Time was that when you went to the beach — 60, 70, 100 and some years ago — the sand wasn’t the only thing that was white. The people on the beach, down to virtually every last square inch of skin, were white too.
A whites-only ocean didn’t seem to raise eyebrows then, never mind questions. Public swimming pools that allowed people of color at all often let them in on only one day a week, just before the pool was drained and refilled. You couldn’t very well drain the Pacific Ocean and refill it after Black people swam in it, so local governments and unofficial forces managed to make public beaches off limits to some of the public.
The relentless promoters of early Los Angeles pitched L.A. to potential residents and investors as the “white spot” of the nation — with its double meanings: a place free from unsavory civic corruption, free from unions and free from the unpleasantries of integration.
The travails of people of color to get space on the sand have taken decades of nasty plot twists, but Southern California saw a kind of progress last month, when the heirs to a black family hounded and hornswoggled out of Bruce’s Beach, the Manhattan Beach waterfront property the family bought in 1912, got the land back.
So the multiple millions of Southern California come-hither beach postcards generated from the late 19th century well into the 20th were of many colors, all right — the water, the sky, the umbrellas, the swimsuits — everything but the people.
The postcards unwittingly reveal some hard social truths about the beaches, but they existed for the hard sell of the glamorized Southern California life.
Beachgoers, of course, knew and still know better. One spring just before World War II, the renowned expatriate writers Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann and their wives were searching for a picnic spot on a beach stroll south of L.A. Huxley made some remark about all the white shapes strewn along the beach; as he wrote of them later, they reminded him of windblown flowers. His wife informed him that they were, in fact, used condoms.
And screenwriter and director Rupert Hughes, uncle of Howard, author of the sardonic 1941 novel “City of Angels,” opens his book with a Santa Monica beach lifeguard’s disdain for the multitudes at his feet on the sand who “had shucked off their decency and dignity along with most of their clothes,” sprawling across a hundred miles of beachfront under “huge, gaudy umbrellas in a plague of monstrous toadstools. … Everywhere, people, people, people, in the raw, in a mob, crazy as maniacs escaped from a burning asylum.”
You can also track Angelenos’ relationship with the beach and the ocean, women’s especially, by postcards showing what they wore, and didn’t wear, over the decades.
Victorian women — that is to say, ladies, nice ladies — did not often go swimming, at least not in the presence of gentlemen. Queen Victoria, the crowned icon of modesty, was persuaded to use a “bathing machine.” It was a combination dressing room and wheeled wagon in which ladies could change out of their pounds of street clothing and into pounds of demure and cumbersome bathing ensembles. The bathing machine was then rolled or dragged far enough into the surf that the lady could slip directly down its steps and into the water without much risk of being seen thus clothed. (She never went out too far; the weight of all that clothing could have pulled her under.)
In July 1847, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal of her maiden swim: “… drove down to the beach with my maids & went into the bathing machines, where I undressed & bathed in the sea, (for the 1st time in my life) a very nice bathing woman attending me.” She did not like putting her anointed head under water.
Decades before then, first lady Martha Washington had visited a mineral springs and dipped into healthful waters wearing a blue and white linen dress with weights in the hem so it would not float up around her as she floated. Still, the dress — in the Mount Vernon collection — is featherweight compared with Victoria’s swim getup.
Bathing machines didn’t really catch on in California, but photos and postcards show the progression of Californians moving from surfside to surf swimming.
At first, women sat on dry sand in stiflingly layered dresses. Some hitched up their skirts a bit to set their bare feet on wet sand. In time, two- and three-piece black ensembles of top, trousers and overskirt, oddly like feminized sailor suits, let women plunge in but not go too far.
In 1920 women got the vote, and got the urge to plunge. The next year, the first Miss America contestants wore bold one-piece suits that still had more fabric than a modern-day office dress. Women decided they wanted to swim, really swim, and one-piece bathing suits met those practicalities. The modern bikini was crafted in 1946, by a French engineer, and the fabric of the very first one was a newsprint material copied from the newspaper Le Monde.
The beach represented a kind of public freedom — brazen license, is what some people called it — that treated the ocean as a kind of exempt zone for freewheeling fun of the sort one didn’t undertake back home.
And still, it was a public space that was in practice almost always for white people — nominally public beaches, nominally public pools.
In 1926, a Black-owned resort arose on seven rented acres on the Orange County coast between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. It was a rare membership club for Black Californians, and it had national attention. But the local Chamber of Commerce and other white civic groups were paying attention too and passed futile resolutions to stop it.
The previous September, The Times had written about “negro belles appear[ing] in [a] bathing parade” staged for about 5,000 picnickers at the unfinished resort. It was probably the first such pageant in the nation.
And when the railroads unexpectedly granted legal access to the club across their tracks, it looked like it was a done deal. The grand opening was three weeks away when the place was torched, in January 1926.
I’ll be looking to add to my collection the postcards of democratized beach demographics. Now it all depends on being able to find a place to park. Those are postcards I’d like to see.