This Was Then: On bathing, bells, and birthday suits

Vineyard Haven, circa 1920s or ‘30s. —Courtesy Chris Baer

The Vineyard correspondent of the New York Weekly Press reported in 1892 about a visitor from Boston wearing a tightly-clinging, unusually colored garment: “A flesh tinted bathing costume at Cottage City is attracting no end of attention among frequenters of the bathing beach … Despite the fact that her costume is somewhat suggestive of the airy trapeze act of the circus demoiselle, this newcomer does not seem to heed its shortcomings one bit. Flesh and silk blend with charming unanimity … The beach patrol was somewhat in doubt as to the propriety of this suit when it first appeared, and the Law and Order Committee held a sitting over it. They arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with the garment or its wearer.”

Bathing on the Vineyard, especially in Cottage City, was very much an exercise in fashion in the second half of the 19th century, and people-watching was as just as popular as the water sports. The cutting edge of bathing fashion was constantly pushed and carefully monitored. In a report titled “They Throng the Beach at Cottage City and Sport in the Briny,” the Boston Daily Globe wrote in July 1894, “Old man Neptune nearly loses control of his sea horses and is in danger of losing his trident as he views the graceful girls gathering for the bath with their jaunty suits and their antics. He shakes his wave-swept whiskers and gets perceptibly rattled.”

Oak Bluffs, c. 1920. —Chris Baer

The public drew a firm line, however, regarding any bathing antics even a marginal distance away from the shoreline. In a 1900 article lengthily titled “Cottage City. To Dance or Not to Dance is the Question. Certain of the Cottagers Object to Public Dancing in the Bathing Pavilion. Proper Time to Study Man’s Anatomy, but Not on the Beach,” the Boston Globe noted that certain residents “object to the holding of public dances in the [bathing pavilion] structure, which stands on Sea View av, in that portion of the resort which is supposed to be gilded with the charm of exclusiveness.” “We are not yet Filipinos, to bathe in ‘puris naturalibus’ which freely translated, means, ‘In Frenchy scantiness,’” wrote one complainant. The issue went before the selectmen, who agreed to withhold licenses “for the holding of the odious dance on the polished floors of the building.” The orders were widely ignored, and revelers continued to party to “the insinuating harmonies of the bass violin and the cornet” and to dance the “Boston dip.”

Cottage City wasn’t the only locale swept up in bathing fashion and controversy. The Cortland Standard reported in 1913, “Edgartown — A woman bather started the fad here of wearing a garter with a tiny bell attached. Other women soon took up the fad, and the beach now fairly tinkles. The fad was voted a great success until a man walked into the dining room of one of the hotels with a pink garter around each of his trouser legs, to which was attached a cowbell. The fad blew up right there.”

Bathing was the primarily the domain of summer visitors well into the 20th century, as few of our natives knew how to swim, even those who made their living upon the ocean. And almost nobody dared venture into the south shore’s surf. Dionis Riggs told Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in 1983, “Grandma was a good swimmer. She’d learned it in Sydney. So she swam when we were at the beach [at Quansoo], which very few people did. The surf and undertow were considered far too dangerous. And most Islanders of that day did not know how to swim. They didn’t have the time to go to the beach.” Peg Knowles told a similar tale to Lee in 1996 — “We’d go down in a catboat to Katama. South Beach was so different then … No one swam. We weren’t allowed to. It was considered far too dangerous.”

Cottage City, undated. —Chris Baer

By the 1940s, bathing in “puris naturalibus” had become a well-established up-Island tradition, and adventurous bathers were venturing into the surf, too, with or without suits. On Chilmark’s south shore, not far from what would later be called “Jungle Beach,” was King’s Beach, where summer people would gather to bathe in their birthday suits. One Vineyard Haven resident recalls sneaking onto the nearby cliffs with her preteen friends in the mid- to late-1940s, to catch a distant glimpse of the nudists who regularly congregated there. Radical writer Max Eastman was even reported to have had a casual “nudist colony” located at Jungle Beach from the 1930s.

At the 1948 Gay Head town meeting, nude bathing was formally banned on its public beaches. “Residents had complained about the conduct of [visitors] during the Summer months,” explained the Boston Globe.

That was just as effective as Cottage City’s dance ban. One Aquinnah native and tribe member writes of her own freewheeling early childhood up-Island, circa 1950: “As a toddler, I went to the Herring Creek Beach, and my nudist friends included Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, Max Eastman, Resor Shafer, and others.”

Not even a bell.


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.”