Down By the Boardwalk

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The mixed scents of salt air, wood, creosote (tar), and a hint of deep fried food are a reminder that it’s summer, and time once more to casually stroll along the boardwalk. The history and nostalgia of boardwalks are huge draws for many visitors.

Nowadays, we associate boardwalks with flip flops or sneakers but boardwalks were originally a more formal place. When beachside boardwalks became commonplace in the late nineteenth century, ladies’ seashore promenades were usually made in ankle length dresses, complete with high necks and wide-brimmed hats to shelter delicate feminine complexions from the noxious effects of the sun. Their gentlemanly escorts were probably in shirt and tie and wouldn’t want sand scuffing their natty footwear. Shorts or bathing costumes (no matter how modest) were strictly consigned to the wave’s edge—and not permitted on the stylish walkway. The practical purpose of such a boardwalk was to allow folks to inhale the cleansing sea air while keeping clear of the inconvenience of sand or water.

Furthermore, hotels were pleased not to have their guests tracking so much sand into their lobbies and bedrooms, which was a major problem at the time. Respectable families staying in boarding houses could parade about, impress each other with their finery—and maybe even make some new acquaintances of the right sort, of course. When they were first introduced, sea and lake resorts were cooling retreats from the sweltering unhealthiness of the cities and towns. They were strictly for the privileged few who could take time off from work, and had the money to pay for summertime accommodations.

Perhaps America’s most historic and widely known boardwalk is the one in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It cost a mind-boggling $5,000 to construct at the time. Its sole purpose was for enjoyment of the ocean breezes. In fact, no commercial activity of any kind was allowed within thirty feet of the wooden walkway. Moreover, it was only a summertime destination. Amazingly, for many years, the entire structure (every single plank) was taken up and stored indoors at the end of the tourist season—presumably to be renovated, and to be protected from the elements, until the next year’s batch of visitors arrived.

By the early days of the twentieth century, the boardwalk as entertainment destination began to emerge. With the advent of mass transport and rising living standards, a trip to the sea or lakeside became more available to a broader array of the population. The fun-seeking crowds arrived and with them, a demand for more entertainment, food, and refreshments. Slowly, the jolly fun-packed boardwalk we now picture started to emerge. It became a place where young and old could let their hair down. As well as take a stroll, visitors could enjoy an array of snacks from hot dogs and pretzels to saltwater taffy, popcorn, and all manner of other tasty delights. Every kind of show and spectacle lined the boardwalk. Many were stunts and attractions straight from America’s rich fairground tradition. Music, of course, has always been intertwined with the boardwalk’s atmosphere. From organ grinders to big bands, all the way to doo-wop, ’60s tunes on transistor radios, and hip-hop pumping from boomboxes, these have all echoed along the waterside sidewalk at one time or other.

Apparel had become much more fun-loving and less-inhibited by the 1920s. Women sought to display their fashion sense—as well as their physical allure. It wasn’t long before bathing beauty pageants were all the rage, a tradition that has been long-lasting and a central part of the American summertime experience.

The boardwalk is now an integral part of life in the USA and there are fine examples to be found in spots across the nation. The densest concentration is to be found along the mid-Atlantic shoreline. The illustrious boardwalk in Atlantic City, Ocean City boasts a fine example that used to be rolled up at high tide and kept on the hotel porches, of all places. In terms of size, Virginia City’s boardwalk is hard to beat—measuring a mind-boggling 40 blocks long and 28 feet wide. It’s a lively space and home to art shows and festivals, while a horde of cyclists and joggers take daily advantage of this impressive stretch of ocean frontage.

In case you think boardwalks are confined to the ocean coasts, then think again. Chicago’s Navy Pier is perhaps one of the key tourist destinations in the Midwest. Its name is in honor of Navy members who served so valiantly in World War I. During the Second World War, the entire pier was converted into a massive training facility for the war effort, training a total of 60,000 military personnel in marine-related skills. In the post-war years, the University of Illinois used the area as an educational facility for the many veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill. In fact, at one stage, it was widely known as “Harvard on the Rocks”. Over the years, the Navy Pier got a little down-at-the-heels. However, by the early ’90s it had received a much needed facelift and is now once again Chicago’s premier location for events and celebrations of all kinds. Its 150-foot-high Ferris wheel remains an iconic element of the Chicago skyline.

Of course, no record of America’s boardwalks would be complete without a mention of Coney Island. Featured in countless movies, this thrill-packed destination echoes the diverse mix and vibrant atmosphere of New York City. Its famed Luna Park amusement center still packs in the crowds and visitors can indulge in all manner of culinary treats including Luigi’s ices and Nathan’s hot dogs—two historic staples that still have a strong following. Meanwhile, on the Pacific coast, you’ll find one of the country’s other great boardwalks: that stretch of eccentricity and mayhem along Venice Beach, California. There’s something in the air there that encourages all kinds of exuberant self-expression. Tourists enjoy the magnificent kookiness of a scene that’s full of performances (impromptu and pre-planned), political statements, and every colorful manifestation of our country’s freewheeling spirit. Whichever boardwalk is your personal favorite, summer’s finally here and it’s time for you to pop on some beach gear and head for this most all-American of experiences.

Seamus Mullarkey is a writer in New York City with a tendency to sunburn easily.

Coney Island Boardwalk, New York circa 1905.

Coney Island Boardwalk, New York.

Atlantic City Boardwalk, New Jersey circa 1920.

Kemah Boardwalk, Texas,

Virginia Beach Boardwalk, Virginia.

Chicago’s Navy Pier, illinois.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, California.

Wildwood Boardwalk, New Jersey.

Venice Beach, California.

Santa Monica Pier, California.