Episode 16: The Heat is ON: A Short History of "Going to the Beach"
Today, we’re talkin’ about one of my favorite pastimes of all time…that’s right we’re talkin’ about going to the beach!
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Part I: I Live Right Near the Beach
I know it’s no secret to you or to the listeners of this podcast–especially the ones who know me in real life–that I was born and raised in South Florida. Southeast Florida, specifically, in Broward County, the limits of which go from where the land meets the Atlantic Ocean to about 53 miles inland, ending in the Everglades just inside of Big Cypress National Preserve. It’s amazing...if you start out from the shore of Ft. Lauderdale Beach and head west into the interior of the state, you just hit more water.
Growing up in South Florida is extremely wet. Not just because of the fact of our geography or because of the humidity, but also because we spend a lot of time in the water. Of course, some people spend more time than others and I’m sure there are some who don’t spend much time at all, but I certainly didn’t grow up with any of those people in my life and I don’t really know any now. I mean….What is the point of living in a tropical paradise if you’re not going to take advantage of what it has to offer?
My families, on both sides, moved to South Florida from New York. As you know, that’s the typical pipeline for most Italian-Americans and American Jews…your family emigrated from Europe to New York and then a generation or two later, they end up in Florida. My dad’s dad was a sailor with wanderlust who dragged his wife, my grandma, down here from Brooklyn because he was dying for a new adventure. And my mom’s parents were tired of trying to raise three young girls in the Big City and absolutely despised the snow so they followed the rest of the ginzos south. That’s how I got here…because a bunch of people were looking for a new start in a place that made them feel like they were on a permanent vacation.
On top of that, learning to swim is a necessity around here, and lots of us are taught that before we’re even taught to walk, including me. You ever seen those videos where they just throw a helpless baby into the pool with no floaties? Yeah, that’s how we learned to swim.
You can kind of see where I’m going with all this…swimming is like a natural right if you live here and I come from a long line of people who were drawn to Florida specifically because of the sun and sand, so I spent and spend a lot of time in or near the water. When I was growing up, big vacations to far off places were not really in the financial cards for my parents, but they did what they could and the beach was a lot of what they could do. Down here, it’s free to be on the beach, and back when I was a kid, most of the beaches in Broward also had free parking. Not to mention the fact that it wasn’t as wildly expensive to travel around the state as it is now. So, it was a lot of weekends on Ft. Lauderdale Beach and on the Hollywood Beach boardwalk. Sometimes, it was a week in the winter or the summer on Sanibel or Anna Maria Island or in Fort Myers or Islamorada. If it was a particularly good year or if someone found a deal, we would spend a few days in Key West. And in all these places, we’re talking usually calm surf, sandy shorelines, and a mostly peaceful coexistence between humans and animals
Now, I know you’ve had a much different beach-going experience than I have, brother, so maybe you can tell us a little bit about that…
It might seem wild to people who didn’t grow up here that so much of our free time was consumed with beach-going but it’s not so unique here. Most South Floridians I know have droves of wild beach stories simply because they spent so much time on them. I have tons, and they range in severity from me getting saved by a lifeguard because I drifted too far out to sea on my boogie board to watching a stranger get peed on by their friend after stepping on a Portuguese man o’war. It’s not because wild shit is always happening on the beach, it’s just because you really do spend so much time there, you’re more likely to catch something out of bounds.
As you know, I still love going to the beach and I still go regularly, and I was sitting at the beach a couple of weeks ago thinking…how did we get here? You know? Like…I know humans have probably been at or been going to the beach since the dawn of time to settle, to find food, and to bathe, but I mean for LEISURE purposes. How did “going to the beach” become an activity we do for fun and relaxation? Where did that come from? WHY did we start braving the elements just to be near the sea?
