Friday, April 26, 2024 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Frolicking in the ocean surf is today a familiar activity along South Carolina beaches, but recreational swimming was a novelty in centuries past. “Surf bathing” first achieved local popularity on Sullivan’s Island in the early 1800s, when the proprietors of oceanfront resorts began providing amenities like “bathing machines” to encourage timid swimmers. While the dearth of appropriate swimwear rendered skinny dipping a constant complaint, a rising tide of ocean tourism during the 1850s drew legions of Lowcountry residents and visitors to the island’s beautiful front beach.

Today’s program continues a thread from earlier episodes about various historical strategies to beat the heat of a Lowcountry summer (see Episodes No. 261 and No. 262). Bathing and swimming in general were not widely practiced here in the eighteenth century, but Enlightenment-era studies gradually convinced residents that periodic immersion in water was conducive to good health. Those who could not afford to add a bathing room or bathing house to their private residences in the early nineteenth century could pay to use a private bathing tub at a one of several commercial establishments in urban Charleston. Persons with limited resources and fewer inhibitions could resort to bathing outdoors at a variety of river locations around the peninsular city and beyond.

Splashing in the surf at a local beach, however, was not a popular activity in the early generations of this region. Many but not all of the barrier islands along the seacoast of South Carolina were used for plantation agriculture in previous centuries, hosting communities of enslaved people of African descent and a much smaller number of free white residents. Most white Carolinians of that era, even those in maritime employment, never learned to swim, and had no traditional appetite for ocean recreation. Some members of the enslaved majority, on the other hand, shared memories of recreational swimming among the rivers and coastal islands of West Africa. Given an opportunity to cavort on the deserted beachfront of a sparsely-populated barrier island, Black Carolinians, we might imagine, could have played in the surf and enjoyed a few moments of boundless joy. Their experiences were generally not recorded for posterity, so we can only speculate about the frequency with which enslaved people in the Lowcountry enjoyed beach access before the Civil War.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, “sea bathing” or “surf bathing,” as it was generally known, became one of the most fashionable summer activities among the free people of Europe and the Americas. The force driving this change at home and abroad was a powerful trans-Atlantic cultural trend that we now call Romanticism. In response to the rising tide of technology, commerce, and artifice during the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, many people developed a profound respect for the wild, uncontrollable elements of the natural world. Individuals influenced by the spirit of Romanticism came to revere aspects of nature that their predecessors had once feared and avoided. While Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century sought to measure, describe, and rationalize the natural world with scientific objectivity, Romantics of the early nineteenth century embraced the inherent mystery of natural phenomenon they considered sublime—that is, things that were so profoundly vast as to defy human understanding or measurement. The Milky Way, for example, forms a sublime canopy over the night sky, under which we find a host of sublime features like mountains, waterfalls, canyons, and, of course, the oceans.

Whereas Charlestonians of the late eighteenth century gradually adopted the practice of bathing as a rational means of promoting good health, the influence of Romanticism led bathers of the early nineteenth century to crave a more subjective and sensual version of the same activity. Within the relative safety of shallow ocean surf, antebellum bathers could surrender their rational minds and tired bodies to the sublime power of the endless waves. Activities like splashing, floating, running, and diving were not merely child’s play, but a cathartic escape from the stress and anxieties of an increasingly modern lifestyle. It was a chance to be a bit wild, and to remember that we are animals living in a material world.

Sullivan’s Island was the logical place for the earliest-known experiments with Romantic surf bathing in the Charleston area. Reserved for government quarantine rather than plantation agriculture during much of South Carolina’s early history, the island fronts both the Atlantic Ocean and Charleston Harbor, rendering it both attractive and accessible to would-be bathers from urban Charleston. The state legislature in 1791 authorized free white men to begin constructing summer cottages near Fort Moultrie for the seasonal use of their families and enslaved servants, but, as I described in Episode No. 258, withheld the right of private citizens to own the sandy soil under their island homes. A handful of businesses also appeared along the southwest end of Sullivan’s Island around the turn of the nineteenth century, providing supplies, services, and entertainment for the seasonal residents and visitors. Among the earliest were relatively modest boarding houses that boasted of their proximity to the island’s front beach and the continuous sea breeze.

