The Coastal History Blog 5 “What are beaches for?”

Most of my readers, like me, will be shivering in the hemisphere of cold, snow, and ice for the next few months.  If only for relief, I thought this would be a good season to write about more summery themes.  My next few postings will be about the modern beach.

It’s been a while since I looked at Alain Corbin’s The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840. Reading John Gillis’ The Human Shore reminded me that Corbin didn’t bring the story up to the present. [1] I’ve been doing a little historiographical beachcombing myself, and it seems that in recent times we’ve had a new “discovery of the seaside” every generation or so.  Beaches have been important and evocative for some time now, but how they were important has varied quite a bit.

Seaweed for my scrapbook

A fascinating post at Collector’s Weekly interviews Laura Massey on the subject of Victorian women and their natural history collections.   Drying and pressing seaweed was a popular and prestigious hobby.  Massey explains: “Anyone could appreciate and collect flowers, but painstakingly obtaining, preserving, and mounting seaweed specimens demonstrated patience, artistic talent, and the refined sensibilities necessary to appreciate the more subtle beauties of nature. Queen Victoria herself made a seaweed album as a young lady.”  Massey even mentions one woman, Mary Wyatt, who ran a shop in Torquay specializing in natural history souvenirs and the needs of seaweed scrapbookers.

Massey’s work is interesting in its own right, but perhaps it takes on an added importance when we consider how often “the history of the beach” gets reduced to “the history of swimwear.”  As Massey describes it, seaweed connoisseurship was a beach culture primarily by women and for women.

A bikini and a long knife

As if in a weird tribute to that older regime of beach leisure, the Ursula Andress character in Dr. No (1962) is collecting shells on the beach when she encounters Sean Connery for the first time.  The scene (which appears on some “top movie moments of all time” lists) is best remembered for Andress’ bikini. [2] Patrik Alac’s The Bikini: A Cultural History isn’t much more than a glossy coffee-table book, but he makes one useful point: By 1962, there was already a well-established tradition of bikinis on film for Andress to overturn. [3] To emerge from the waves in a bikini, as Andress does at the beginning of the scene, was to signal a vacant, defenseless, boy-chasing ingénue.  Andress’ “military” bikini, however, includes a utility belt and a sharp weapon, which she’s quick to pull on 007 when he starts to walk towards her.  At some level, this scene could only work if the ground had first been prepared by Gidget, Blue Hawaii, and the like; audiences had to be taught how to think about a bikini in order to be shocked and thrilled by a new interpretation.

Alac covers a lot of familiar ground in his Cultural History, but probably the most interesting images in the book are from the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal and a few shots of beaches in the GDR. [4] California beaches have a way of crowding out everything else, but it’s well worth remembering that both Nazis and Communists extolled the health benefits of beach-going and tied their regime’s prestige, in some way, to their ability to deliver this kind of leisure experience to at least some of their citizens.

Water gazing

Not everyone goes to the shore to look at other people.  John Gillis writes: “The beach has become the modern era’s favorite place for daydreaming.” His focus here is on the enigmatic practice of silent “water gazing.”  [5] He quotes Paul Theroux: “The British seemed to me a people forever standing on a crumbling coast and scanning the horizon.” He couples this with similar evocative passages, like Herman Melville on nineteenth-century Manhattan: “Look! Here come the crowds, pacing straight for the water… Nothing will content them but the extremest bit of land…” [6] Gillis proposes that this is, in some important sense, a modern and international phenomenon.  “Beginning in the nineteenth century, the eye ceased to dwell on the harbor or the near shore and was increasingly directed to the sea’s horizon… now everyone wants an unobstructed view…” [7]

Facing away from the ocean

It’s tempting to reach for universals here (the triumph of the bikini; the lemming-like rush to buy up oceanfront property), yet as with any other cultural arena, there are dissenters and noteworthy exceptions.  In her fascinating article on Tel Aviv’s beachfront, Alexandra Nocke discusses a 1966 photograph by Micha Bar-Am. [8]  Two recent migrants from Eastern Europe are seated on a bench with a single back and seating on two sides.  It is possible to sit facing the Mediterranean, but these rather grim older men have chosen to turn their backs on the sea.  (Both wear suits and ties.  One reads a newspaper; the other seems to be dozing.)  Nocke remarks on the belief that “the sea was alien and threatening to Jews from the Shtetls of Eastern Europe.” [9] Her larger argument concerns the ways that Israeli society eventually made peace with its coastal location, but I wonder if enough has been said about the worldview of the men in the photograph.  Are they actually afraid of the sea, or is shunning beachwear and ignoring the view making a statement of a different kind?  I can’t help but think of Alac’s book and the mass dissemination, during the Nazi era, of photos of strong blonde women taking in the healthy sea air.  Perhaps this generation of European Jews felt uncomfortable with that legacy rather than with the idea of the ocean itself.

Generalizations about “the discovery of the seashore” or the modern regime of beach-going can be historiographically useful, at least as a starting point.  Yet these four examples suggest a more culturally and ideologically diverse set of modern beaches than I’d expected.



[1] Alain Corbin, The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); John Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[2] Michael Denning, “Licensed to look: James Bond and the heroism of consumption,” in The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader, ed. Christoph Lindner (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 56-75.

[3] Patrik Alac, The Bikini: A Cultural History (New York: Parkstone, 2002), 114.

[4] Alac, Bikini, 50-51.

[5] Gillis, Human Shore, 154.

[6] Gillis, Human Shore, 155.

[7] Gillis, Human Shore, 156.

[8] Alexandra Nocke, “Modern Israeli identity and the Mediterranean cultural theme: an exploration into the visual representations of Tel Aviv and the sea,” Jewish Culture and History 13, no. 1 (2012): 68-86.

[9] Nocke, “Modern Israeli identity,” 76.

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