Nantasket Beach Wear
By Diane DeBlois
Nantasket Beach has been a popular destination since the Plymouth Colony founded a trading post there for commerce with the Wampanoags in 1621. Other early remunerative ventures including salvaging shipwrecks – for the coast off the Nantasket peninsula (at the southern edge of island-filled Boston harbor) was fiercely hazardous. Rescue operations were expanded in 1889 with a U.S. Life Saving Station.
But the soft grey sand makes it one of the finest beaches in New England for swimming and that is how Nantasket promoted itself in the second half of the 19th century. Illustrated is a chromolithograph by Forbes Company of Boston for the 1881 timetable of the special railroad (just completed, feeding into the South Shore Line) and the Boston & Hingham Steamboat Company that served the resort hotels: the Pemberton (just completed the year before) and the Nantasket. The railroad still stopped at the Old Colony House station but the 1832 hotel had burned in 1872 and, although there were plans by Bradlee and Winslow published in this very year of 1881, the hotel wasn’t rebuilt.
The image of a muscular male swimmer gazing at the charms of a scantily-clad female drew attention to one of the perquisites of a beach vacation. But swimwear featured in another aspect of Nantasket Beach. Because the beach itself was, and is, private – called the “Nantasket Beach Reservation” of the Metropolitan Park Commission of Masssachusetts – bathing permits were issued to residents. We have one for 1903, number 626 issued to H. F. Wilson, a resident of Hull. Until September 15, he was allowed to freely cross the Reservation “in bathing costume” wearing a tag “fastened in plain sight on the bathing suit” for which he had to pay a deposit of ten cents. “Bathing suits must conform to the requirements of the Commission and in crossing the driveway a suitable outside covering shall be worn.”
We know from Mr. Wilson’s great-grandson that he didn’t just have swimming on his mind when he applied for a permit. He had just started a small rowboat service to carry goods from Hull to Hingham and wanted a stop at Nantasket Beach – perhaps to pick up ice cream.
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