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finely : nantucket bathing, 1884 
Martha Finley : Surf Bathing at Nantucket, 1884.

Extracted from
Finley, Martha: Elsie at Nantucket
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1884.

This account of surfbathing on the East Coast of America circa 1880, while appearing in a work of fiction, appears to contain significant details that indicate the activity was probably witnessed by the author, although given her reported poor health it is unlikely that she personally experienced it..

Finley's story notes that surfbathing is a communal and family activity, is pleasurable and involves a degree of potential danger.
The danger is moderated by the use of fixed lines running out through the surf for the swimmers to hold onto and juveniles are assisted by their elders.
One experienced local, Captain Gorham, positions himself on the beach to observe anyone who is in difficulty, essentially in the role of an unofficial lifeguard.
For the inexperienced, avoiding the dangers of open beach surfbathing, swimming lessons  are carried out in the still water of Nantucket Town.
Also note the range of swimming attire: "there was a great variety of costume, some neat, well-fitting, and modest; some quite immodestly scant; some bright and new; some faded and old."

Finley, Martha, 1828-1909
334 pages.

When it was for a long drive to some notable point, all went together, chartering several vehicles for their conveyance; at other times they not unfrequently broke up into smaller parties, some preferring one sort of sport, some another.

"How many of us are going to bathe to-day?" Mr. Dinsmore asked, the second morning after their arrival.

"I for one, if you will bear me company and look out for my safety," said his wife.

"Most assuredly I will," he answered.
"And you too, Elsie?" turning to his daughter.

"Yes, sir," she said, "if you think you can be burdened with the care of two."

"No, mother," spoke up Edward, quickly; "you and Zoe will be my charge, of course."

"Ridiculous, Ned! of course, Harold and I will take care of mamma," exclaimed Herbert.
"You will have enough to do to look out for your wife's safety."

(The yacht had touched at Cape May and taken the two college students aboard there.)

"I shall be well taken care of," their mother said, laughingly, with an affectionate glance from one to another of her three tall sons; "but I should like one of you to take charge of Rosie, another of Walter; and, in fact, I don't think I need anything for myself but a strong hold of the rope to insure my safety."

"You shall have more!" exclaimed father and sons in a breath; "the surf is heavy here, and we cannot risk your precious life."

Mr. Dinsmore added, "None of you ladies ought to stay in very long, and we will take you in turn."

"Papa, may I go in?" asked Lulu, eagerly.

"Yes; I'll take you in," the captain answered; "but the waves are so boisterous that I doubt if you will care to repeat the experiment.
Max, I see, is waiting his chance to ask the same question," he added, with a fatherly smile directed to the boy; "you may go in too, of course, my son, if you will promise to hold on to the rope.
I cannot think that otherwise you would be safe in that boiling surf."

"But I can swim, papa," said Max; "and won't you let me go with you out beyond the surf, where the water is more quiet?"

"Why yes, you shall," the captain replied, with a look of pleasure; "I did not know that you had learned to swim."

"I don't want to go in," said timid little Grace, as if half fearful it might be required of her.
"Mamma is not going, and can't I stay with her, papa?"

"Certainly, daughter," was the kind reply.
"I suppose you feel afraid of those dashing waves, and I should never think of forcing you in among
them against your will."

Betty Johnson now announced her intention to join the bathers.
"It's the first chance I've ever had," she remarked, "and I shan't throw it away.
I'll hold on to the rope, and if I'm in any danger I suppose Bob, or some of the rest of you, will come to my assistance?"

"Of course we will!" all the gentlemen said, her brother adding, "And if there's a good chance, I'll take you over to Nantucket Town, where there's still-bathing, and teach you to swim."

"Just what I should like," she said.
"I have a great desire to add that to the already large number of my accomplishments."

Miss Betty was a very lively, in fact, quite wild, young lady, whose great desire was for fun and frolic; to have, as she expressed it, "a jolly good time" wherever she went.

The captain drew out his watch.
"About time to don the bathing-suits," he said; "I understand that eleven o'clock is the hour, and it wants but fifteen minutes of it."

