30 Vintage Photos of People Having Fun at the Beach
By Jill Harness
While some people celebrate summer with pool parties and backyard barbecues, others associate summertime with the cool waves and warm sand found only at the beach. Here are 30 vintage images showing people enjoying their local beaches.
For simplicity’s sake and so you can observe the trends of fashion and sport, all pictures are arranged in chronological order, as much as possible (some photos only have estimated dates on them). All images are courtesy of the Library of Congress.
1. Whatever Floats Your Boat
Frances Benjamin Johnston was one of the first women photojournalists and was given her first camera by George Eastman of the Eastman Kodak Company. It's not known who actually took this picture in 1880, but Ms. Johnston can be seen sitting on the smaller of the two boats.
2. Castle Competition
This Detroit Publishing Co. image captures a large sand castle building event that took place in Westerland, Germany, sometime around 1895. The small huts in the image were dressing booths that had to be climbed into from the bottom, as they had no door.
3. Tent City
Also captured by the Detroit Publishing Co. around the same period, this image shows families enjoying the beach of Trouville, France.
4. Surf's Up
These three took advantage of the much less crowded Jamestown Beach of Connecticut and had fun goofing off in the surf together. Image taken by W.B. Davidson in 1897.
5. Dress Suit
The Atlantic City beach of New Jersey has been popular among beach-goers for a very long time. Here is a large group of swimmers enjoying the cool water back in 1897. At the time, women’s “bathing suits” were essentially just shorter-than-usual wool dresses and they also had to wear wool stockings to maintain their modesty.
6. Boat Party
With a swimsuit that looks more like a frilly dress, a bonnet, and an oar, the head of this boating party looks more like Little Miss Muffet than someone ready to go swimming. But this whole party, photographed in 1900 by the Detroit Publishing Co., was ready to hit the waves.
7. Bathing Beauties
Love the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition? Around 1900, this Detroit Publishing Co. photo of two “bathing beauties” in Atlantic City was pretty much the equivalent of the famous and scandalous swimsuit edition.
Even before swimming was something most people learned as children, people still enjoyed a dip in the ocean. To avoid getting swept out to sea without any knowledge of how to swim back to shore, beachgoers would cling to these ropes as they climbed in and out of the ocean. Around 1900, these were common at all large beaches, as you can see in this image from Coney Island taken by William H. Rau.
9. Drying out
As you can imagine, wool bathing suits didn’t dry out easily, which is why it was common to see women on the shore wringing out their suits in the early 1900s, as they do in this image by the Detroit Publishing Co.
10. Setting Sail
Bike sailing is a bit of a fringe hobby these days, but it very well could have been a standard beach activity if it had just caught on. In fact, Detroit Publishing Co. has a good number of images featuring people trying out sail bikes in Ormond, Florida around 1903.
11. Fun in the Sun
One thing that will probably never change as long as there is sand on the beach is the inclination of children to turn the sand into castles. Here are a few boys trying their hand at castle building on Coney Island in 1903, as photographed by the Detroit Publishing Co.
12. Beach Race
Fun in the sun continues to bring out the competitive edge of many, just like these youngsters participating in a race on Shelter Island, NY. Image by Detroit Publishing Co., circa 1904.
13. Swim Fans
These days, people watchers usually try to be sly about their intentions, but in Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1905, it was totally acceptable to pull up a chair and watch other people swimming, whether because you didn’t feel like taking a dip, or because you were a woman too modest to wear a bathing suit in public. Photo by Detroit Publishing Co.
14. Beach Shot
Young gals have always loved having flattering pictures of themselves taken on the beach. Just look at this 1906 photo by Underwood & Underwood for proof.
15. Big Wave
Beach time fun was by no means limited to the West. Here are some bathers enjoying the waves as captured by Arnold Genthe in his 1908 trip to Japan and Korea.
16. Dress to Impress
While the beach has historically been a good place for casual wear, the 1910 motorboat races in Palm Beach provided a place to see and be seen, as you can see in this image of the spectators by Bain News Service.
17. Polar Plunge
Polar swimming has been going strong for at least 100 years. Here are some brave New York winter bathers ready to take the plunge in 1912, as photographed by Bain News Service. You can tell it’s freezing out there when you notice how warmly those in the audience are bundled up.
18. Making a Splash
One thing that will always remain popular on hot beach days is getting to splash your friends silly. Here are three gals having a great time in Alameda, CA, as photographed by Bain News Service.
Before swimming pools and beach excursions were commonplace, people generally rented their bathing suits, and as this image taken in Belgium by Bain News Service in 1912 shows, the rented swimwear wasn’t exactly flattering for men or women.
20. Dressing Room
Before beaches installed permanent restrooms and dressing areas, bathers had to rent horse-drawn bathing machines to provide them with a safe place to change clothes and store their belongings. This woman from Belgium is ready to get to her bathing machine to change—but that means having to walk through the water in her dry clothes in order to get to the entrance. Image taken by Bain News Service in 1913.
21. Sports in the Surf
I don’t know the rules of water baseball, but I do know it sounds like fun. Photo taken by Bain News Service in 1914.
22. DIY Suit
Before you could just go to your local Walmart and pick a premade bathing suit, you had to either rent one or make your own. This young woman was quite proud of her creation, though this leggy picture was probably a bit scandalous for the sensibilities of 1915.
23. Fashion Show
Because bathing suits tended to be one-of-a-kind, women often held swimwear fashion parades to show off their sweet suits. Here’s one Miles F. Weaver photographed at Seal Beach in 1918. This photo is just part of a panorama, which you can see here.
24. Suit Style
Here’s another totally unique bathing suit that was part of a 1919 bathing suit fashion parade.
25. Future Miss Americas
It wasn’t long before the bathing gown parades turned into beauty pageants. In fact, Miss America started as a bathing pageant and took place in Atlantic City in 1921. Here is the winner, the "Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” Margaret Gorman, as photographed by Bain News Service.
26. Unusual Beach Companion
If you still find it weird to see dogs playing at the beach, just imagine running into young Mildred Katleck and her pet opossum. Photograph taken by Harris & Ewing in 1922.
27. Suit Inspectors
These days, you can get away with wearing practically anything at the beach, but back in the '20s, it was common for inspectors to roam the beaches ensuring women’s swimwear wasn’t too short—in many cases, rising no more than six inches above the knee. Here are two suspicious girls having their suit lengths checked in 1922, as captured by the National Photo Company.
28. Tug of War
Here’s a picture sure to make every orthodontist cringe, but these two gals, photographed by the National Photo Company in 1922, seem to be having quite a good time nonetheless.
29. A Swim and a smoke
Whoever said multitasking is exclusively a modern day issue needs to take a note from Muriel Quackenbush, who was able to swim, smoke, and read all at the same time as evidenced by this 1922 photo by the National Photo Company.
30. Strike a Pose
It didn’t take Baywatch to make lifeguards popular with members of the opposite sex. That’s been a pretty constant standard since lifeguards started roaming the beaches. The Beach Boys would be proud to see their “two girls for every boy” standard measurement of quality applied even back in 1924.