Few explicit references to surf bathing on Sullivan’s Island survive from the early years of the nineteenth century, but later evidence demonstrates that residents Black and White enjoyed at least occasional dips in the sea and periodically offended their neighbors. The growing community of residences and shops, known collectively as Moultrieville by 1798, was incorporated by the state government in 1817. Immediately thereafter, the nascent town council began creating ordinances to regulate the small and mostly seasonal population. Among the earliest laws was an ordinance first published in 1824, specifying that “no adult person” was permitted “to bathe openly and naked, in the waters contiguous to the beach after sun-rise, or until two hours after sun-set.” The penalty for a white person caught skinny-dipping in the light of day was three dollars (approximately $72 today). If the nude offender was an enslaved servant, however, he or she was to be whipped at the discretion of the local magistrate unless their white owner paid the aforementioned fine.[1]

Newspaper advertisements published during the 1820s provide more robust evidence of the sea-bathing habits of Sullivan’s Island residents. In the summer of 1820, for example, Mrs. Ann Bering, proprietor of a boarding house during the early years of the nineteenth century, attracted clients by highlighting the attractions of her “Bathing House” located “on the front beach, opposite the church”—that is, somewhere on the east side of Fort Moultrie. In the summer of 1821, she advised prospective customers that “the Bathing Machine will be on the beach, opposite Grace Church, from sun-rise till evening.”[2] Mrs. Bering’s 1821 notice represents the earliest-known local reference to a ubiquitous feature of most seaside resorts of the nineteenth century. A “bathing machine” was not a mechanical washtub, but an enclosed wagon-like vehicle, drawn by horse power, used to convey bathers (usually women) down the beach and well into the surf. A fully-clothed bather could step into the windowless vehicle and change into swimming attire while travelling towards the sea, then step from the rear door down a set of steps directly into the water. Such contraptions were first popularized at seaside resorts in England during the last quarter of the eighteenth century and spread to the United States in the early 1800s.

Despite the popularity of bathing machines at seaside resorts in Old England, New England, and in Europe, locals apparently did not embrace their use on Sullivan’s Island or elsewhere in the Charleston area. Ann Bering’s 1821 mention of a bathing machine represents a rare Lowcountry reference to a device more commonly associated with bathing in cold waters fronting stony beaches in Northern latitudes with a greater tidal fluctuation than in South Carolina. In contrast, the residents and visitors to subtropical Moultrieville evidently preferred to stroll down the soft, sandy beach and wade directly into the warm Atlantic surf. Alternatively, one might conjecture that the sea-bathers of early nineteenth century Sullivan’s Island were perhaps less inhibited and more Romantically inclined than their Northern neighbors, preferring the more direct and sublime experience of frolicking freely among the foamy waves. Such invigorating diversion might have sharpened the Romantic imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, a young soldier stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island during the summer of 1828, who likely spent a portion of his leisure hours sporting and perhaps skinny dipping with comrades in the nearby surf.

The warm waters and cooling breeze of a summer on Sullivan’s Island drew swarms of local bathers in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, but the most affluent and fashion-conscience residents migrated northward during the hot season to bustling seaside resorts like Old Point Comfort, Virginia, Cape May, New Jersey, Newport, Rhode Island, and Nahant, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1845, for example, a Charlestonian summering in Rhode Island waxed favorably about his seaside experience: “There is no luxury equal to sea bathing at Newport. There are one hundred and twenty bathing cars on the beach, which, at 10 o’clock, A.M., are rolled to the water’s edge. The ladies, attended by their male relations and companions, then go down and prepare for the bath in the cars. The ladies wear a long skirt and Turkish trousers, and an oil-skin cap or straw hat. The gentleman who attend them are attired in red or blue flannel jackets and dark trousers. The various parties go in, hand in hand, and sport, like dolphins, in the waves. Everyone enjoys the fun, and is enlivened and invigorated by it.” When “the red flag is hoisted,” however, “denoting that the ladies have quit the bathing ground,” the Charleston visitor noted that the gentlemen bathers at Newport “bear their limbs in the briny waves, unencumbered by bathing attire.”[3]

