July 31, 2015

The Summer of Our Content

August 1910: It wasn’t the last summer but it was one of the last summers when America was at peace with the world and at peace with itself. The Civil War was a 45 year old memory. The first of the World Wars that would scar the century to come was not even the shadow of a premonition. Lenin was an exile in Europe with no power and Mao was a student in Hunan. Hitler was living in a homeless shelter in Vienna selling paintings to tourists. Stalin was either being sent to or escaping from Siberia. Churchill was the Home Secretary in England and planning the first bit of social engineering, the National Insurance Act. Taft was President and his plan was "try to accomplish just as much [as Teddy Roosevelt] without any noise."

Both the automobile and and the electric light were ubiquitous. Air conditioning was still a wild fantasy, but the swamp cooler had begun to come online in 1904 so it wasn't completely out of the question for the very rich.

Halley’s Comet had just passed by taking Mark Twain with it. Somewhere in Macedonia Mother Teresa had just been born. If men looked up they could have seen, had they been in the right place at the right time, other men in flight. If any had been in Sheepshead Bay out side of New York City on the 20th they would have heard the first gunshots ever fired from an airplane. Individual lives might have their small tragedies but there was no perceptible or imaginable catastrophe in the cards dealt Americans that summer. It was August and everywhere Americans paused to refresh themselves.

Presented for your contemplation: One wave breaking over a group of Americans who have waded into the Atlantic on the Jersey shore sometime around noon on a hot day in August in 1910.


The wave would have swelled up and started out far over the eastern horizon near the edge of the Gulf Stream. It would have rolled with strict impunity in the midst of thousands of others like it, all bound towards the shore. The photographer would have gotten up early and hauled his cumbersome equipment towards the shore. The bathers would have arrived in the late morning if they were not already staying near the shore.

Once there they changed into swimming apparel known more for modesty than comfort. From the light it was around noon and would have been hot. Seeking to be cooler they waded in. Some stayed near the shore. Others waded further out the steadily deepening water.

On some kind of elevated platform above the sand, the photographer put the 8x10 glass plate into the camera and ducked under the black hood for final adjustments. Then he stood up and called out and called out and called out and finally got the attention of some. Most ignored him.

The wave rolled in from somewhere over the horizon, rising up and down, maybe cresting here and there, until it swelled one last time and, just as the photographer happened to release the shutter, jumped up in that one moment and splashed and spattered the unwary people posed and unposed in the cool salt water just off the beach on the Jersey shore.

That was the moment, less than a second, in the midst of that summer now more than a century gone. All, each and every one, of those nearly 300 souls are now gone as well, even the children held on the shoulders or standing in the shallows, all gone -- all perhaps, maybe, save one now almost silent centenarian.

Well, what of it? That’s the way of the world and the way of the waves of the world and our lives. What we have is this moment snatched out of time on the Jersey shore one afternoon in August before the last century went smash. Who is there? What were they like? It can’t be known, but it can be seen and what can be seen, at least in this one moment, is that these people had what anyone would recognize as that thing we call happiness. Let’s see what we can see of it.

We can see the chaos ruining the photographer’s carefully composed moment with a splash soaking those nearest and plastering down the hair of a man who was probably balder than he would like to be


We can see the young girl not entirely pleased with being drenched from the security of her father’s shoulder.


We can see those who are not particularly interested in being recorded on film for another century they would never know and gaze at something, at what?, that is just beyond the frame.


We can see one person who is concerned enough about the sun to carry a parasol with her out beyond the group until she is shoulder deep in the Atlantic and looking off at the horizon or contemplating the spatter of sunlight off the rollers.


Closer in towards shore we can see two sweethearts looking at each other and liking what they see in each others eyes.


Closer still we can see at least one who has not disappointed the photographer and is determined to present a smiling face to the ages.


We can see those who, in their frumpy and modest bathing suits, hold hands as the water deepens.


We can see those who smile and clasp each other ignoring the rout and the riot of water and waves around them.


In the middle of the splash we can see the young man, full of life and ready for anything, held up high by his father, shouting out and waving down the years as if to say hello from a great summer day in 1910.


Out beyond the bathers two men in a boat row past. Heading south. Perhaps for exercise. Perhaps as guards that would scoop up and return to life any bathers who had been swept too far from shore.


And then, finally, at the extreme right side of the frame we see two hands; the hands of a man moving towards the splash and the picture, but now caught forever just outside the frame; just a second too late to find himself forever frozen in this moment that I can see now, a hundred and one Augusts later. One step quicker and he would have been there. But at least his hands made it.


Maybe that’s enough. It’s August again in America. Maybe not the happiest August in our history, but it's been a hard century. We owe ourselves at least one more day at the beach.

