Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair--Insight into the Crowded Exhibition of Sea Bathing
Modern day beach goers enjoy a selection of recreational activities ranging from surfing to tanning, from volleyball to building sandcastles; but beach outings in nineteenth-century Newport, Rhode Island were far from relaxing. Although sea bathing was advertised as a means to restore one's health, the fact is, that sea bathing in Newport was rather chaotic and quite the spectacle! "The Beach in August. Women in every description of bathing-clothes. Old women, young women, fat women, thin women, big feet, little feet, red feet, brown feet rushing about. Carriages of all kinds; fast men, fast horses; universal confusion." -Newport in the Fifties, Katherine Prescott Wormeley
Newport, in the nineteenth century was widely advertised in guidebooks and newspapers as "...a distinct watering-place" of the future, a unique location that would restore vitality and health to anyone who traversed its shores. Throughout the teens and early twenties, an influx of vacationers, particularly from the South, propelled Newport into a "...summer retreat for the opulent and the infirm." The salty ocean air, "unequaled climate," and "healthful and ever-changing ocean shores," transformed the city into an opportune health resort community. By the late 1820s, Newport steadily gained a reputation as "an Island inferior to none on the globe."
-Newport Mercury, June 1825
As Newport's therapeutic reputation grew, entrepreneurs profited from the increasing demands of the health market. Tonics, pills, lotions, potions, leeches, mineral water, and a slew of other remedies began to overtake the advertisement section in local newspapers and city guides. Maintaining one's good health could be costly; however, several of the wealthy visitors from the South spared no expense. As the health business expanded, entrepreneurs decided to capitalize on natural resources, and sea bathing became a required activity when traveling to Newport. "One of the greatest inducements to Southern gentlemen and their families to make this Island their summer residence is the luxury of sea bathing. It is prescribed as a restorative, for a variety of obstinate diseases." -Newport Mercury, June 1825
As the demand for public bathing increased, Newport's famed Easton's Beach began to transform. Small commercial concessions including changing units resembling shacks, littered the landscape of the beach. Snack huts serving "confectioneries and ice-creams," began to establish themselves on the outskirts of the waters, and bathing, no longer for convalescents only, not only became a public spectacle, but a money-making enterprise. "No shore in any part of the world is better adapted to a safe and convenient bath than the western extremity of Easton's Beach." -Newport Mercury Advertisements, 1825 and 1840s
Advertising certainly played a large role in attracting business to the beach. From New Orleans to New York, epidemic outbreaks became headline news. Although frequentation of tourism to health resort communities, such as Newport, suffered slightly during outbreaks, disease spurred a large percentage of clientele to retreat to Newport to escape the plagues of their hometown. Due to increased advertising and stories in widely distributed newspapers conveying Newport as a "healthy town," tourists continued to arrive en masse to the seaside community. When a cholera scare disrupted the season of 1849 in Saratoga Springs, Newport capitalized from the incident claiming, "Whatever fears, reasonable or unreasonable, may be entertained for the health of other places of resort, Newport is the very home of health. The breeze from the ocean, the bathing in the surf, the rides over the island all combine to render this the most attractive place for the seekers of pleasure and health."
-Newport Mercury/Providence Journal, July 1849
By the 1850s, with sea bathing for overall health established as the fashionable thing to do, the original health-seeking crowd of resort goers succumbed to the gaggles of socialites and errant bachelors. Although bathing was still advertised as essential for health, by all appearances, it simply became another en vogue pastime for vacationers.
Those competing to be seen in society bathed for several reasons that seemingly had nothing to do with health. Bathing outfits became more elaborate and colorful--the brighter the better. After being driven to the beach by carriage, bathing parties clad in pastel garments would saunter to the shoreline, showcasing their latest and greatest bathing purchases.
Although bathing times for men and women varied during the early years of the century, by the 1850s, a mixing of the sexes became acceptable protocol; as long as they were properly clothed. This outraged some, especially those who preferred to bathe without costume. In fact, several "Letters to the Editor" appeared in the Newport dailies expressing the infringement on the rights of individuals to bathe naked. One man even declared, "I, for one, have come to the deliberate and solemn conclusion that bathe I must, and as I intend to be at the baths before nine in the morning, and to divest myself while there of every particle of clothing, I most sincerely trust that all females, whose nerves are not particularly strong, will make the Ocean Cottage the eastern limit of their walk."
-Newport Daily News, July 1850
Be it for health and vitality, or for fashion and socializing, sea bathing in Newport became a comedic spectacle that was highly publicized and cheekily mocked. However, by all appearances, it seems that vacationers took the printed banter in strides. If a picture really does tell a thousand words, then these individuals seem to be having the time of their lives among the crashing waves of the Atlantic.
1853 Newport City Ordinance
"It shall be lawful for all persons
Indiscriminately, whether with or without dress,
To bathe on said Beach at any time after eight o'clock
In the evening, and before eight o'clock
In the morning, and also between twelve o'clock noon
And two o'clock PM.
It shall not be lawful for any person indecently to expose
His, her or their person, or bathe, not being
Decently clad. The manager is to ring his bell
And hoist said white flag at eight o'clock AM
And to announce the hours of female bathing.
At 12 o'clock his bell should be rung again
And the red flag hoisted to give the signal
For indiscriminate bathing, which flag shall keep flying until
2 o'clock." *
* Ordinance appears in Newport Inspirations: A Selection of Verse and Visions Inspired by Newport, R.I.; Collected by Eileen O'Reilly