The local popularity of salt-water bathing increased during the 1840s as new facilities and new attitudes tempted the Lowcountry’s wealthiest residents to consider spending their summers near home. Plans for the construction of a large bathing house along the southern edge of White Point Garden in 1842 inspired one Charlestonian to compare the advantages of saltwater swimming versus a freshwater bath in a tub. “The one gives life and health, vigor and enjoyment,” opined an anonymous correspondent, while “the other can do no more than cool the body, without any excitement of the mind, or animation of the spirits.” “Sea bathing,” he continued, “is not only full of enjoyment to swimmers, and of life-giving power to invalids, but it is a most salutary substitute for pure air itself. In a climate like ours, where we are always liable to malignant diseases, and the prevalence of fatal epidemics, during the summer season, it is well known that the systematic practice of sea bathing would do more to counteract the effect of an unwholesome atmosphere, and to prevent the attacks of fatal maladies, than any thing that has ever yet been discovered by the wit of man.”[4]

After a half-century of small hotels and boarding houses on Sullivan’s Island, a plan to build a large, first-class resort coalesced in the autumn of 1849. Investors formed a company, hired an architect to draft a plan, and commenced construction before the dawn of 1850, despite the fact that the State of South Carolina continued to own the land on which the hotel stood.[5] The Moultrie House Hotel, facing the island’s front beach, slightly to the east of Fort Moultrie, opened to visitors on 8 July 1850. Descriptions of its exterior and interior configuration appeared in print months before the grand opening, however, in an effort to attract visitors from near and far. The hotel was a long, narrow wooden structure standing on brick piers, 284 feet across. A two-story piazza, fourteen feet wide, wrapped around the entire structure, which hosted nearly a hundred guest rooms, numerous parlors, dining rooms, billiard room, bowling alley, and a grand ballroom. The resort also featured several detached structures, including “on the west wing, is a Bathing House 40 by 54 feet, with private apartments, and laticed [sic] on all sides. The basin is of concrete, and will contain 5 feet water, which is supplied from the surf, by a pump worked by a wind mill.”[6]

At its opening in July 1850, the proprietor of the Moultrie House reminded the public that steamboats plied hourly between Charleston and Sullivan’s Island, where “a beautiful beach extends for miles, affording ample space for promenading, driving and riding, and admirably adapted for serf [sic] bathing.”[7] Numerous advertisements in subsequent months described the hotel’s various amenities in detail and promoted its advantages in comparison with the most popular resorts at Northern beaches:

“In addition to the opportunity for surf-bathing, a complete suite of plunge and shower baths have been erected. Every delicacy that the season and climate can afford, will be supplied, and it will only be necessary on this subject to say that the culinary department will be under the charge of John Lee, so long and favorably known as a caterer in our community. An extensive livery stable has been established on the premises by Mr. B. Carroll, who will afford every facility for enjoying riding and drives on the extensive and beautiful beach. A fine band will be in attendance to furnish music for evening and dancing parties. With such advantages, and a determination to leave nothing undone on his part to ensure comfort and pleasure to his visitors, the proprietor hopes for the patronage of those who are desirous of enjoying in our own Southern land all the benefits which can be afforded by a journey to the North.”[8]

A curious example of antebellum marketing flowed from the pen of local writer William Gilmore Simms, who published (anonymously) in 1850 a short story set at the new Sullivan’s Island resort, titled Flirtation at the Moultrie House. The brief story, which unfolds as a series of letters written by fictional guests at the hotel, is really a thinly-veiled informercial designed to highlight the resort’s attractions and demonstrate the gay gentility of its affluent clientele. Consider, for example, the following Romantic excerpt from the first letter, written by Miss Georgiana Appleby, a young Georgia belle writing to her girlfriend, Sophronia, back home:

