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Victorian Seaside Images Capture Playful Times

Victorian Seaside Images could change the bad rap our nineteenth-century ancestors get for prudishness. Yes, their buttoned-up bathing costumes were prim. But that did not stop them from enjoying life and silly fun by the sea.

We’ve expanded our selection of Victorian Seaside Images to include a glance at shrinking swimsuits into the early 1900s and photos from Black American beaches.

The Beach Was Not Always A Destination For Leisure

In his book The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840, Alain Corbin, professor emeritus of modern history at Paris’s Sorbonne University writes that beaches were not always a desirable destination. But by 1750, those who had free time and could afford travel, the ocean became desirable for its “restorative qualities.” Many believed that sea water could cure everything from leprosy to depression. Developers built seaside resorts geared mainly to a wealthy crowd obsessively seeking good health and fitness.

According to Corbin, with the rise of the urban, industrial society through the 1800s, the developing middle class discovered the beach. By then it had become a highly desirable place to spend some hard won leisure time.

Expansion of trains facilitated this transition. As travel became more affordable, middle-class families flocked to the seashore as a place of pleasure and good health. Resorts developed and piers were built to accommodate larger crowds

Hastings Pier Was A Classic Victorian Seaside Experience

From the 1860s, beaches and promenades across the coast of Britain, bustled with entertainment and spectacle. Among the first seaside resorts along the South Coast were Eastbourne, Brighton and Worthing. Hastings Pier featured in these Victorian Seaside Images was also a happening destination for holiday makers.

According to the Hastings Pier site:

“Visitors would watch string bands, Highland dancers, and performing ponies & monkeys. Minstrels, and Punch and Judy men might compete for the best pitches with organ grinders and acrobats. For the children, there were carriage and goat rides, singing & dancing competitions, as well as the favorite donkey rides.”

With Bathing Machines, Propriety Was Still Observed

 Throughout the 1880s and 1890s bathing on the beach grew enormously in popularity. Bathing stations provided bathing machines to change in and dry towels. They were pulled by a horse up or down the beach according to the tide. Men’s and women’s bathing areas were segregated.

By the early 1900s, mixed sex bathing and paddling was allowed on many beaches. Victorian seaside images were the selfies of our ancestors.

Victorian Seaside Images Of Black Americans Are Scarce

The images included here are from the early 1900s to 1930s when most beaches were segregated. Pictures are not readily available yet, but we hope more will be in the future.

Highland Beach, Maryland, was one of the first African American-owned summer resort community in the United States. Charles and Laura Douglass were denied entry to a restaurant at the Bay Ridge Resort on Chesapeake Bay in 1890. So they founded it along the western shore of Chesapeake Bay in 1893. Charles Douglass was the son of prominent abolitionist and nineteenth-century civil rights activist Frederick Douglass.

According to Christina Tkacik in the Baltimore Sun, July 5, 2019:

“Douglass decided to start a resort where African-Americans of means could spend their summers. He purchased a plot of land just south of Annapolis along the Chesapeake Bay, naming it Highland Beach, and selling parcels to family and friends.”

In Santa Monica, California, “The Inkwell” was a popular beach for African Americans from 1905 to 1964. The Inkwell was originally located at the western end of Pico Boulevard and stretched two city blocks south to Bicknell Street. It was situated near Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, the first black church in Santa Monica, which also anchored an early black settlement around 4th and Bay Streets in the city. African Americans from throughout Southern California socialized and enjoyed the ocean breezes.

According to the African American Registry,

“By 1927, as a result of legal challenges led by the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), the California Courts upheld the laws put in place from 1893 to 1923 that provided equal access to any public beach in the state.”

Victorian Seaside Images Reflect Changing Times

 Swimsuits changed along with the times. World-class swimmer and water entertainer, Annette Kellermann was a leader in the movement for sleek swimsuits. An evangelist for serious swimming as the key to lifelong health and beauty, she wore the typical men’s two-piece costume with a tee shirt and fitted shorts to the knee, give or take a few inches. Eventually she streamlined that to her famous one-piece Kellermann swimsuits.

In the 1912 Olympics, serious female swimmers from 17 countries competed. Women from nine countries wore swimsuits based on Kellermann’s design.

Jantzen Swimwear, established in 1916, brought the one-piece to a new commercial level that further pushed hemlines higher and swimsuits smaller.  They were advertised as “bathing suits” until 1920. In 1921, Jantzen adopted the name “swimsuit” again pushing the health, sport and art of swimming into the mainstream.

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