In Another Time > The coming of tourists meant bathers began to cover up

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As unlikely as it seems, at a time long before bikinis and thongs, there was a connection between the railroad and bathing suits in the Wildwoods and at other beach resorts.

A history of beach attire in the United States claims that before the trains were widespread, and when accessibility to the beaches was limited, the few people who were there had no problem finding the privacy of secluded spots to soak the sun or swim in the water while they were naked.

Sea bathing was fashionable long before that in the 18th century, but women were known to not only clothe their entire bodies but they wore sea bonnets that concealed most of their heads. One of the reasons was for modesty, the other to protect their skin from the sun, a forerunner of today’s medical advice to protect the skin from cancer.

Although nudity became popular in some private circles in the early 1800s, when the railroad started to arrive with tourists, modesty prevailed and the bathing suit was conceived to cover much of the body except the face. No longer were there hideaway places to expose the body to only the squawking seagulls. One fashion story explained that modesty went so far that weights were placed at the bottom of women’s body length bathing suits so the ocean winds could not blow up their skirts and expose their legs.

What to wear and what not to wear on the sands and in the water, as well as on the streets, were the subjects of controversy for a long time until today’s society, which allows just about everything possible , short of total disrobing.

By the middle of the 19th century, anyone wearing a bathing suit showing bare arms or legs would be hauled off to the local jail on obscenity charges. At the turn of the century the swim attire grew smaller and it became apparent that the wearer actually had two arms and two legs.

Still, there were some daring women by the time of the Gay ’90s. They gave up stockings as part of their beachwear and shortened their hemlines. What next, screamed the protesters, will we be seeing their knees?

But the crowds came in large numbers and with them the changing styles in bathing suits. In 1908 it was estimated that one million bathers crowded the beaches of Wildwood and Holly Beach. In 1914, after the two municipalities merged in 1912, that number increased to 1.5 million. Somewhere during that interim skirts in bathing suits were replaced by bloomers and when they were displayed on mannequins in store windows there were suspicions by some that this was the work of foreign agents who were trying to infect American morale during World War I. Certainly, they claimed, no American merchant would make such a subversive effort.

Even during the open ended Roaring ’20s, protests emerged in Wildwood about people wearing bathing suits on the boardwalk. It was OK on the beach, a step or two from the walk, but not on the boards, they argued. Mayor Edward Culver ordered the police to be clothing critics and make sure a city ordinance establishing proper attire was enforced.

In Wildwood Crest, a movement was afoot to ban women from the streets if they wore bathing suits, shorts or slacks.

“The question is not merely one of indecent exposure, but also repulsive exposure,” editorialized one newspaper.

The male animal was not excluded from surveillance. A Wildwood city ordinance forbade men to expose their chests, not even when they were on the beach or in the water. That restriction was relaxed in 1936 but not for the Boardwalk. Wrote one newspaper, the male bather “seems to want to parade his gorilla –like figure before the more or less admiring gentler sex.” It was not until four years later that North Wildwood under the reign of Mayor George Redding lifted the beach cover-up, Atlantic City to follow in 1940 and conservative Ocean City not until after World War II.

In those earlier days when the railroads first rode the tracks to the seashore, people didn’t walk the streets in their bathing suits on the way to the ocean. Bath houses began to appear for bathers to change and by 1920 there were 2,588 of them along the boardwalk. They included changing rooms, hot and cold water baths, showers and a rental stand for beach accouterments. During the Prohibition period, there were reports that liquor was occasionally smuggled into some of the bath houses for post bathing enjoyment.

One of the most popular in Wildwood was Sweet’s Bath House, advertised as “The Finest Bath House on the New Jersey Coast,” which among others was destroyed in a fire on the morning of Independence Day 1923. The loss was estimated to be $100,000.

At one time, people undressed in what were called bathing machines which were like sheds on wheels and were drawn by horses into the deep water. Women, boldly showing their ankles, emerged from the privacy of the bathing machines, having changed there from layers of petticoats and dresses into that day’s still-covering beachwear.

By 1915, less became more in female bathing suits. Women began to compete in swimming events and swimwear was streamlined to accommodate the speed of their racing needs. Those less athletic took no chances by jumping through the waves as they held onto a rope that extended from the beach to an off shore buoy.

It was sports, though, that historians claim influenced bathing suit choices the most for women.


(Some of the information for this article was researched in the book, “Wildwood By The Sea,” by David W. and Diane De Mali Francis, and Robert J. Scully Sr., and at the reference department of the county library in Cape May Court House.)

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