“The place, itself, far exceeds my expectations. We reached Charleston on Tuesday, and the very next day came to the Island. And O! the sea, my Sophronia, the blue, the bright, the ever boundless sea! You know that my eyes had never before beheld the ocean. I was overwhelmed by the sight. It is beyond description. It is a power to be felt and feared, and loved, and worshipped, but hardly to be spoken of. The Moultrie House opens its great doors directly upon it. The big billows roll directly up to its portals, and subside in the sweetest murmurs and chidings at its feet. At high tide, the water spreads up and away to within a hundred yards of the entrance, and if you wish to enjoy the embraces of the Atlantic, in vulgar speech, take a sea bath, you can do so with a ‘hop, skip and jump,’ such as we learned to take when little ignorant school girls, at dear old Athens. I have already been in several times, with twenty others; and O! such rolling and rocking, such tumblings and tryings to swim in the shallowest places. There is no sort of danger. The shore slopes gradually down, and all you do is to run out and meet the breakers, which come in curling and falling over, one upon the back of the other, turning you over on your back also, and making you scramble and sprawl about, in the most comical manner, to get on your feet again. It is delicious frolicking, I tell you.”[9]

Another of Simms’ fictional characters at the Moultrie House in the summer of 1850 was Tom Appleby, cousin of fair Georgiana, who informed a boon companion back home that western resorts were no competition for the seaside:

“That cock won’t fight. I have had enough of the mountains. This sea-shore is new to me, and so long as it keeps comfortable at this place, so long I stay; at all events while hot weather lasts. Here, I have as good cock-tails as the heart could desire, and as pleasant a game of whist as would please old Billy Harris. Sea-bathing I relish monstrously. It is perfectly glorious to rollick among the great breakers, and dash through seas of foam. You know that I pride myself upon my swimming; but, if I could do the thing famously in fresh-water, I do it ten times as well in salt. I am, here, sword-fish, shark, and porpoise, at the same moment; and execute such plunges in the Atlantic as would astonish a Hoosier with the idea of such a fish as never swam in the Mississippi. I don’t go to any mountains, I tell you.”

Simms’ brief Flirtation at the Moultrie House ends, rather abruptly, with a description of a grand costume ball at the seaside resort, in which all the characters converge to flirt and drink and dance beyond midnight. Tom Appleby’s letter to a fictional uncle in Georgia, posted after the opulent ball, confirms his new-found love of the sea and demonstrates the continued preference for skinny dipping by moonlight on the island: “The ball, let me tell you, was a huckleberry much above my percimmon [sic]. I never saw anything like it before. . . . We did not break up till three o’clock in the morning, and then a dozen of us took to the beach, and stripping for the sea, had a glorious buffeting for twenty minutes with the breakers. I got to bed at day light.”[10]

In contrast to the Romantic descriptions of liberal sea-bathing in William Gilmore Simms’ short story of 1850, a review of the Moultrie House Hotel in a business journal of January 1851 stated that the resort afforded “facilities for bathing (by means of covered vehicles constructed for the purpose) to those who are disposed for a bath at any time in the surf.”[11] A few four-wheeled “bathing machines” might have been available during the resort’s early years, but further references to their use on Sullivan’s Island are now obscure. At the same time, other mid-nineteenth century sources suggest that locals preferred to engage the sea more directly, and to gambol among the waves unincumbered by the conservative bathing costumes of that era. In July 1852, for example, the proprietors of the sailing packet Cinderella advertised to carry passengers on a “Moonlight Sea Bathing Excursion.” For twenty-five cents, Charlestonians could board the Cinderella at the east end of Market Street at half-past 8 p.m. and sail directly to an anchorage near the front beach of Sullivan’s Island. This Romantic booze cruise, noted the advertisements, afforded customers “a fine opportunity to those who are fond of surf bathing and moonlight sailing,” and returned them to the sweltering city around midnight.[12]

