The beach is synonymous with vacation and leisure, but in the earliest uses of the noun “beach,” it just referred to the loose pebbles on the shore. Today folks will brave both traffic jams and sunburn to sit by the ocean, and they’ll pay stiff real estate prices for a water view, but the premium placed on the beach is a relatively modern development. At one time not too long ago, people feared the ocean and wouldn’t think of lying on its storm-tossed pebbles.
In the 1600s, the age of Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer, seascapes depicted small sailboats whipped by winds in tempestuous gray seas. And until the late 1700s, people in Europe linked the sea to storms and shipwrecks, war and piracy — in a word, danger. But over time, perceptions of the beach shifted, and it became the perfect spot for cocktails, light novels, and reclining chairs. The terminology surrounding the shore reflects that shift. Let’s examine how “beach” evolved from pebbles to a vacationer’s paradise.
Taking the Sea as Treatment
“Going to the beach” became a new phrase for Europeans by 1840, according to a Smithsonian article called “Inventing the Beach: The Unnatural History of a Natural Place.” Prior to then, the beach was “synonymous with dangerous wilderness; it was where shipwrecks and natural disasters occurred.” But by the mid-19th century, “it had become a place of human consumption; a sought-after ‘escape’ from the city and the drudgery of modern life.”
British doctors launched this cultural shift in the 18th century, prescribing cold sea baths as a remedy for a long list of ailments ranging from melancholy (or depression) to rickets, leprosy, gout, impotence, tuberculosis, and hysteria.
After the Prince of Wales (who became King George IV) went to the English coastal town of Brighton in 1783 to soothe his gout, wealthy people sought out the sea air, following the new hypothesis that it contained more oxygen. And in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), the protagonist’s father endlessly debates the health benefits of England’s beaches with his upper-class peers. These benefits weren’t enjoyed only by the affluent, however. By the early 19th century, the railroad had spread across Britain and made a trip to the beach accessible for folks on every rung of the social ladder, in particular at Blackpool, the first seaside resort for working-class people.
Life’s a Beach
The 19th-century beach culture explosion wasn’t limited to Europe. Across the Atlantic, the fashionable newly wealthy set of New York City flocked to the shore. A New York City newspaper published the first appearance of the term “beach party” in 1859: “Picnics, equestrian and beach parties..and terpsichorean soirées form part of the gayeties at Stratford.” The term “beach resort” had its first appearance several years later, in an 1874 edition of the Boston Daily Advertiser, and “beach-goer” likewise appeared in the same publication in 1881.
In the 20th century, the term “beach front” showed up in the New York Times in 1921, describing the fortune spent “by the great beach front hotels, business places and visitors.” But beaches weren’t all luxury and leisure; in the early 1900s, beaches were linked to unemployment. In 1925, the comic writer P.G. Wodehouse wrote, “The world is full of poor devils on the brink of being chucked out of jobs and put on the beach.”
Mostly, however, the beach continued to develop as a haven for fun and leisure. In 1959, women were described as wearing “beach pyjamas” over their bathing suits, and the moniker “beach bum” coincided with the advent of surfing in the 1960s.
While doctors no longer prescribe trips to the beach as a cure-all, visiting the shore does tend to lighten spirits. Perhaps the best depiction of the vacation paradise we’re all seeking at the beach comes from the first appearance of the term “beach book,” published in 1977 in the landlocked Colorado Springs Gazette: “Beach books are nothing but escape reading.”
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