Heavily dressed – or not – Victorian-era visitors cherished island beaches
As the Civil War came to its bitter end, the single men of Galveston enjoyed meeting at the beach to swim in the buff.
Such uninhibited gatherings troubled the leaders of the burgeoning island city, who in 1865 passed an ordinance banning nude swimming during daylight hours. Another law, enacted a dozen years later, mandated the beaches’ so-called “bathers” be covered from “neck to knee.”
“I don’t know that it ever really stopped,” Galveston Historical Foundation’s Jami Durham said of this unsanctioned skinny-dipping. “I think it just quit being a public nuisance by the 1870s.”
In the ensuing decades of the Victorian era, the island’s wide beaches and restorative salt breezes made Galveston a preferred destination for people from not just Texas, but across the country — especially the Midwest. While only the well-to-do could afford a buggy ride through the surf, people of all social stations dreamed of a beachside getaway. Railroad companies like the Missouri-Kansas-Texas, better known as the “Katy,” hyped the city as a Coney Island in the making.
“If you look at a map, you had a train line straight from Chicago to Galveston,” said Durham, co-author of the photo-heavy 2013 book “Galveston: Playground of the Southwest.”
On a typical day in 1895, “you would have seen a lot of gentlemen in their suits, and a lot of ladies in beautiful white dresses and hats and parasols, strolling along the boardwalk,” the precursor to the Seawall, she said. For modesty’s sake, women who fancied a dip had to rent a peculiar outhouse on wheels known as a “bathing machine,” which workers called “dippers” rolled right up to the water’s edge.
There, they changed into swimsuits consisting of long dresses, bloomers and stockings, usually made of heavy Merino wool. (Hats and shoes, too.) Bathing costumes for men, which resembled long underwear, were marginally less restrictive; a pair of Speedo-like trunks known as “Athletes” lent extra support. Poor swimmers could stick close to one of the long ropes trailing into the Gulf of Mexico, which made pulling oneself to safety a cinch.
Non-swimmers had no shortage of options as well. Vendors set up carts and tables to hawk everything from popcorn to seashells. Although the concept of sunbathing came later, beachgoers could read, socialize, people-watch, enjoy a picnic or scour the sand for shells.
“I don’t think it would have looked very much different than it does now,” Durham said. “Just erase the cars.”
Dominating the shoreline in those days were hulking structures such as the twin-domed Pagoda, the most prominent of Galveston’s public bathhouses. These places offered swimsuit rentals, storage lockers, concessions and, of course, bathing facilities. Often on-site photographers created instant postcards, which “you could mail back to Cincinnati or Chicago or wherever you had ridden the train down from,” Durham said.
Also popular were the many amusement-oriented venues including the Galveston Electric Pavilion, the first fully electrified building in Texas. Designed by renowned architect Nicholas Clayton, the pavilion combined bathhouse amenities with an auditorium that hosted concerts, circus performers and lectures by the likes of Irish poet/raconteur Oscar Wilde.
Although the pavilion burned in 1883, another Clayton design, the enormous Beach Hotel, attracted plenty of attention in its own right. Its red-and-white striped roof was visible from the train station downtown, while its 200 rooms made it an alluring destination nationwide, including, apparently, for numerous illicit affairs. A suspicious fire claimed the Beach Hotel in 1898, but, notes Durham, “even if it had not burned, the 1900 Storm would have got it.”
The Pagoda did succumb to the storm. But a man named George Murdock (or Murdoch), a onetime manager of the Pagoda, built his own bathhouse where it once stood. (His descendants would repeat the pattern following subsequent hurricanes, including Carla, Alicia and Ike.)
Galveston’s perseverance also was reflected in the completion of the seawall, starting in 1904, and the Hotel Galvez in 1911. Soon enough, the city began promoting itself as the “Playground of the Southwest” in earnest.
“I think the beach is one of those spectacular jewels that it doesn’t matter how much time passes or how far back in time we look,” Durham said. “I think Galvestonians have always known the value of that beach, and they’ve always treasured it.”