The inviting beach and cooling sea breeze drew increasing numbers of visitors to Sullivan’s Island during the 1850s, but the local economy continued to suffer from the seasonal migration of affluent Southerners to Northern resorts. To counter this fashionable habit in the spring of 1854, the proprietor of the Moultrie House Hotel published a pre-emptive essay to remind the public of the island’s numerous advantages:

“The breezes which toy and dally with the Moultrie House flag, are as pure, refreshing and life giving, as any that sweep over old ocean, breathing new life into the languid frame, and deepening the hues of health on the cheek of beauty. Our beach too, on Sullivan’s Island, is a feature of which we may boast, and which we can heartily commend, combining as it does, advantages that cannot be surpassed by any watering place along our long indented shores. For walking, driving or riding, it offers noble inducements, that need only be seen to be fully appreciated. For sea-bathing, also, the advantages of our island home are generally admitted by all who have tested them. Within the distance to which any would be tempted to venture, no treacherous holes are found, and no sharks intrude—the visitor has indeed the freedom of the seas, and the feeble invalid, or the timid youth may disport at pleasure.”[13]

The business of beach tourism on Sullivan’s Island suffered a major setback later the same year, however, when a powerful hurricane swept across the Lowcountry on 8 September 1854. The cyclonic winds and elevated storm surge obliterated a number of houses and damaged others beyond repair. Eyewitnesses reported that sea swept over the entirety of the island, with the sole exception of a small sand hill to the east of Fort Moultrie. Surging waves scoured away much of the island’s front beach and dislodged several of the brick piers supporting the Moultrie House. The bathing house at the west end of the grand hotel, with its indoor swimming pool, suffered permanent damage, and the gale destroyed the windmill that pumped seawater into the cement-lined pool.[14]

Contractors and enslaved laborers rehabilitated the Moultrie House and its grounds before the summer of 1855, when the resort reopened under a new proprietor. Colorful advertisements endorsing the hotel and describing its amenities continued for several more years. The island’s front beach and inviting surf played a prominent role in luring antebellum visitors to the Moultrie House, as seen in the following excerpt printed in June 1857:

“For invalids—or gay people who have been dancing and talking themselves weak—what [is] more invigorating than a ‘battle with the waves’ in the mild form of surf-bathing; and when tastes differ, there is every variety of bath. For those who prefer sand-baths, there is any depth of water, from one inch to ten; bold bathers may wrestle with the splendid breakers; and for expert swimmers, there is the sea. For walkers, riders and drivers, a noble beach. . . . Romantic souls can try it by moonlight, when all the poetry and sentiment in their natures must awake; for moonlight on the sea and beach of Sullivan’s Island cannot be surpassed, and mountain scenery is tame and monotonous by comparison.”[15]

My favorite description of antebellum surf bathing at Sullivan’s Island appeared in the Charleston Daily Courier in the summer of 1858. An anonymous reporter, evidently an educated family man residing in urban Charleston, lamented that he was unable to follow the fashionable trend of going Northward for the summer. Instead, he determined to support the local economy and make a brief sojourn of a day and a night at the nearby Moultrie House. After crossing the harbor aboard the steamboat Osiris and landing at the cove of Sullivan’s Island, the anonymous traveler traversed the small distance to the seaside hotel aboard the short-lived Moultrie House Railroad. Although the midday meal was on the table at the time of his arrival, the inviting ocean view from the hotel’s broad piazza proved stronger than his appetite:

“There is not much space to the hour of dinner, but here is an occasion which must be improved. For the tide waits for no man—not even for you. You must have a bath, though the sun be hotter than you like, and the soup cool for your delay. Quickly then divested of your uncomfortable everyday armor, you are arrayed in the flannel [bathing suit] which John [probably an enslaved servant] has set ready to your hands. You see to it that the fastenings are strong; and, with a broad protection for the head, rush down to the shore of the much-blustering sea. . . . Into the surf you haste with your companion bathers; you can swim, and you are willing it should be known; you lay yourself out,—in fact, you spread yourself; you give your cheek to the cuff of the rough-breaking waves; you think of Grace Greenwood’s swimming song, Byron’s apostrophe to the Ocean [from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage], and other verses pleasant and sublime, and so disport yourself and cut such fantastic tricks before high heaven as is not to be described by the pen of any ready writer whatsoever. A bath on the beach of Sullivan’s Island is a very good thing.”[16]