Grandma Elsie had kindly seen to it that each little girl - that is, Captain Raymond's two and her own Rosie - was provided with a pretty, neatly-fitting, and becoming bathing dress.

Violet helped Lulu to put her's on, and, surveying her with a smile of gratified motherly pride, told her she looked very well in it, and that she hoped she would enjoy her bath.

"Thank you," said Lulu; "but why don't you go in too, Mamma Vi?"

"Only because I don't feel strong enough to stand up against those heavy waves," Violet answered. "But I am going down to the beach to watch you all, and see that you don't drown," she added, sportively.

"Oh Lu, aren't you afraid to go in?" asked little Grace, half shuddering at the very thought.

"Why no, Gracie; I've bathed in the sea before; I went in a good many times last summer; don't you remember?"

"Yes; but the waves there weren't half so big and strong."

"No; but I'll have a rope and papa, too, to hold to; so why need I be afraid?" laughed Lulu.

"Mamma is, I think," said Grace, looking doubtfully at her.

"Oh no, dear," said Violet; "I should not be at all afraid to go in if I were as strong as usual; but being weak, I know that buffeting with those great waves would do me more harm than good."

Their cottages being so near the beach, our party all assumed their bathing suits before descending to it.
They went down, this first time, all in one company, forming quite a procession; Mr. and Mrs. Dinsmore heading it, and Violet and Grace, as mere spectators, bringing up the rear.

They, in common with others who had nothing to do but look on, found it an amusing scene; there was a great variety of costume, some neat, well-fitting, and modest; some quite immodestly scant; some bright and new; some faded and old.
There was, however, but little freshness and beauty in any of them when they came out of the water.

Violet and Grace found a seat under an awning.
Max came running up to them.

"Papa is going in with Lulu first," he said; "then he will bring her out and take me with him for a swim beyond the breakers.
I'll just wait here with you till my turn comes."

"See, see, they're in the water!" cried Grace; "and oh, what a big, big wave that is coming!
There, it would have knocked Lulu down if papa hadn't had fast hold of her."

"Yes; it knocked a good many others down," laughed Max; "just hear how they are screeching and screaming."

"But laughing, too," said Violet, "as if they find it fine sport."

"Who is that man sitting on that bench nearest the water, and looking just ready to run and help if anybody needs it?" asked Grace.

"Oh, that's Captain Gorham," said Max. "and to run and help if he's needed is exactly what he's there for.
And I presume he always does it; for they say no bather was ever drowned here."

Ten or fifteen minutes later a little dripping figure left the water, and came running toward them.

"Why, it's Lulu," Gracie said, as it drew near, calling out to Max that papa was ready for him.

Max was off like a shot in the direction of the water, and Lulu shouted to her sister, "Oh Gracie, it's such fun!
I wish you had gone, too."

Violet hastened to throw a waterproof cloak about Lulu's shoulders, and bade her hurry to the house, rub hard with a coarse towel, and put on dry clothing.

"I will go with you," she added, "if you wish."

"Oh no, thank you, Mamma Vi," Lulu answered, in a lively, happy tone.
"I can do it all quite well myself, and it must be fun for you to sit here and watch the bathers."

"Well, dear, rub till you are in a glow," Violet said, as the little girl sped on her way.

"Oh mamma, see, see!" cried Grace, more than half frightened at the sight; "papa has gone away, way out, and Maxie with him.
Oh, aren't you afraid they will drown?"

"No, Gracie dear; I think we may safely trust your father's prudence and skill as a swimmer," Violet answered.
"Ah, there come Grandma Rose and my mother; but Zoe and Betty seem to be enjoying it too much to leave yet."

"Mamma, let's stay here till our people all come out; papa and Maxie, any way" Grace said, persuasively.

"Yes; we will if you wish," said Violet. "I was just thinking I must go in to see how baby is doing; but here comes Dinah, bringing her to me."

There was no accident that day, and everybody was enthusiastic in praise of the bathing.
Zoe and Betty would have liked to stay in the water much longer than their escorts deemed prudent, but yielded to their better judgment.