[ Original Image via Shorpy ]

Posted by Vanderleun at July 31, 2015 2:12 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Ah beautiful, Gerard. Sippican has trained you well...(wink)

Posted by: Jewel at August 14, 2011 7:05 PM

My maternal grandfather was at a trade school, and in five years would enlist in the Army- later serve in WWI. His future wife was an adorable little blond girl working hard at her parent's farm near Lima,Ohio, and they were rather poor.
My paternal grandmother was living with her divorced mother and sickly brother in Dayton, Ohio (she knew the Wright brothers, they only lived a few blocks away). She would somehow survive the Great Dayton Flood of 1913. And my paternal grandfather was growing up on the family farm outside of Frostburg, Maryland.
All over 100 years ago. We are connected by a hundred threads to the past, yet time marches on. Those people on the beach, how could they possibly guess the future, how wonderful and terrible it would be?
The picture reminds us of who we were, and that those days can never come again. Not to be sad, just knowing how fleeting a summer day, or a way of life might be.

Posted by: David at August 14, 2011 7:45 PM

Happiness without diversity, how could this be?

Posted by: at August 14, 2011 8:42 PM

I'm with David.

My grandparents were anywhere from 11 to 20 years old that August, living on farms in rural Pennsylvania.

The mention of the Civil War is poignant, too, in a way-- my paternal grandfather had uncles he never knew, as they died as a result of service in the Union Army (one on Christmas Day, 1863, at age 18 of wounds received in some nameless skirmish; the other in the summer of 1868 from the tuberculosis he picked up in 1864 or '65 in the course of his service).

Yes, the people in the picture are dead now, but in a way, they live on in the inheritance they gave us. It's up to us to pass it on as best we can.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." -- William Faulkner

Posted by: Hale Adams at August 14, 2011 8:43 PM

I love this post because it points up a feature of our consciousness that almost never gets mentioned--what a revolution that THE PHOTOGRAPH brought to the world. A hundred years before THIS photo, even a willing crowd at the beach could never have been captured and immortalized like this. All but the wealthy (via talented artists) could not be captured in their youth to show to their kids and grandkids how they looked...and think how it affects us when we see what our parents/grandparents actually looked like at our age. This ability is really all so new, historically speaking.

Posted by: JewishOdysseus at August 14, 2011 9:04 PM

August 12, 1910, the world welcomed a force to be reckoned with for the next 94 years. My Mother was born on that date. All my life she told me she wanted to live long enough to see Haley's Coment come around again, and she did. She saw two World Wars and the Great Depression. She bought her first color TV in order to watch the first moon landing, she thought life had relegated her to the rocking chair until the day Reagan, just a few months younger was inaugurated and she vowed that if he could do the presidency at his age, she damn sure didn't need any rocking chairs.

She had an extraordinarily successful career and was breaking ground for women as early as 1925, when she was admitted to UC Berkeley at the age of 15. She started the first black Girl Scout troop and bore the slings and arrows that brought down on her. She was in Birmingham for the big march, she was in Washington when MLK made his "Dream" speech and carried on a lifelong correspondence with Coretta King. She wound down her life with a backcountry trip in Alaska and hiking along the Great Wall in China at the age of 89.

My Dad used to say to me, "When they made your Mother, they broke the mold." She was a lifelong Republican who would have loved Sarah Palin. The day that Ronald Reagan died, she stood up and saluted as the funeral procession passed by on the TV screen and raised her fist in the air and shouted, "I won." I knew then that her days were numbered as she had made it her goal to outlast him. After her return from China she told me that her list of things she wanted to do in her life was complete.

I miss her every day, and most especially in August. Yes, Gerard, 1910 was a very good year.

Posted by: Sara (Pal2Pal) at August 15, 2011 4:02 AM

Beautiful. Thank you Gerard.

My grammy and granpop were young kids in 1910. Being raised in a small rural town about a 45 minute train ride (always on time; station within walking distance of anywhere in town) from Philadelphia. They were townies, but everyone had chickens in their back yard. Everyone had an outhouse out back. They froze in the winter and roasted in the summer. But they lived in a town with zero crime of any sort - not even petty theft - nobody locked their doors - ever....they went to Fairs and revivals and Sunday School picnics; and learned how to play the piano, and played the clarinet or trombone in local amateur bands; and sang in choirs and glee club groups; and played cards and parlor games; they grew up without college degrees, but yet still well-read....they could spout the poetry lines they had to memorize school well into their 70s'.....when my grandparents would decribe their lives as kids, that old Robert Preston movie/musical "Music Man," would spring to mind.....and I would get feelings of jealousy....feeling like I was born in the wrong decade....

Every August, my grammy's parents would take their kids to Ocean City, NJ for a short weekend "holiday." A tradition that was carried on for the next generation in the 1930's and the generation after that (mine) in the 1960s. If that picture was taken at Ocean City, my Grammy and great grandparents might be in that photo somewhere.