The Moultrie House was the epicenter of surf bathing culture in the Lowcountry at the middle of the nineteenth century, but its decline commenced with the first shots of the Civil War. The hotel was damaged by cannon fire from Fort Sumter in April 1861, then used as a barracks for Confederate troops during the remainder of the war. When civilian tourists began to venture to Sullivan’s Island after the end of the war of 1865, they found a militarized beachfront and a pile of rubble where the grand hotel once stood. Residents and visitors to the islanders no doubt continued to plunge into the surf during hot summer days and nights, but post-war poverty suppressed beach tourism for several subsequent years.

Although the continuation of government restrictions precluding land ownership on Sullivan’s Island discouraged commercial investment after the Civil War, Charlestonians began streaming back to the island in larger numbers in the 1870s. Their antics in the surf and on the beach form a new chapter in local bathing history, however, which continues into the twentieth century. We’ll save that colorful and partially-clothed narrative for a hot summer’s day in the future. In the meantime, I hope you’ll recall the early history of surf bathing the next time you stroll along one of South Carolina’s many glorious beaches. We think nothing today of splashing and cavorting among the gentle waves, activities that perpetuate an adventurous Romantic spirit that propelled our ancestors into the mighty sea.


[1] Charleston Courier, 11 September 1824, page 2, “Mr. Willington.”

[2] Courier, 28 July 1820, page 2, “Sullivan’s Island Bathing-House”;  Courier, 31 May 1821, page 2, “Sullivan’s Island.”

[3] Courier, 29 August 1845, page 2, “Correspondence of the Courier. Newport, (R.I.) Aug. 23, 1845.”

[4] Charleston Mercury, 18 February 1842, page 2, “For the Mercury”; emphasis original.

[5] Courier, 1 October 1849, page 2, “Hotel on Sullivan’s Island”; Courier, 1 April 1850, page 3, “Moultrie House—Sullivan’s Island.” The “Moultrie House Company” was incorporated by “An Act to incorporate certain societies and companies, and to revive and amend certain charters heretofore granted,” ratified on 20 December 1850, in South Carolina General Assembly, The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 12 (Columbia, S.C.: Republican Printing Company, 1874), 22–24. The final sentence of Section XVI specifies that “nothing in this act of incorporation shall be construed to conflict with the rights of the State to the land on which the Moultrie House is now built.”

[6] Courier, 8 May 1850, page 3, “The Moultrie House—Sullivan’s Island.”

[7] Courier, 29 June 1850, page 3, “Moultrie House—Sullivan’s Island.”

[8] Courier, 25 March 1851, page 3, Moultrie House—Sullivan’s Island.”

[9] William Gilmore Simms, Flirtation at the Moultrie House: In a Series of Letters from Miss Georgiana Appleby, to Her Friends in Georgia, Showing the Doings at the Moultrie House, and the Events Which Took Place at the Grand Costume Ball, on the 29th August, 1850; With Other Letters (Charleston, Edward C. Councell, 1850), 5–6. See digital copy on the website of the Simms Initiatives at USC.

[10] Simms, Flirtation at the Moultrie House, 16, 18–19.

[11] “Summer Resorts at the South,” Debow’s Southern and Western Review 10 (January 1851), 83.

[12] Courier, 31 July 1852, page 3, “Moonlight Sea Bathing Excursion!”

[13] Courier, 3 May 1854, page 2, “The Moultrie House.”

[14] Courier, 11 September 1854, page 2, “The late Gale—Its Effects.”

[15] Mercury, 2 June 1857, page 2, “The Moultrie House.”

[16] Courier, 9 August 1858, page 2, “A Day and Night at the Island.”


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