Library of Congress
Library of Congress

30 Vintage Photos of People Having Fun at the Beach

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

While some people celebrate summer with pool parties and backyard barbecues, others associate summertime with the cool waves and warm sand found only at the beach. Here are 30 vintage images showing people enjoying their local beaches.

For simplicity’s sake and so you can observe the trends of fashion and sport, all pictures are arranged in chronological order, as much as possible (some photos only have estimated dates on them). All images are courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1. Whatever Floats Your Boat

Frances Benjamin Johnston was one of the first women photojournalists and was given her first camera by George Eastman of the Eastman Kodak Company. It's not known who actually took this picture in 1880, but Ms. Johnston can be seen sitting on the smaller of the two boats.

2. Castle Competition

This Detroit Publishing Co. image captures a large sand castle building event that took place in Westerland, Germany, sometime around 1895. The small huts in the image were dressing booths that had to be climbed into from the bottom, as they had no door.

3. Tent City

Also captured by the Detroit Publishing Co. around the same period, this image shows families enjoying the beach of Trouville, France.

4. Surf's Up

These three took advantage of the much less crowded Jamestown Beach of Connecticut and had fun goofing off in the surf together. Image taken by W.B. Davidson in 1897.

5. Dress Suit

The Atlantic City beach of New Jersey has been popular among beach-goers for a very long time. Here is a large group of swimmers enjoying the cool water back in 1897. At the time, women’s “bathing suits” were essentially just shorter-than-usual wool dresses and they also had to wear wool stockings to maintain their modesty.

6. Boat Party

With a swimsuit that looks more like a frilly dress, a bonnet, and an oar, the head of this boating party looks more like Little Miss Muffet than someone ready to go swimming. But this whole party, photographed in 1900 by the Detroit Publishing Co., was ready to hit the waves.

7. Bathing Beauties

Love the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition? Around 1900, this Detroit Publishing Co. photo of two “bathing beauties” in Atlantic City was pretty much the equivalent of the famous and scandalous swimsuit edition.

8. Lifeline

Even before swimming was something most people learned as children, people still enjoyed a dip in the ocean. To avoid getting swept out to sea without any knowledge of how to swim back to shore, beachgoers would cling to these ropes as they climbed in and out of the ocean. Around 1900, these were common at all large beaches, as you can see in this image from Coney Island taken by William H. Rau.

9. Drying out

As you can imagine, wool bathing suits didn’t dry out easily, which is why it was common to see women on the shore wringing out their suits in the early 1900s, as they do in this image by the Detroit Publishing Co.

10. Setting Sail

Bike sailing is a bit of a fringe hobby these days, but it very well could have been a standard beach activity if it had just caught on. In fact, Detroit Publishing Co. has a good number of images featuring people trying out sail bikes in Ormond, Florida around 1903.

11. Fun in the Sun

One thing that will probably never change as long as there is sand on the beach is the inclination of children to turn the sand into castles. Here are a few boys trying their hand at castle building on Coney Island in 1903, as photographed by the Detroit Publishing Co.

12. Beach Race

Fun in the sun continues to bring out the competitive edge of many, just like these youngsters participating in a race on Shelter Island, NY. Image by Detroit Publishing Co., circa 1904.

13. Swim Fans

These days, people watchers usually try to be sly about their intentions, but in Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1905, it was totally acceptable to pull up a chair and watch other people swimming, whether because you didn’t feel like taking a dip, or because you were a woman too modest to wear a bathing suit in public. Photo by Detroit Publishing Co.

14. Beach Shot

Young gals have always loved having flattering pictures of themselves taken on the beach. Just look at this 1906 photo by Underwood & Underwood for proof.

15. Big Wave

Beach time fun was by no means limited to the West. Here are some bathers enjoying the waves as captured by Arnold Genthe in his 1908 trip to Japan and Korea.

16. Dress to Impress

While the beach has historically been a good place for casual wear, the 1910 motorboat races in Palm Beach provided a place to see and be seen, as you can see in this image of the spectators by Bain News Service.

17. Polar Plunge

Polar swimming has been going strong for at least 100 years. Here are some brave New York winter bathers ready to take the plunge in 1912, as photographed by Bain News Service. You can tell it’s freezing out there when you notice how warmly those in the audience are bundled up.