Before I really get into this next part, I’m going to put as a disclaimer here that the concept of “going to the beach” is kind of a Western invention. Not the actual act of being there with your loved ones and enjoying the sea air and water and shit, but the concept. Indigenous people all over the world have a completely different relationship to the sea than people of Western culture do, and I just want to recognize that. They’re stewards of the sea in ways that we’re not, and they have always trusted it in ways that we haven’t. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. I’m very specific in the information I’m about to give that we’re talking about Western civilization and Western culture and not Indigenous civilization or Indigenous culture. It only feels right to me to speak about it this way.
Part II: When You Think About It, The Sea is Actually Terrifying
I don’t know why I didn’t put this together in my head before starting this research, but actually, much of Western civilization in ancient and medieval times was fully horrified and confounded by the ocean. In the early books of the Bible, the sea is depicted as an unpredictable and destructive force, capable of swallowing up the land mass of all of Earth as in Noah’s story and it possessed creatures capable of swallowing men whole as in Jonah’s story. It was something humans couldn’t tame, no matter what they did. Alain Corbin writes in his book, The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840, that to the people in ancient times, “This unconquerable element was evidence that Creation remained unfinished.” In Ancient Greek and Roman poetry and philosophy, the sea is depicted similarly, but also, according to Corbin’s book, as “an ‘unsociable’ force that kept men apart.”
Daniella Blei writes in the Smithsonian that, “From antiquity through the 18th century, the beach ‘stirred fear and anxiety in the popular imagination’ and was ‘synonymous with dangerous wilderness; it was where shipwrecks and natural disasters occurred.’”
All that makes sense. Everything I’ve personally read from that time portrays the ocean as a kind of creature with its own mind. Even in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, all the action, the plot is centered around the movements, the atmosphere, and the ever-changing nature of the sea. I mean, it opens with a shipwreck after all.
I can’t say I blame them, that shit is fucking scary…
Corbin says in his book that things started to change a little bit in the late 17th and early 18th century. At that time, Dutch seascape paintings–particularly the work of Jan van Goyen, Hendrick Avercamp, and Jacob van Ruisdael–were getting popular, and they portrayed the sea and seaside in more tranquil and serene ways. Think: a lot of people dressed in jaunty outfits standing ankle deep in the water, beautiful ships in calm seas at dawn, and still windmills facing out at the ocean. French poets of the time–specifically Alphonse de Lamartine–were also warming up to the idea of the sea as a possible location of peace and serenity and began using sea metaphors in their poems in ways that denoted those feelings as opposed to unruliness or catastrophe.
All right, all right, so how the hell did we GET to the beach? Well, as you know, the practice of medicine in Western society was pretty wild. I think we’ve all watched enough period pieces to know these people did not know what the fuck was going on inside of our bodies. They were trying for sure, so I give them props for that but they really were just spitballing most of the time and then acting on it. So, I wasn’t super surprised when I learned that most historians agree that “going to the beach” really began because doctors in England in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were prescribing it to their patients.
There’s a few reasons for this. You know, the mid-18th century is listed as the official starting point of the Industrial Revolution in England, but obviously, prior to that, the system of mercantilism, which is basically just capitalism by another name, was wreaking havoc throughout the entire world in a variety of ways. This is a lot of obvious information, but in England and all of Europe, there were GIGANTIC wealth disparities, disease was rampant, and even if you were in the gentry or the nobility…living was fucking HARD. They had no idea what was really happening in the world but they knew a big ass world was out there, they were doing crazy shit to their bodies, eating poison OFTEN, their hygiene fucking SUCKED, and people died early and of horrific, smelly, dirty deaths. It was gross. People did not feel good about the world they were living in, so they were often diagnosed with problems that were more related to mental and emotional health than actual physical health (even though that was likely pretty bad, too).
