Atlantic City Beaches & Jersey Shore Resorts in the 1800s
"Atlantic City developed from Dr. J. Pitney's idea to make the New Jersey shore into a health resort. Development began in 1850. Atlantic City, with its beautiful beaches & luxurious hotels, soon became a popular summer resort & winter health spa."
During the mid-1800s people began to flock to the East Coast beaches as one of America's favorite places to play. With the introduction of the railroad the ocean side beaches became even more popular as the invasion of the tourists had begun. Atlantic City, in southeastern New Jersey on the Atlantic Coast, became so popular that by 1878 one line could not handle all the people wanting to go to the Jersey Shore. To support the demand, a separate line to Philadelphia was constructed called the Narrow Gauge Line. By 1880 there were two lines bringing in many visitors to the hotels of the now-resort city, Atlantic City.
Visitors flocked to the ocean side beaches and hotels. Atlantic City became a bustling seaport with visitors also arriving by boat. The first official road from the mainland to the island of Atlantic City was completed in 1870 and had a $.30 toll. Coney Island New York, another famous seaside resort, had crowded steamers and overflowing trolley cars bring people over all summer long from Manhattan and Brooklyn and the various boroughs of "Greater New York." In 1876, it became much easier to reach Coney Island by road. A seventy foot wide roadway landscaped with trees and shrubbery was built to link Brooklyn's Prospect Park to the ocean side island. The new Ocean Parkway was almost straight and was flanked by two gravel roads each twenty five feet wide.
On Coney Island in the early 1830s, a hotel called the Coney Island House was built which marked the beginning of the summer resort business. The Coney Island House and various other hotels on the New York island, attracted many distinguish guests during the late 1840's. Washington Irving brought his niece to Coney Island in 1848 while Herman Melville, author of "Moby Dick", visited a year later. Phineas T. Barnum and Jenny Lind visited in 1850. Politicians frequented the island, too. All three of the great pre-Civil War politicians, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay stayed at Coney Island House.
During the second half of the 19th century, massive hotels as well as smaller rooming houses began to spring up all over the ocean side towns. The first commercial hotel in Atlantic City, the "Belloe House," located at Massachusetts and Atlantic Ave., was built in 1853. The "United States Hotel" took up a full city block between Atlantic, Pacific, Delaware, and Maryland. These imposing hotels were not only grand in size, but featured the most updated amenities, and were considered quite opulent for the time. Visitors could watch the waves from comfortable porch chairs, eat clam chowder, or go for a quick dip in the ocean surf.
August Corbin commissioned architect J. Pickering Putnam built to design the Manhattan Beach Hotel on the far eastern shore of Coney Island New York. It was 700 feet long with the front covered verandas and acres of manicured lawns facing the sea. It was considered the most elegant and fashionable hotel in the United States. It featured 258 lavish rooms, restaurants, ballroom and shops. The hotel's grand opening was on July 4, 1877 with a free fireworks show and the dedication speech delivered by Ulysses S. Grant.
At most ocean resorts during the 19th century, wood bathing houses often dotted the beaches, prelude to today's swim spa. The modest Victorian woman would spend the day at the beach in the privacy of a cabana-like house on wheels. She would undress in the bathing house that was then drawn out into deep water by horses and hauled back to the shore when the bath was finished. The bathing dress was typically made of woolen fabric, with black, maroon and blue the popular colors. Broad-rimmed hats to fend off the sun and wind, as well as shoes to guard against the nipping of crabs were worn. When wet, a full length woman's woolen swim suit weighed at least fifteen pounds. Overton's 1883 "Coney Island Directory" laid down the rules for bathing:
"The dress should consist essentially of two parts - a pair of pantaloons and a blouse; the latter should not fit too tightly, the sleeves fastened loosely at the wrist and slits cut in the garment just below the armpits; a belt attached to the blouse to retain it at the waist. The pantaloons should not be buttoned too tightly to the ankles, as circulation would thereby be impeded."
Bathers patronized a variety of establishments along Coney Island's beaches during the 1880's. Most provided ropes, poles and lifeboats for the protection of its customers. These included the Manhattan Beach Bathing Pavilion, the Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion, Mrs. Vanderveer's Voorhees', West Brighton Baths, and the Iron Pier Baths.
Although there were beautiful hotels, elegant restaurants, and convenient transportation at the Atlantic City and other ocean side resorts there was one big problem to contend with...SAND. It was everywhere, from the train cars to the hotel lobbies. In 1870, Alexander Boardman, a conductor on the Atlantic City-Camden Railroad, was asked to think up a way to keep the sand out of the hotels and rail cars. This is when the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk came into existence. In 1870, an eight foot wide wooden foot walk was built from the beach into the town to keep the hotel lobbies and railroads sand-free. The first Boardwalk was taken up during the winter. In 1882, the famous Atlantic City amusement pier was first built which allowed the city to be dubbed as "The Queen of Resorts." The City Council ordinance charged that hotels, restaurants and shops would be kept on one side of the boards, with amusement piers on the other.
Meanwhile, Coney Island was also developing. In 1878, a 100 foot long Iron Pier with space for 1200 bath lockers and various game and food stands was constructed. Two years later a Looff carousel and a collection of amusements was added. As business grew a ballroom, large enough for 3000 dancers and a piazza for 5000 onlookers was built. In 1875, Coney Island's first carousel arrived, having been carved by Charles Looff.
These ocean side resorts remained the place to go for both the wealthy and influential to the struggling lower classes for decades. Today, Atlantic City tourism claims that, "Year round, day or night, whatever turns you on about a destination, Atlantic City's got it... Casino gaming. Spas. World-class entertainment. Nightlife. Fine dining. Ocean. Boardwalk. Golf. Fun attractions. Fishing. Water Sports. Shopping. Any way you look at it, Atlantic City guarantees fast-paced excitement and non-stop activities."