18. Making a Splash

One thing that will always remain popular on hot beach days is getting to splash your friends silly. Here are three gals having a great time in Alameda, CA, as photographed by Bain News Service.

19. Rent-a-Suit

Before swimming pools and beach excursions were commonplace, people generally rented their bathing suits, and as this image taken in Belgium by Bain News Service in 1912 shows, the rented swimwear wasn’t exactly flattering for men or women.

20. Dressing Room

Before beaches installed permanent restrooms and dressing areas, bathers had to rent horse-drawn bathing machines to provide them with a safe place to change clothes and store their belongings. This woman from Belgium is ready to get to her bathing machine to change—but that means having to walk through the water in her dry clothes in order to get to the entrance. Image taken by Bain News Service in 1913.

21. Sports in the Surf

I don’t know the rules of water baseball, but I do know it sounds like fun. Photo taken by Bain News Service in 1914.

22. DIY Suit

Before you could just go to your local Walmart and pick a premade bathing suit, you had to either rent one or make your own. This young woman was quite proud of her creation, though this leggy picture was probably a bit scandalous for the sensibilities of 1915.

23. Fashion Show

Because bathing suits tended to be one-of-a-kind, women often held swimwear fashion parades to show off their sweet suits. Here’s one Miles F. Weaver photographed at Seal Beach in 1918. This photo is just part of a panorama, which you can see here.

24. Suit Style

Here’s another totally unique bathing suit that was part of a 1919 bathing suit fashion parade.

25. Future Miss Americas

It wasn’t long before the bathing gown parades turned into beauty pageants. In fact, Miss America started as a bathing pageant and took place in Atlantic City in 1921. Here is the winner, the "Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” Margaret Gorman, as photographed by Bain News Service.

26. Unusual Beach Companion

If you still find it weird to see dogs playing at the beach, just imagine running into young Mildred Katleck and her pet opossum. Photograph taken by Harris & Ewing in 1922.

27. Suit Inspectors

These days, you can get away with wearing practically anything at the beach, but back in the '20s, it was common for inspectors to roam the beaches ensuring women’s swimwear wasn’t too short—in many cases, rising no more than six inches above the knee. Here are two suspicious girls having their suit lengths checked in 1922, as captured by the National Photo Company.

28. Tug of War

Here’s a picture sure to make every orthodontist cringe, but these two gals, photographed by the National Photo Company in 1922, seem to be having quite a good time nonetheless.

29. A Swim and a smoke

Whoever said multitasking is exclusively a modern day issue needs to take a note from Muriel Quackenbush, who was able to swim, smoke, and read all at the same time as evidenced by this 1922 photo by the National Photo Company.

30. Strike a Pose

It didn’t take Baywatch to make lifeguards popular with members of the opposite sex. That’s been a pretty constant standard since lifeguards started roaming the beaches. The Beach Boys would be proud to see their “two girls for every boy” standard measurement of quality applied even back in 1924.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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A Bubbly History of the Heart-Shaped Hot Tub

Penthouse—the most prominent authority on such matters—once called it “a sexual Disneyland.” It housed a gift shop containing adult novelty items. A stark-naked statue of Apollo greeted visitors in the lobby entrance. A “social director” was on hand to foster banter among couples and make off-color jokes to loosen their libidos. Its rooms were wall-carpeted and mirrored.

It was Cove Haven, and for decades it was the premier Poconos resort destination for newlyweds across the northeast. Its popularity was chiefly attributed to two things: the marketing acumen of co-founder Morris B. Wilkins, and the iconic, charmingly tacky hot tub he designed that was shaped like a heart.

Cove Haven Resorts

Born to Russian immigrants in 1925, Wilkins was an unlikely savior of the honeymoon hospitality industry. After a stint as a submariner in World War II, the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania native started working as an electrician. Business went well until Hurricane Diane swept up his office space and equipment in 1955, leveling all of his material goods. Settling in as a freelancer, he and pal Harold “Obie” O’Brien were working on renovations for a Poconos-area hotel when they both noticed the accommodations were absolutely awful. The men believed they could do better, so they purchased an 18-room resort, the Hotel Pocopaupac in Lakeville, in 1958.

