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Second Story – Spring 2014
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On the Waterfront: Can Traditional Industries Survive Explosive Change?
VOLUME 28, NUMBER 2, SPRING 2014             

On the Waterfront: Can Traditional Industries Survive Explosive Change?
By John H. Tibbetts                                                                       back to main story

Come on in, the water's fine

The American passion for waterfront living is something new in our history, though it has echoes in our colonial memories and centuries of cultural and economic exchanges with the British.  

In northern Europe, Medieval and Renaissance ports were built inland along rivers where coastal storms and enemy marauders had fewer opportunities to harm them. Coastal regions were inhabited by the powerless who had been pushed off inland farmlands; coastal soils were poor for agriculture and marshy lowlands were disease-ridden. River trade was safer and more important economically than sea trade.

But when the sea-faring empires of Britain, France, and The Netherlands expanded in geographic reach and power, small seaports such as Amsterdam developed into major ports and riverine waterfronts sprawled farther toward the coast. London, for instance, was founded as a river port, but its wharves expanded over time into the Thames estuary.

By contrast, the British colonial ports of Charleston, Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Boston were founded on islands or peninsulas surrounded or nearly surrounded by seawater.

British ship captains, of course, were wary of coastal storms, pirates, and enemy navies, but they feared unfamiliar inland waterways and native peoples even more. So they preferred to trade at island or peninsular ports mostly protected by moats of open water.

Early Charleston emerged as a peninsular port looking seaward to other colonial Atlantic ports and Britain. Charleston was one link in a series of island (or near-island) Atlantic maritime colonies of Britain, a mother country of islands.

As Charleston’s wealth grew, one stretch of its waterfront became 
a public promenade where civic buildings and some of the most expensive private residences were built.

Foreign visitors often admired the very unusual sight of Charleston’s grandest homes facing the harbor, protected by a great seawall called the Battery.

Just as Charleston was emerging as a major colonial port, a number of English eccentrics began migrating to seaside towns south of London. In the early 18th century, wealthy convalescents abandoned inland health spas to new ones on the coast in search of cures for various ailments, notes historian John R. Gillis, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University. Wealthy people with debilitating illnesses were somehow convinced that cold sea air and seawater had natural restorative and even spiritual powers.

They visited Brighton, Margate, and other towns where they would enter the ocean in newly invented “bathing machines,” which were not machines at all but cabins on wheels. A bathing machine would be rolled across the flat, hard beach, carrying the convalescent into the sea. There he would disrobe, and hired attendants would dip him into the cold water. Bathing in the sea was considered a private affair completed in privacy—just as bathing indoors was done behind closed doors. That’s why we still call our costumes at the beach “bathing suits.”

English bathing beaches did not attract the young and beautiful. “They were more associated with invalids than athletes,” writes Gillis, “with diseased rather than healthy bodies.”

Sickly ladies and gentlemen took up new practices such as drinking cold saltwater, which supposedly had medicinal qualities, and spending entire days gathering seashells and wandering the shore, contemplating the ocean horizon. Artists and poets flocked to the seaside to acquaint themselves with its intense moods. The beach itself was of little interest. The sea was the attraction.

All this must have seemed half-mad to local people who avoided the water whenever they weren’t working. Local people lived in cottages that faced landward and on high ground, whenever possible. The sea, after all, was an ominous and unpredictable place, and best avoided.

One of Jane Austen’s tart-tongued characters noted, “Sea views are only for urban folk, who never experience its menace. The true sailor prefers to be landlocked rather than face the ocean.”

In the mid-19th century, it became common to see men standing silently and alone on urban waterfronts gazing at the water as if in a meditative trance. Later, British and American seacoast cities built boardwalks for those who did not seek to bathe but still sought ocean views and brisk sea air. The shoreline might be associated with meditative or medicinal activities—but recreation, never.

That changed at the turn of the 20th century when New York and New Jersey shores began attracting summer day-trippers who entered the ocean surf holding onto safety ropes attached to long poles driven into the sand. A warm, sandy beach had finally become part of the attraction of visiting the sea. Daring Americans had found a way to play at the ocean’s edge.  

By then, the British gentry had been visiting the Mediterranean for sea treatments but only in cold weather. It was a select group of Jazz Age Americans who introduced the summertime beach experience to southern Europe. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, a charismatic American and his heiress wife convinced a doubtful French Riviera hotelier that a new generation of sea bathers would embrace the hot season.

More people were learning how to swim, which made entering the sea without the aid of a bathing machine less dangerous. Moreover, men and women in America and England were wearing new fashionable bathing costumes, which made privacy concerns in the water obsolete. The old bathing machines became tiny cabins that sea bathers used for changing into their swimming costumes.

Later, many cabins were expanded or rebuilt and reoriented with windows toward the sea for views of the water, becoming America’s first beachfront homes for the middle class.

By the 1950s, more Americans were flocking to beach cabins and new oceanfront hotels where they would throw themselves into water activities—
boating, fishing, swimming, and surfing—that have since become integral to the global phenomenon that coastal tourism is today.

As the prices of oceanfront land became prohibitively expensive, new housing developments spread farther along the shorelines of sheltered estuaries, bays, tidal creeks, coastal rivers, and even along once-blighted urban shores that ports had abandoned in the new era of container shipping.

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Last updated: 6/5/2014 10:22:10 AM
Second Story – Spring 2014


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