The next morning there was a division of their forces: the Dinsmores, Mrs. Elsie Travilla, Rosie, and Walter, and the Raymonds taking an early start for Nantucket Town, the others remaining behind to enjoy a repetition of the surf bath at 'Sconset.

The Nantucket party drove directly to the bathing house of the town, and the little girls took their first lesson in swimming.
They all thought it "very nice," even Grace soon forgetting her timidity in the quiet water and with her father to take care of her.

The 'Sconset cottages had been engaged only until the first of September, but by that time our friends were so in love with life upon the island that learning of some cottages on the cliffs, a little
north-west of Nantucket Town, which were just vacated and for rent, they engaged two of them and at once moved in.

From their new abodes they had a fine view of the ocean on that side of the island, and from their porches could watch the swift-sailing yachts and other vessels passing to and fro.

The bathing-ground was reached by a succession of stairways built in the face of the cliff.
The surf was fine, and bathing less dangerous there than at 'Sconset.
Those of them who were fond of the sport found it most enjoyable; but the captain took the children into the town almost every day for a lesson in swimming, where the still bathing made it easy for

The evening was bright with the radiance of a full moon and unusually warm for the season; so pleasant was it out of doors that most of our friends preferred the veranda to the cottage parlors, and some of the younger ones were strolling about the town or the beach.

Betty had gone down to the latter place, taking Lulu with her, with the captain's permission, both promising not to go out of sight of home.

"Oh, how lovely the sea is to-night, with the moon shining so brightly on all the little dancing waves!" exclaimed Lulu, as they stood side by side close to the water's edge.

"Yes," said Betty; "doesn't it make you feel like going in?"

"Do people ever bathe at night?" asked Lulu.

"I don't know why they shouldn't," returned her companion.

"It might be dangerous, perhaps," suggested Lulu.

"Why should it?" said Betty; "it's almost as light as day. Oh, Bob, "perceiving her brother close at hand, "don't you want to go in?
I will
if you will go with me."

"I don't care if I do," he answered, after a moment's reflection: "a moonlight bath in the sea would be something out of the common; and there seems to be just surf enough to make it enjoyable."

"Yes; and my bathing-suit is in the bath-house yonder.
I can be ready in
five minutes."

"Can you?
So can I; we'll go in if only for a few minutes.
Won't you go with us, Lulu?"

"I'd like to," she said, "but I can't without leave; and I know papa wouldn't give it, for I had a bath this morning, and he says one a day is quite enough."

"I was in this morning," said Bob; "Betty, too, I think, and--I say, Bet, it strikes me I've heard that it's a little risky to go in at night."

"Not such a night as this, I'm sure, Bob; why, it's as light as day; and if there is danger it can be only about enough to give spice to the undertaking."

With the last word she started for the bath-house, and Bob, not to be outdone in courage, hurried toward another appropriated to his use.

Lulu stood waiting for their return, not at all afraid to be left alone with not another creature in sight on the beach.
Yet the solitude disturbed her as the thought arose that Bob and Betty might be about to put themselves in danger, while no help was at hand for their rescue.
The nearest she knew of was at the cottages on the bluff, and for her to climb those long flights of stairs and give the alarm in case anything went wrong with the venturesome bathers, would be a work of time.

"I'd better not wait for them to get into danger, for they would surely drown before help could reach them," she said to herself, after a moment's thought.
"I'll only wait till I see them really in, and then hurry home to see if somebody can't come down and be ready to help if they should begin to drown."

But as they passed her, presently, on their way to the water, Bob said: "We're trusting you to keep our secret, Lulu; don't tell tales on us."

She made no reply, but thought within herself, "That shows he doesn't think he's doing exactly right. I'm afraid it must be quite dangerous."

But while his remark and injunction increased her apprehensions for them, it also made her hesitate to carry to their friends the news of their escapade till she should see that it brought them into actual
danger and need of assistance.

She watched them tremblingly as they waded slowly out beyond the surf into the smooth, swelling waves, where they began to swim.

