Surfers are scrawling their signatures into the glassy waves at Santa Monica Beach. A mother rubs suntan lotion onto her baby's alabaster cheeks as an elderly jogger runs past barefoot in the wet sand. A homeless man sleeps nearby, sweating in the hot sun.
Robert Ritchie takes a deep breath and surveys this typical Southern California beach scenario--part interested spectator, part historian, part social scientist.
He's in his laboratory, you know.
Ritchie, a 58-year-old native of Scotland, avid body surfer and director of research at the Huntington Library in San Marino, has of late become a learned professor of the beach. Sand between his toes, he is writing a book on a topic most Angelenos take for granted:
Beach-going. Sunbathing. Wave crashing.
To hear Ritchie tell it, his project is the history of "the changing attitudes toward water, bathing and the body itself." Or, in other words, a scholarly look at the European ancestors of oceanside skateboarders, nude bathers and surfer dudes.
"Most people take going to the beach for granted," says Ritchie, trudging through the sand beneath the Santa Monica Pier. "But a trip to the beach hasn't always been one of life's universal pleasures. It has a history. It's developed as part of our popular culture."
Ritchie will share his research at a presentation at the Huntington Library May 28. He will discuss how most men swam nude right up until the turn of the century. And how our present-day beach-going practices date back to the English--who discovered that a romp in the cold waters of the North Sea had certain therapeutic qualities.
He will talk about how modern beach worship has its roots in 17th century England as outings for the wealthy. Before the advent of good roads, he says, commoners either couldn't reach the beach or were petrified of setting foot in the water once they got there.
Ritchie, who looks more comfortable in a suit and tie than Hawaiian-print swimming trunks, has spent most of his career in quiet research libraries, far from the crashing surf.
Raised in Los Angeles, he received his Ph.D in history at UCLA and spent 23 years in San Diego as a professor and, finally, as an associate chancellor at UC San Diego.
Specializing in early American history, he wrote and edited books on such topics as the politics of 17th century New York. Then, while researching a book called "Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates," he unearthed a fascinating fact:
Seventeenth century pirates, as most mariners of the day, were afraid of the water.
"Pirates didn't swim," he said. "Being that the ocean was opaque, they couldn't see what was in it. There were superstitions about monsters and leviathans and other unthinkable and deadly garbage of the deep."
That got him thinking about "how we got from there to the modern perception of water and the beach as a place for sunshine, relaxation, picnics, Roller-blading, volleyball."
So the professor once again hit the books, immersing himself in the library, examining paintings, diaries and other historical research.
He learned that Benjamin Franklin was an avid ocean swimmer who promoted the benefits of his chosen pursuit. In the 1600s, doctors in Great Britain began to prescribe both drinking and bathing in seawater--cold seawater--as being good for one's health.
Beach-going soon became the rage for affluent Europeans from the English Channel to the Baltic Sea. But the upper classes didn't swim, they merely took a quick plunge. And they plunged naked.
"They devised a horse-drawn barrel that was backed into the water," Ritchie said. "People took off their clothes inside and then went naked for a quick plunge. But they got right out again, and redressed inside the barrel."
Eventually, Ritchie said, resorts were built with promenades and social halls. "Since people only took a five minute dip, they had to find other things to do with the 23 hours and 55 minutes of the day."
When better roads came along, commoners throughout Europe found their way to the beach. "And that," Ritchie said, "threw the established social rules out the window."
In 19th century America, mostly in the northeast, beach-going evolved as a way for the working class to wildly cast off the tensions of their big city lives with some fresh ocean air.
Ritchie knows. He has seen period paintings of raucous beach behavior--street performers and dancing girls, gambling addicts and even horse racing. For women, the first bathing suits were heavy woolen suits not much different that regular attire. Men still swam naked.
Not until about 1900 did bathing suits become the universal American beach garb--for men and women.
Eventually, the beach played a role in the shedding of female modesty. Women emerged on the sand with a leg-revealing two-piece suit in the 1930s and continued paring down their beach attire with the advent of the bikini.
Since the 1880s, Southern California, with its generous waves and body-sculpting culture, has developed its own version of a day at the beach--with its athletic wave-riders, in-line skaters and other surfside denizens going long hours under the sun without ever touching the water, the professor said.
But history repeats itself--even beach history.
Superstition of the water has turned into healthy scientific skepticism.
"Right here in Santa Monica, people are afraid of the water again," Ritchie said, looking north toward Malibu, where a sewage spill temporarily dirtied the water this past week.
"There's red tides, man-made pollution and sharks. Like those who came before us, we know the monsters of the deep may still be out there."