“There is bathing at all hours,” wrote a Cottage City correspondent for the Hartford Courant in 1873, “but at about eleven o’clock is the fashionable hour. There are hundreds of spectators on the bluffs, and other hundreds of strange-looking human beings disporting gaily in the water.”
Bathing was high summertime entertainment across the Island, but the bluffs of Cottage City, lined with hundreds of bathhouses by the early 1870s, were the place to see and be seen.
A visiting newspaperman for the Rochester Democrat wrote in 1886, “Bathing seems to be the almost universal amusement, opportunities for which are abundant. About 11 o’clock, the scene from Ocean View bathing house is entertaining enough. Men, women and children — many of them dressed in showy and unique uniforms — are plunging, wading, and swimming about in the water, some awkward as hippopotami, and others as much at home in the water as on land. Those who do not go into the water generally go to see those who do, and the amusement is about equally divided.”
But viewing bathing suits outside of the beach was less amusing, and attention soon began to fall upon those who skipped the bathhouses altogether. In 1894, the Boston Globe reported, “Many prepare for the bath at their cottages and with mackintosh thrown on over the bathing suit, mount bicycles and ride to the tower where their wheels are stabled … There are 500 bathing houses, and yet they do not meet the demand.”
To save 10 cents on the cost of the use of a bathhouse, bathers “simply go up to the village in their bathing suits, do their shopping, go to the bank or Post Office, make a call or two — all in the simple costume of the beach,” wrote the New York Morning Telegraph in 1905. “You can see them strolling through the streets at all hours, the women dripping brine and their hair hanging in clots down their back.” Finally, at the 1905 Cottage City town meeting, a ban on wearing bathing suits in public was established.
Albion Hart (1908-2009) of Oak Bluffs, in a 1999 interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, recalled life afterward: “Our bathing suits were wool, and we were not allowed to walk through the streets in bathing suits. So each day when I went down there my bathing suit was still wet, and it was cold and clammy, and I never forget it. Until you got in the water you weren’t comfortable at all. We swam every day. There wasn’t any place that anybody could take a shower in the house. If you took a shower, you took a shower at the beach. There were two showers there; there was a freshwater shower and a salt shower. Salt was supposed to be good for arthritis or whatever it was that ailed you, so if you wanted, you paid for a shower. When my mother went swimming, you’d have thought she was going to a fancy dress ball. She had a taffeta-type hat up here, she had black stockings on, she had sandals on, she had bloomers on, she had a top which buttoned and had ruffly sleeves. When she got in the water it sort of bloomed because the air was in there. I don’t ever remember her swimming very far, but she certainly went there and sat.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 1. Come hear Baer speak about writing a column on Monday, August 6, at “Islanders Write.”