Those are life guards in that boat. Getting a lottle hot and bored in their wooden guard stand, or perhaps there are some swimmers getting a little careless with the undertow...they take the boat out - row hard and slam it up over the waves (thrilling to watch) until they are beyond the breakers. ....then row back and forth for awhile, sometimes blowing a whistle if some daredevil decides to swim too far out.......


Posted by: southernjames at August 15, 2011 4:19 AM

Sara, that is an incredible story.

Posted by: Casca at August 15, 2011 4:22 AM

I was very sad after reading the story which was beautifully written and after viewing the photos. Sad, because it made me realize I wish I was in one of those pictures taken in 1910.

Posted by: Cilla Mitchell, Galveston, Texas at August 15, 2011 5:19 AM

I'm impressed with the shutter speed the photographer was able to use (even at midday) with a 1910 emulsion.

Posted by: Ed at August 15, 2011 5:36 AM


It looks like he had the lens wide open, with focus about midway through the group. This was taken on an 8x10 glass plate.

Imagine the scene of this photographer with his gigantic view camera,
sweltering under his thick black cloth,
trying to wrap it tight enough
to block out the sun reflecting from the sand
so he can see the dim image on the glass to focus.

Posted by: Cris at August 15, 2011 7:24 AM

Just about the time this picture was taken my grandfather decided to call it quits as a cowboy. His New Mexico spread was too small to make any money and the cattle were all getting sick from the oil that came to the surface and polluted the water. Foul stuff, that oil, and useless, as there would never be any demand for western oil as long as they pulled it out of the ground in Pennsylvania.
So he pulled up stakes and went to Illinois. Spent the rest of his working life as a steam locomotive engineer.

Posted by: stuart at August 15, 2011 9:06 AM

All of these fine people are alive and well, living in the picture... in exactly the same way as movies allow actors to live forever. I see Cary Grant every day alive and well.

I once came across an old photograph of my mom and I taken by my aunt in front of her house. In the photo there is an open window with sunlight streaming into the living room. It's comforting knowing that, within the reality of that photograph, my uncle is alive and well inside the house. Sometimes I expect him to walk into view.

My aunt and uncle have been gone for some time but they live on inside those who knew and loved them and within all of the old photographs.

Posted by: cchoate at August 15, 2011 10:31 AM

Posted by Jewel - Ah beautiful, Gerard. Sippican has trained you well...(wink

Ouch! Jewel

Posted by: Derek Alexander at August 15, 2011 11:05 AM

You demonstrate that time travel is possible. Your verbal vehicle took me there.

Posted by: Gloria at August 15, 2011 11:43 AM

My paternal ancestors had only been in America about 15 years from Ireland when this picture was taken -- they were plumbers in Albany. My mother's people arrived much later -- they spent their beach days on the Adriatic coast. My mother's branch of the family started when my great-grandfather -- who supervised the Trans-Siberian Railroad at the time -- won my great-grandmother in a card game in Irkutsk, Siberia. For a while he was the Czarist air force (all of it), and the Wright brothers taught him how to fly in Paris -- but he preferred balloons. He was executed by the Bolsheviks in Archangelsk; it was the only way he could buy time for his family to escape a changing Russia.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at August 15, 2011 11:49 AM

Sippican and I go way back. Why just Saturday I was helping him move a body.

Posted by: vanderleun at August 15, 2011 12:03 PM

choate: My hobby since the age of 17 has been genealogy. Not only did my love of the family research take me to many interesting places, lots of dusty libraries, and several pairs of ruined shoes tramping old cemeteries in all types of weather, it gave me a chance to find and interview so many people who have now left us and taken their stories and memories with them. I was fortunate to not only have good cameras available to me, I also had the wonder of the mini-recorder. In the 25 years since I first started sharing my research through the wonders of the Web, I've had dozens of thank yous from people I've never met, who have gotten the benefit of those memories because I got them down on tape or in photos. I plead with people all the time to talk to your elderly relatives and get their stories before it is too late.

I was thrilled when I found an elderly 2nd cousin who had inherited the family Bible and the photo albums from the early part of last century. I saw a picture of my GreatGrandfather, looking so handsome in his Victorian band leaders uniform. Turns out he owned the largest music store in the state and was also the band leader for the band that played in one of those gazebo-like bandstands so prevalent in small towns in Victorian America.

Another older relative who I interviewed had old tin types of another set of Great Grandparents, dozens of pictures of their home and various other relatives. All of these old photos and photocopies of photos I've been able to make are worth more than gold to me and I hope that 100 years from now, there will be another me who appreciates the work I've done to preserve family history.