Diagnoses of a health condition called “Melancholia” was a pretty common affliction in England during this time. From what I’ve read, this is basically depression but these guys were really describing it in an insane way. According to PenAndPension.com, a website all about Georgian England, melancholia means “black bile,” and black bile was considered “one of the four bodily humours recognised by the Hippocratic and Galenic systems of medicine that prevailed in Britain and elsewhere well into the 18th century. It was an excess of this ‘black bile’ which was thought to cause the malady.” In the early 17th century, a doctor named Richard Burton wrote a book called “The Anatomy of Melancholy” that was full of his treatments for ailments like melancholia. Mostly, according to PenAndPension.com, “He believed that melancholy could be dealt with by following a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep, listening to music, and engaging in ‘meaningful’ types of work. He also promoted talking about the problem with a friend.”
However, there was another one of his therapies that became quite popular, especially after his death. It was called thalassotherapy, or sea bathing. Sounds pretty nice, right? Like…just taking a little dip to cure your black bile build up, no big deal. But no, these doctors were absolute mad men. I’ll just read you the description of thalassotherapy from PenAndPension: it was a “a strict and violent form of immersion designed to induce first shock (from being plunged into cold water) then fear (by being held under until almost drowning). The purpose was, apparently, to cause the brain to ‘re-arrange’ itself into a better and more harmonious state.”
Sounds like it pretty much sucks!
What doesn’t suck, though, is that it got people hyped about going to the beach. Of course, wherever a need is, an industry will pop up, so people noticed all these rich, noble British people going to the beach/seaside for their therapies and they were like “We gotta get in on this” and in the early 18th century, beachside resorts began to pop up in a couple of seaside towns in England. Then, according to Corbin’s book that I referenced earlier, the discovery of oxygen by Antoine Lavoisier in 1778 got doctors and medical people absolutely hard over the idea of the healing properties of sea air. Apparently, they thought it was the purest form of air. I know, I know, you truly can’t make this shit up. By the time the 1780s rolled around, there were seaside resorts popping up all over the place, most famously in Brighton, where King George the 4th would go swimming in hopes of curing his gout.
This is, unfortunately, the part of the episode where I absolutely have to hand it to the British…I don’t want to, and I’m really struggling with this, but they TECHNICALLY invented what we know as the modern beachside vacation.
Obviously, at first, these vacations were really only available to the nobility BUT by the time 1840 rolled around, the working class was able to participate in beach-going because railroads were built from the bigger cities to the resort towns on the coast and they had accommodations for people in the “lower classes.” By the end of the 19th century, beachside resorts became one of Britain’s hottest cultural exports. Beachside resorts were all over the coasts of Europe, and had spread to the U.S.--first in New England, then further south.
As the 20th century began, beach-going was already a super popular activity among white people of all classes and backgrounds. The period from 1901 to the 1960s was the time when places like Atlantic City and Coney Island were really booming. Down here in Florida, too, there was massive development closest to the shores and seasides. And in the 1960s, the creation of the airplane vacation package popularized going to tropical places just to relax on their beaches.
It needs to be mentioned that of course, in the U.S. in particular, not everyone got to enjoy the beach. Chattel slavery persisted well into the 19th century, so enslaved people didn’t have access to the beaches when they were first being enjoyed in the States. Then, the laws of the late 19th century and the first more than half of the 20th century prevented black people and people of color from enjoying the beach in the same way as white people. Throughout the South, there were segregated beaches–all of the beaches in South Florida were segregated until the late 1950s and very early 1960s, northern Florida beaches weren’t desegregated until the mid-1960s. Obviously, the beach is for everyone now, but in most “resort towns,” there aren’t that many options for people in different financial brackets, even in places like Bradenton or Pensacola, Florida. So, there is still some level of inaccessibility attached to these places. It’s just that if you’re lucky enough–like me–to grow up in a place where the beach is accessible, even by city bus, you can experience it whenever you want.
So, that part does suck, but I have to say I do appreciate that in most places…the beach itself is still free for us to visit when we want to.
After I did this research, I kind of felt like “OK, that’s cool, I didn’t exactly expect all that..nice to know” but then….I found something else.
