Postcard-perfect beach scenes also reveal some hard truths about Southern California

Back when you went to the beach – 60, 70, 100 and a few years ago – it wasn’t just the sand that was white. Even the people on the beach were white down to the last square centimeter of their skin.

A whites-only ocean didn’t seem to raise eyebrows at the time, let alone questions. Public pools that allowed people of color at all often only let them in one day a week, just before the pool was drained and refilled. You couldn’t drain and refill the Pacific Ocean very well after black people swam in it, so local governments and unofficial forces managed to keep public beaches closed to a segment of the public.

The tireless promoters of early Los Angeles presented LA to potential residents and investors as the nation’s “blank spot” – with its double meaning: a place free from unsavory civic corruption, free from unions and free from the inconveniences of integration.

The struggles of people of color to get space in the sand have taken decades with nasty plot twists, but Southern California saw something of an advance last month when a black family’s heirs from Bruce’s Beach, the Manhattan Beach waterfront, rushed and hornswoggled the property , which the family bought in 1912, got the land back.

So the tens of millions of Southern California beach postcards created from the late 1800s through well into the 20th centuries had many colors—the water, the sky, the umbrellas, the bathing suits—everything but the people.

The postcards unknowingly reveal some harsh social truths about the beaches, but they existed for the hard sell of glamorous Southern California life.

Patt Morrison, longtime writer for the Los Angeles Times

Explain LA with Patt Morrison

Los Angeles is a complex place. In this weekly feature, Patt Morrison explains how it works, its history and its culture.

Beachgoers knew, of course, and still know better. One spring just before World War II, when famous foreign writers Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann and their wives were strolling along the beach south of LA Huxley looking for a picnic spot, they made a remark about all the white figures scattered about the beach; as he later wrote about them, they reminded him of flowers blown by the wind. His wife informed him that the condoms were actually used.

And screenwriter-director Rupert Hughes, uncle of Howard, author of the sardonic 1941 novel City of Angels, begins his book with a Santa Monica lifeguard’s disdain for the crowds at his feet in the sand who “had shaken off their decency.” and dignity along with most of their clothing” stretching out over a hundred miles of beach under “huge garish parasols in a plague of monstrous toadstools. … Everywhere people, people, people, in the raw, in a mob, mad as lunatics who escaped from a burning asylum.”

You can also follow Angelenos’ relationship with the beach and the sea, particularly that of women, by showing postcards showing what they have and have not worn over the decades.

A man helps a woman in a red knee-length swimsuit and black stockings learn to swim.

Imagine learning to swim in this outfit. This vintage postcard from the Patt Morrison collection is postmarked 1907 and was addressed to someone in Cleveland, Ohio.

People in heavy beach costumes play in the ocean where a safety rope juts out into the surf.

A vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection was mailed to a recipient in St. Louis in 1907. The sender wrote: “That’s all we have to do out here. Salt water is great.”

People play in the surf and sand. "Surf Bathing in Venice, Cal." the text on the front of the postcard reads.

A postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection, postmarked 1934, shows people in heavy bathing suits holding on to a lifeline in the surf.

Victorian women – that is, ladies, nice ladies – did not often go swimming, at least not in the presence of gentlemen. Queen Victoria, the crowned icon of modesty, was persuaded to use a “bath machine”. It was a combination changing room and trolley where ladies could change their pounds of street clothes for pounds of demure and cumbersome bathing suits. The bathing machine was then rolled or dragged into the surf far enough for the lady to slide straight down the steps and into the water with little risk of being seen so clothed. (She never went too far; the weight of all that clothing could have worn her down.)

In July 1847, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary of her first swim: “… drove down to the beach with my maids and got into the bathing machines, where I undressed and bathed in the sea (for the first time in my life). a very nice bathing woman visiting me.” She didn’t like having her anointed head under water.

Decades earlier, First Lady Martha Washington had visited a mineral spring and submerged in healthy water in a blue and white linen dress with weights at the hem to keep it from floating around her while she floated. Still, the dress – in the Mount Vernon collection – is feather light compared to Victoria’s swim outfit.

Swim machines didn’t really catch on in California, but photos and postcards show the evolution of Californians from surfside to surf swimming.

Initially, women sat on dry sand in suffocatingly layered dresses. Some pulled up their skirts a little to put their bare feet on wet sand. Over time, two- and three-piece black top, pant, and overskirt ensembles that oddly resemble feminized sailor suits made women immerse but didn’t go too far.

About 15 women sit or lie in black dresses and stockings on the sand in front of a classical building

A group of women dressed in black sit on the sand in front of the Long Beach Bath House. This vintage postcard from the Patt Morrison collection is postmarked 1908.

Men in suits and women in dresses and hats gather around a thermometer on the Long Beach sand.

Looks like it was a nice day in Long Beach – about 78 degrees according to this 1907 postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection. The LA Times brand thermometer was characteristic of the way the beach was used for promotions of all kinds.

In 1920, women were given the right to vote and got the urge to throw themselves. The next year, the first Miss America contestants wore flashy one-piece suits that still contained more fabric than a modern office dress. Women decided they wanted to swim, really wanted to swim, and one-piece swimsuits met those practical needs. The modern bikini was created by a French engineer in 1946, and the fabric of the very first was newsprint copied from Le Monde newspaper.

Four women walk in the sand in front of a large beach house

A vintage postcard from the Patt Morrison collection shows beachgoers in front of the home of Hollywood luminary Jesse Lasky. Lasky was one of the founders of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures.

People lie on the strip of sand south of Redondo Beach Pier

The Redondo Beach pier and beach are featured on a postmarked 1941 postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.

The beach represented a kind of public liberty—brazen license, as some people called it—that treated the ocean as a sort of reserved zone for free-wheeling fun not enjoyed at home.

And yet it was a public space that, in practice, was almost always meant for whites—nominally public beaches, nominally public pools.

People swim in a large pool just steps from the Pacific Ocean.

A day at the beach and a day at the pool could be one and the same in Venice. The back of this postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection reads “Sam will try to learn to swim”.

Colorful umbrellas and bathing suits line an expanse of sand and shore, with a jetty and tall buildings in the background

The sands of Long Beach are teeming with beachgoers on this vintage postcard from the Patt Morrison collection.

The Santa Monica waterfront features tall houses and the imposing facade of a beach club

The reverse of this vintage postcard from the Patt Morrison collection reads: “Many fine beach clubs have been established in Santa Monica because of its consistently temperate climate, beautiful coastline and excellent marina.”

In 1926, a black-owned resort was built on seven leased acres on the Orange County coast between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. It was a rare membership club for black Californians and had national attention. But the local Chamber of Commerce and other white citizen groups also took notice and passed futile resolutions to stop it.

Last September, The Times featured Negro Belles[ing] in [a] Badeparade” for about 5,000 picnickers in the unfinished resort. It was probably the first such pageant in the nation.

And when the railroads unexpectedly gave the club legal access across their tracks, it looked like a done deal. The opening was three weeks away when the site was set on fire in January 1926.

I will try to add the postcards of democratized beach demographics to my collection. Now it’s a matter of finding a parking space. These are postcards I would like to see.

In the foreground, two people lie on the wet sand as the sun sets on other bathers and a pier behind them.

A picturesque scene of Long Beach at sunset on an old postcard in the Patt Morrison collection.

Only the legs of two swimmers stick out of the surf. "surf bathing on the pacific," reads the map.

Doesn’t all this talk of beaches make you want to take a dip like these two characters on a vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection? Postcard-perfect beach scenes also reveal some hard truths about Southern California

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