However, even more important than those photos for me was fining my Mother's journals after she died. She began keeping them at about the age of 7 and they are complete on a near daily basis until about 2 years before she died. I was able to read her first hand accounts of times, places, and events that most of us only read in history books. Some of the entries were very mundane, i.e., wore the blue suit to May board meeting, etc. and some concerned me with entries like Sara left for camp today, the house is so quiet, or Sara went to her first formal dance tonight, she was worried she would be taller than her boyfriend with her heels on. Who knew? I don't remember that at all, but there it is in one of her journals. Or one of my favorite one liners entered on VE Day. "Today I gave birth to a feisty girl and Germany surrendered."

What attracted me to Gerard and American Digest so many years ago was his love of documenting his own family history and entries like this one above. And aren't we all so lucky to have computers and the Web, not only to do research, but to provide the fruits of our labors for others in such an easily accessible way?

Posted by: Sara (Pal2Pal) at August 15, 2011 1:01 PM

Sara, my husband's family history was compiled many years before he became a name on a page of that family history. His family traces its roots to Pennsylvania from the mid 1700s. We read that his great great great grandfather, only other surviving son, was the first man in the Union army to walk across the bridge at Antietam. He survived to have many other sons and daughters, most of all of them settling in York and Lancaster County PA. Masons and farmers. The farmer half of the family went on to become tradesmen, while the masons all became lawyers and landowners. David, my husband, is the son of a painter, who is the son of a painter. People in these here parts have deep roots.

Posted by: Jewel at August 15, 2011 6:53 PM

This is what I come here for.

Words fail. Thank you.

Posted by: Gray at August 15, 2011 11:14 PM

When this photo was taken, my maternal grandfather had already moved here from Poland (from a part then ruled by Russia), and his bride-to-be would arrive in the U.S. that year (1910). My dad's side of the family had come over earlier in the first decade of the 20th Century from the Austrian-ruled part. All are gone now, as are most of my parents' generation. But yes, I still have the photos.

Posted by: waltj at August 16, 2011 7:20 PM

thank you .. thank you .. thank you
I read each word and enjoyed each picture
daughter, Carole, will most likely post the 2011 view as we've just returned from LBI
Carole is an amazing photographer
How many know that Dad's Mother supported the family creating/sewing those bathing suits? Dad told me she had a dozen women employed in their dining room/living room in their home in Jersey City

Posted by: camilla at August 20, 2011 11:20 AM

Outstanding walkabout! Thank you.

Posted by: Joel Raupe at August 21, 2011 12:35 AM

My dear, late grandmother was a ten year old girl on the day this photo was taken. She was no doubt pulling a tow sack down a long row of cotton in a Mississippi cotton patch that hot August day.

No beach. They were sharecroppers, you see. They lived in a dirt-floored clapboard shack with no indoor plumbing and picked cotton for the man who owned the patch until well after World War II.

My grandmother married in 1914 and had her first child that same year.

He died.

The eleven children who followed him (all but one born in that same clapboard shack) did not. Seven of them, including my own mother, are alive and well today.

My grandmother died in 1992. She survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the 1960s, the Oil Crises, the Cold War, bell-bottoms, and being raped repeatedly by an ex-convict employee in the old-age home into which she was dumped. Her last words: "It's all right."

It is all right.

Posted by: B Lewis at July 10, 2012 8:06 AM

Oh, thank you for posting this again! I love it all....the imagining of the time and place and the wonderful picture. It was a better time in some ways and these folks were making the most of it. This time of year I think of my forebears in Iowa and Kansas in the mid- to late-19th century and appreciate the comfort I now enjoy.

Posted by: Dinah at July 10, 2012 9:20 AM

Writing with light is time traveling.

Looking at those swimmers from long ago, you can see who they were that day, it's a split second frozen in time.

Posted by: Boots at July 10, 2012 2:23 PM

Seeing this picture from people who, in 1910, had no idea of what was ahead, made me think if Kipling. A happy day at the beach is the precurser to what these people experienced over the next decades: "Lest we forget"

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Posted by: moneyrunner at July 10, 2012 5:02 PM

"What we have is this moment snatched out of time on the Jersey shore one afternoon in August before the last century went smash."

Painting with light. In this case the 'Charcoal sketch' in black and white. In prior centuries, it was painters who marked the passage of an era.

The busy-ness of the photo reminded me of Bruegels' 'Childrens Games'.
chnm . gmu . edu/cyh/archive/fullsize/brueghel_childrens_games_11393aab38.jpg

Posted by: cond0011 at July 31, 2015 5:15 AM

Damn, that was a beautiful story. Thank you!

Posted by: Pat at July 31, 2015 1:46 PM

It's crazy but those people now deceased look just like us. Except for the costumes they are us.

Posted by: Andy Texan at August 2, 2015 6:42 PM

Andy Texan - I noticed that, too. Most old US photographs don't show Americans who look and behave like us, but apparently people still play the same way those folks did.

Posted by: Suburbanbanshee at August 4, 2015 7:24 PM