After a seemingly endless winter, the prospect of a day at the beach has an irresistible allure that needs no supporting arguments. But A. E. Youman, M.D., is at hand to tell us that going to the seashore is more than fun—it can give us “a seemingly perfect renovation of wasted energies and renewal of the powers of life—effects not to be obtained by means of any purely medical treatment.” It’s just the ticket for “the used up man of business,” “the man suffering from general debility,” and “persons suffering from general languor and lassitude.”
Still, “sea bathing,” as Youman calls it, is something to be done with due care and attention. Under the heading “BATHERS, Aphorisms for,” he gives a set of rules, most of which were still current in the mid-twentieth century, and maybe even today, such as:
- Avoid bathing within two hours after a meal
- Avoid chilling the body “sitting or standing naked on the bank or in boats after having been in the water,” and
- Avoid remaining too long in the water
Youman’s main concern is with the effect of cold water—something else that makes me wonder if he was a New England lad. He worries about “the shock experienced on entering water at its natural temperature,” which he compares to a sort of death. Fortunately, this is counterbalanced by the “genial glow” and “feeling of general vigor” experienced by the bather. He recommends late July as the most suitable time for cold sea bathing, and afternoon as the best time of day.
If Youman’s original readers wanted to explore the benefits of sea bathing and find the best beaches, they could turn to one of his medical colleagues: George E. Walton, M.D., who published a guide to The Mineral Springs of the United States and Canada that included “a list of sea-side resorts.” The book went through several editions, starting in 1872, the same year Youman’s Dictionary appeared. Unlike Youman, Walton may have been a midwestern boy, given the wistful opening to his chapter on sea-side resorts: “One who has passed his early life in an inland city or village can well remember how frequently he has desired to see the heaving waters of the ocean, to hear its tempestuous roar…To every one there is majesty and beauty in the sea.”
For Dr. Walton, the benefits of sea bathing come as much from the tang of the salt air and the excitement of the crowd as from the cold salt water directly. “The fascination of the sea, the attraction of many bathers in the water at the same time, the excitement attendant on the rolling in of the waves, and the exercise required in meeting them” all contribute to the good effect. “Here the person makes no conscious effort to exercise, but the entire surroundings lead him to do so…That the mineral constituents of the water have any part in the result is exceedingly doubtful.”
With a touch of Youman’s practical approach, Dr. Walton goes on to warn that “sea-bathing is not without danger to those who are reckless, or do not observe the rules…Those who, in a strong sea, quit the lines of rope are never without danger.” He helpfully provides a “ready method for resuscitating persons asphyxiated from drowning, [which] may prove useful to those at the sea-side.” It proceeds in eight steps, from “1. Treat the patient instantly on the spot in the open air…” to “8. Substitute for the patient’s wet clothing, if possible, such other covering as can instantly be procured, each bystander supplying a coat or cloak.” (Though it’s not clear to me why even Victorian bathers would be carrying coats and cloaks with them to the beach!)
His list of popular resorts includes, from north to south, Cushing’s Island, off Portland, Maine; Rye and Hampton beaches in New Hampshire; Swampscott and Nahant, near Boston; Newport, Rhode Island (“the most elegant watering-place in the United States”); Coney Island, and Rockaway, in New York; Long Branch, Cape May and Atlantic City, New Jersey; and finally, Old Point Comfort, Virginia (“the farthest south of the Northern group of sea-bathing places”).
A quarter-century later, we gain a glimpse of the bustling social scene at the beach—complete with bathers clinging to “lines of rope”—in a photo of Brighton Beach, New York, in 1901.
Note, if you will, the omission of the greatest peril of the sea, as far as I’m concerned: sharks. According to Michael Cappuzo’s Close to Shore, reports of shark attacks on humans weren’t truly substantiated until the 1916 attacks near Matawan, New Jersey—which were witnessed by hundreds and would eventually inspire the book Jaws.