For a few moments all seemed to be well; then came a sudden shrill cry from Betty, followed by a hoarser one from Bob, which could mean nothing else than fright and danger.

For an instant Lulu was nearly paralyzed with terror; but rousing herself by a determined effort, she shouted at the top of her voice, "Don't give up; I'll go for help as fast as ever I can," and instantly
set off for home at her utmost speed.

"Help, help! they'll drown, oh, they'll drown!" she screamed as she ran.

Harold, who was in the act of descending the last flight of stairs, saw her running toward him, and heard her cry, though the noise of the surf prevented his catching all the words.

"What's the matter?" he shouted, clearing the remainder of the flight at a bound.

"Betty, Bob--drowning!" she cried, without slackening her speed, "I'm going for help."

He waited, to hear no more, but sped on toward the water; and only pausing to divest himself of his outer clothing, plunged in, and, buffeting with the waves, made his way as rapidly as possible toward the struggling forms, which, by the light of the moon, he could dimly discern at some distance from the shore.

Faint cries for help and the gleam of Betty's white arm, as for an instant she raised it above the wave, guided him to the spot.

Harold was an excellent swimmer, strong and courageous; but he had undertaken a task beyond his strength, and his young life was very near falling a sacrifice to the folly of his cousins and his own generous impulse to fly to their aid.

Both Bob and Betty were already so nearly exhausted as to be scarcely capable of doing anything to help themselves, and in their mad struggle for life caught hold of him and so impeded his movements that he was like to perish with them.

Mean while Lulu had reached the top of the cliff, then the veranda where the older members of the family party were seated, and, all out of breath with fright and the exertion of climbing and running, she faltered out, "Bob and Betty; they'll drown if they don't get help quickly."

"What, are they in the water?" cried Mr. Dinsmore and Captain Raymond, simultaneously springing to their feet; the latter adding, "I fear they'll drown before we can possibly get help to them."

"Oh, yes; they're drowning now," sobbed Lulu; "but Harold's gone to help them."

"Harold? He's lost if he tries it alone!"
"The boy's mad to think of such a thing!" exclaimed Mr. Dinsmore and Edward in a breath, while
Elsie's cheek turned deathly pale, and her heart went up in an agonized cry that her boy's life might be spared; the others also.

The gentlemen held a hasty consultation, then scattered, Mr. Dinsmore hastening in search of other aid, while Captain Raymond and Edward hurried to the beach, the ladies following with entreaties to them to be careful.

But fortunately for the endangered ones, other aid had already reached them - a boat that had come out from Nantucket for a moonlight sail, and from the shore a noble Newfoundland dog belonging to a retired sea captain.
Strolling along the beach with his master, he heard the cries for help, saw the struggling forms, and instantly plunging in among the waves, swam to the rescue.

Seizing Betty by the hair, he held her head above water till the sailboat drew near and strong arms caught hold of her and dragged her in, pale, dripping, and seemingly lifeless.

They then picked up the young men, both entirely unconscious, and made for the shore with all possible haste.

It was doubtful if the last spark of life had not been extinguished in every one of the three; but the most prompt, wise, and vigorous measures were instantly taken and continued for hours - hours of agonizing suspense to those who loved them.

At length Bob gave unmistakable signs of life; and shortly after Betty sighed, opened her eyes, and asked, feebly, "Where am I? what has happened?"

But Harold still lay as one dead, and would have been given up as such had not his mother clung to hope, and insisted that the efforts at restoration should be continued.

Through the whole trying scene she had maintained an unbroken calmness of demeanor, staying herself upon her God, lifting her heart to His throne in never-ceasing petitions, and in the midst of her bitter grief and anxiety rejoicing that if her boy were taken from her for a time, it would be but to exchange the trials and cares of earth for the joys of heaven; and the parting from him here would soon be followed by a blissful reunion in that blessed land where sin and sorrow and suffering can never enter.

But at length, when their efforts were rewarded so that he breathed and spoke, and she knew that he was restored to her, the reaction came.