Part III: Here is Where I Shyamalan You (and Also Where I Got Shyamalan’ed)
Unfortunately, my credit to the British still stands because they did popularize beachgoing and beach resorts and all that. HOWEVER, my PEOPLE actually have a hand in this, too.
Way before the British started thinking that the fresh air and seawater could cure their every ailment, the ancient Romans were living it up in a coastal town in the south of Italy, not too far away from where my ancestors are from in Naples. In an article on Baia in BBC’s Travel, they dub it the Las Vegas of the ancient mediterranean. Drawn to Baia’s mild climate, mineral waters, and naturally occurring hot springs, the ancient Roman elites turned Baia into a bit of a resort town of their own. They used Baia as an escape from the busyness of Rome, and went there to party, party, party. When we think about ancient Romans doing debaucherous shit, a lot of it supposedly happened in Baia because many of the structures and spas built there were “dedicated solely to earthly pleasures.” Seneca the Younger described Baia as a "vortex of luxury" and a "harbour of vice" where girls went to play at being girls, old women as girls and some men as girls...which in my opinion sounds…pretty fuckin’ dope.
Something special about Italy (aside from the fact that I wouldn’t be here without it) is that its western coastline has seen a lot of volcanic activity, and so, there are many lakes–actually called calderas–that have been formed due volcanic activity. Very basically, after these volcanoes erupted, they collapsed after all the magma was expelled from the inside and formed these bowls that filled with water. For the ancient Romans, calderas were believed to be entrances to the Underworld so close proximity to them was believed to have some potential power for the health and well-being of human beings. Baia is situated between a couple of calderas and the ocean, so you can imagine what kind of cockamamey shit these people believed about being there.
At its height, many famous Romans were known to chill and do their dealings there. Cicero, Virgil, and Pliny the Elder all had villas or smaller cottages/retreats built for themselves there. Legend says that Cleopatra ended up there for some time after Julius Ceasar was murdered. Other legends say it was there that Aggripina plotted her husband Claudius’s death so her son Nero could take the throne as Emperor of Rome. Don’t know for certain if those two things are at all factual, but interesting nonetheless.
Unfortunately, due to the heavy amount of volcanic activity in the area, most of what is left of the ancient city of Baia is now underwater. It’s still kind of a resort town, in that you can go there and visit the beaches and what not, but mostly it’s a historical stop. People usually go there to see the ruins of the old city that are left above ground, and to explore the underwater ruins via glass bottom boat or through SCUBA diving. Many of the people who live in or close to Baia are still part of the elite class in Italy, so not much has changed in terms of property value.
One thing I wondered was if the British got the idea to use the ocean as a source of healing from some ancient or classical texts, but I couldn’t find anything linking that “science” to anything from antiquity that they might have read. I have to imagine the idea didn’t come out of nowhere, though, and maybe it was through reading about Baia or some other ancient seaside place that they put the pieces together.
Part IV: What IS IT about the beach??
I know for sure that my ancient working class ass farmer/fisher folk ancestors did not have access to Baia, but being that they were from Naples and parts of Sicily, I know they had some connection to the ocean just by necessity. This kind of got me thinking about my family and our connection to the ocean. It’s kind of funny that we came from one peninsula and eventually settled on another. Makes me feel like the connection is much deeper than just “I like being at the beach.”
Like, yes, I do think it’s a little ridiculous to think the ocean has healing properties for gout or that relaxing on the beach could cure depression, but there is something special about being around or in the immenseness of the ocean…..What do you think?
I also think that when we’re talking about leisure and its connection to healing…I don’t think it’s the leisure activity that is actually healing us. I think it’s the fact that we’re taking a fucking break. Capitalism has us all severely trapped, and even though we have time in our lives where we’re supposed to be taking a break–like weekends, for example–it never fully feels like enough. It’s just as hard–ARGUABLY maybe even harder–to be alive now as it was in Georgian England, and we all know that mental illness is more prevalent than ever so maybe that’s just what it is…we need to fucking relax and we need to do it OFTEN.