Since the end of the war, gas shortages had led to more and more newlyweds taking the shorter trip to the Poconos—a four-county area about the size of Delaware—rather than Niagara Falls. What was missing was a sense of levity or fun. Wilkins and O’Brien changed the name of the hotel to Cove Haven and promptly began renovating the property so that it might appeal to the increasingly provocative tastes of 1960s couples. Ostentatious accents replaced neutral colors; the room, he believed, would become the star attraction for those seeking a reservation.

But Wilkins needed time. When business was slow, he’d conserve electricity by holding business meetings in the dark. And despite his ability to recognize how hospitality would need to change, it took a few years for him to figure out exactly how.

According to “Honest” Phil Policare, Cove Haven's "Chief Excitement Officer," Wilkins and O’Brien had their epiphany one night in 1963, when the two were struggling to cart a round hot tub down a flight of stairs. In order to make the turn at the bottom, the men temporarily pushed in one side of the flexible material and noticed it resembled a heart. Other accounts mention that Wilkins dreamed up the notion in the middle of the night, sketching a heart over a concrete floor.

However he came to the idea, Wilkins poured concrete for the first six heart-shaped tubs himself, with dozens more added as Cove Haven continued to expand to its eventual size of 236 rooms.

The Sweetheart Tub was tiled in red, comfortable enough for two, and featured mirrors on the walls. Word of mouth quickly spread, as did Wilkins's particular design aesthetic. Soon, Cove Haven was home to guests—couples only—who came to sightsee the attractions in their quarters: circular or heart-shaped beds, multi-level rooms, and private swimming pools.

Eager to expand, the partners sold Cove Haven to Caesars Resorts in 1969. (O’Brien passed away five years later in a plane crash.) Wilkins promptly opened two more Poconos-area resorts, just in time for an explosion of popularity after the heart-shaped tub was photographed for a 1971 Life magazine spread about the opening of Interstate 80. The exposure was so positive that Wilkins had to borrow $10,000 the following week just so that he had enough liquid cash to print more resort brochures.

That single photo in Life helped make the heart-shaped tub synonymous with honeymoon accommodations, encapsulating everything anyone would ever need to know about the atmosphere in the region. As Wilkins watched his Poconos empire grow through the next few decades, he became known as the innovator behind the beautifully kitschy newlywed experience.

Cove Haven Resorts

With the success of the heart-shaped tub driving business, Wilkins came up a more ambitious idea: He wanted to install a 7-foot-tall champagne glass in his suites that could double as a whirlpool. It would be novel, look terrific in advertising, and create a little bit of mystery: without a ladder, how could couples even get in?

Wilkins's financiers at Caesars weren’t interested. They dismissed the idea as silly and let it percolate in the hotelier's head for nearly a decade before giving in. Debuting in 1984, the champagne glass whirlpool became another Poconos and Cove Haven trademark, appearing to be balanced on a thin stem while couples marinated in the bubbly water. Rooms featuring the glass were booked as far as 18 months out. (The secret to getting in was simple: the living room where it was located was sunken, and guests would climb in from the second-floor bedroom.)

Business continued booming through the 1980s. Rooms went for $380 for two nights, and Wilkins was hailed as a hospitality legend. Heart-shaped everything seemed to pervade the Poconos, with a quarter of its 16,000 beds cut into the novelty design.

Then airline travel got cheaper, and Vegas got wiser. As airfares went down and rooms in other destination locations began to resemble the Wilkins model, attendance dropped. Several Poconos-area resorts were closed by 1999, the year Wilkins retired.

Today, roughly 437 heart-shaped hot tubs remain in the three Cove Haven resorts, with an untold number installed around the country. While Wilkins had managed to patent his champagne whirlpool, he was unsuccessful in obtaining the same protection for the tub. For $2395, anyone can have one ready to be installed in their own personal lover’s retreat.

Wilkins died at age 90 in 2015. Though he left behind four children, it could be argued he was responsible for many, many more.

"I don’t know how many babies we’ve conceived here," Wilkins told The Washington Post in 1988. "It must be an army."


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