She had given him a gentle, tender kiss, had seen him fall into a natural, refreshing sleep, and passing from his bedside into an adjoining room, she fainted in her father's arms.

"My darling, my dear, brave darling!" he murmured, as he laid her down upon a couch and bent over her in tenderest solicitude, while Mrs. Dinsmore hastened to apply restoratives.

It was not a long faint; she presently opened her eyes and lifted them with a bewildered look up into her father's face.

"What is it, papa?" she murmured; "have I been ill?"

"Only a short faint," he answered. "But you must be quite worn out."

"Oh, I remember!" she cried. "Harold, my dear son--"

"Is doing well, love.
And now I want you to go to your bed and try to get some rest.
See, day is breaking, and you have had no sleep, no rest."

"Nor have you, papa; do go and lie down; but I must watch over my poor boy," she said, trying to rise from the couch.

"Lie still," he said, gently detaining her; "lie here, if you are not willing to go to your bed.
I am better able to sit up than you are, and will see to Harold."

"His brothers are with him, mamma," said Zoe, standing by; "and Edward says they will stay beside him as long as they are needed."

"Then you and I will both retire and try to take some rest, shall we not?" Mr. Dinsmore asked, bending over Elsie and softly smoothing her hair.

"Yes, papa; but I must first take one peep at the dear son so nearly lost to me."

He helped her to rise; then she perceived that Captain Raymond and Violet were in the room.

"Dearest mamma," said the latter, coming forward to embrace her, "how glad I am that you are better, and our dear Harold spared to us!"
She broke down in sobs and tears.

"Yes, my child; oh, let us thank the Lord for His great goodness!
But this night has been quite too much for you.
Do you go at once and try to get some rest."

"I shall see that she obeys, mother," the captain said, in a tenderly sportive tone, taking Elsie's hand and lifting it to his lips.

"I think I may trust you," she returned, with a faint smile. "You were with Bob; how is he now?"

"Doing as well as possible under the circumstances; as is Betty also; you need trouble your kind heart with no fear or care for them."

It had been a terrible night to all the family - the children the only ones who had taken any rest or sleep - and days of nursing followed before the three who had so narrowly escaped death were restored to their wonted health and strength.

Mr. and Mrs. Dinsmore and Elsie devoted themselves to that work, and were often assisted in it by Zoe, Edward, and Herbert.

Harold was quite a hero with these last and with Max and Lulu; in fact, with all who knew or heard of his brave deed, though he modestly disclaimed any right to the praises heaped upon him, asserting that he had done no more than any one with common courage and humanity would have done in his place.

Bob and Betty were heartily ashamed of their escapade, and much sobered at the thought of their narrow escape from sudden death.
Both dreaded the severe reproof they had reason to expect from their uncle, but he was very forbearing, and thinking the fright and suffering entailed by their folly sufficient to deter them from a repetition of it, kindly refrained from lecturing them on the subject, though, when a suitable
opportunity offered, he did talk seriously and tenderly, with now one and now the other, on the guilt and danger of putting off repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, reminding them that they had had a very solemn warning of the shortness and uncertainty of life, and asking them to consider the question whether they were ready for a sudden call into the immediate presence of their Judge.

Finley, Martha: Elsie at Nantucket
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1880-1884

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Geoff Cater (2009) : Martha Finley : Surf Bathing at Nantucket, 1884.


The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1994, Volume 40, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Letters Written from San Diego County, 1879-1880
by Rufus Morgan, North Carolina Apiarist and Photographer

June 1, 1879 -- Sunday Morning,Glen Oak Apiary - Cal.

Dear Mary --

Its been a whole week since I wrote you last and during that time I took a trip to the seashore & took a dip in the surf of the Pacific. La Jolla, (pronounced La Hoe-a) is a barren cliff -- with no houses -- 15 miles from here & the action of the tides and stones have worn immense caverns into it -- something about like Bat Cave only not so large, but full of all kinds of weird fantastic shapes.19 Its a most delightful place to spend a day & [I] will take you there the first thing after you come.