Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Summer at the Shore

Everyone who could afford it left the city for at least part of the summer. For Rebecca and her brothers and sisters in the early 19th century, one of their destinations of choice was Long Branch, at the New Jersey shore.

It was a trek to get there. From New York, which was much closer, the trip took eight hours to go the 55 miles by boat and "Jersey waggon." It would have been an overnighter by stagecoach or carriage for Philadelphians.

Visitors stayed at boardinghouses, and the accommodations must have been good to attract the Gratz's year after year. There was probably a public hall for balls and other evening entertainment; Rebecca's friend Maria Fenno wrote that she arrived at eight p.m. "and joined in the dancing."

Of course, the main attraction was the beauty of the seashore, the healthful air and sea bathing. It is likely that there were bathing machines, changing rooms on wheels which opened right onto the water. Since women wore a loose shiftlike costume for bathing (with coverage from the shoulder to below the knee), they were not eager for anyone to see them getting in or out of the surf. Once they were in the ocean, some women were able to do more than bob around. According to Maria Fenno, women took advantage of the buoyancy of the salt water at a New York bathhouse to help them in learning to swim.

After an early dip, the rest of the day for ladies was given over to walks, sewing, reading and chatting with old friends and new acquaintances. As long as the weather held good and no communicable diseases (like flu) made an appearance, visitors enjoyed a restful vacation from home routines.

(This post is based on letters, dated July 1 and August 1, 1801, from Maria Fenno to Rebecca Gratz. They are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

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