The victim, it is thought, intended to have Bone arrested for helping a runaway slave. Bone’s death added to the legendary nature of the place. At some point a sink hole formed, and according to local accounts, destroyed or swallowed the mill. This sink hole allowed more water in from an underground aquifer and a lake formed at the site. From about the 1930s to the 199os the lake became a destination for swimmers and, locally, “going to the beach” meant Crystal Lake. It had several owners and was made into a swimming resort in the 1950s to 1960s with water slides and other amusement features. The size of the lake waxed and waned over the years, but in the 1990s it disappeared and has not returned. There are many theories about the reason the lake dried up. One plausible guess is that the pressure of agricultural and other use of the aquifer lowered the level to the point where it could no longer fill the lake.
So with this history, David Stanley went to the lake and asked swimmers there about the legends about the lake. Was there a mill at the bottom of the lake? Why was it called Bone Pond? Have you heard that anyone was hanged here? Are there any ghosts? and so on. The interview is an interesting 7-minute documentation of people enjoying a summer swim at a lake that has been lost:
In the Rhode Island Folklife Project, fieldworkers documented some of the activities at the shore and local use of the coast. They found that living by the shore means more than just access to swimming in salt water. The field collection provides a view of various kinds of traditional activities and arts inspired by the sea in communities near the coast. Some are unique to Rhode Island, whereas others may be found among other coastal people.
Rhode Island has a network of inland seas locally called “salt ponds,” although they are usually open to the sea. These are spots for fishing and crabbing for the home table as well as commercial fishing, with different regulations governing each. Crabs for home use are caught using a line with bait that lures the crab close to the shore and a net on a long pole used to scoop up the crab. This is a complicated procedure that some people manage on their own with a line in one hand and a net in another. But it is an easier task for two people. In this photo Rich Cabeza and his friend try to stay on the shore and lure crabs in. Another technique is to wade into the water after the crabs, as this photo of an unidentified man shows.
While “salt ponds” are waters protected by islands, “The beach” refers to sandy shores fully exposed to the ocean waves in this region. The beach is a location for many kinds of individual and community activities.
Sports at the beach documented by the fieldworkers in addition to swimming included sports like tether ball, paddle tennis (called paddle ball in Rhode Island), and surfing. All of these sports are fairly recent traditions on the mainland United States. Tether ball grew out of a way of practicing tennis in the late 19th century, in which a tennis ball was tied to a rope on a pole and a pair of competitors with rackets practiced hitting it back and forth. Perhaps in the early 20th century a game with a larger ball without rackets emerged. Paddle tennis is also a recent traditional sport. Some trace it to a ship-board version of tennis practiced by British sailors. It appeared in the United States in the early 20th century as a playground version of tennis, and is thought to have been introduced by Frank Beal in New York. The beach version in the Rhode Island collection appears to have no defined court and so is a variation on the game. Surfing, by contrast, is very old. Many cultures have various ways of riding ocean waves on boards. Bathers even rode toboggans in the surf at Coney Island, as this stereocard from 1896 shows. But it is Hawaiians who are credited with the innovation of riding a board standing up. The sport was brought to the US in about 1885 by Hawaiian students in California.
You may notice that some sports activities at the beach have changed since the Rhode Island Folklife Project was done. If you explore the collection you will notice that the photographs do not show beach scenes with kites or parasails. In 1979 kite flyers were not as numerous on beaches as they are today, and parasailing was still developing into a popular sport.
Making sand castles and other sand sculptures is a pastime of unknown antiquity. The field team was able to document many different types of sand sculpture because communities held contests on the beach. The great variety of sand sculpting made by people of all ages on the Rhode Island beaches found by the fieldwork team shows a strong and vibrant tradition as well as interest in the ever- moving sand by the ocean as an art medium.
I can remember my father teaching me how to make tiny sand castles with my fingers as a child, as well as making larger castles with a container and bucket or cup to mold towers. Discovering how to make other creations from wet sand came later. The photographs of children’s sand castles in the Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection show this kind of discovery as well. It is surprising how many different varieties found on Rhode Island beaches. There are castles made with cups (pictured), fat castles, and castles that sprawl across the sand with many walls and enclosures.
The field team found that people of all ages aspire to make interesting sculptures in addition to sand castles. The collection includes photographs of a sand sculpture contest with many entries and many skill levels. One inspiring artist in Narragansett, Rhode Island, is Del Bonis, who took up sand sculpting, improved his skills, and then helped sand sculptors of all ages improve their skills. He says that when he is sculpting, “It’s a good pastime, and I’m where I like to be. I’m out in the sand, I’m out in the water, and it’s a Hell of a way to meet people.” The collection shows him in action, letting young people and children work with him on his own sculptures, and also giving assistance to people making their own sculptures when they want it. In this recording of Del and his wife Ida, Del talks about the many kinds of sculptures he made, often with groups of people at the beginning:
He also talks about a sculpture that Tom Burns had photographed that day, a figure of Christ on the cross made by a group of teenagers. He had been asked by them to help with the face, but he allowed that he only made some minor suggestions and the young people had done a fantastic job on their own.
At about 14 minutes into the interview he talks about how he was inspired to try sand sculpting. Making large sculptures of sand apparently was not common where he lived. His adventure did not begin with sand. Instead he saw a group of artists making an earthwork and decided he could do the same with sand. His sand sculpting seems to include some philosophical lessons he has learned, often from others: “What the kids tell me is, ‘If you think of something you can do it.'”
If these examples from the collections have inspired you about your own memories of natural swimming locations, or your adventures in sand sculpture, I would be happy to hear from you in the comments.
Interview with Del Bonis and photographs of his sand sculptures. Tom Burns, interviewer. Rhode Islad Folklife Project Collection. American Folklife Center.
Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center.
Scarborough Spa and vicinity, Yorkshire, England, photos from 1890. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
South-Central Georgia Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center.