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Those perfect beach postcards tell some dark truths of California’s past

People play in the surf near a pier. Prominent in the frame is a woman in an ankle-length blue dress and a hat
Beachgoing fashion has certainly changed since the days of this vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.
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Time was that when you went to the beach — 60, 70, 100 and some years ago — the sand wasn’t the only thing that was white. The people on the beach, down to virtually every last square inch of skin, were white too.

A whites-only ocean didn’t seem to raise eyebrows then, never mind questions. Public swimming pools that allowed people of color at all often let them in on only one day a week, just before the pool was drained and refilled. You couldn’t very well drain the Pacific Ocean and refill it after Black people swam in it, so local governments and unofficial forces managed to make public beaches off limits to some of the public.

The relentless promoters of early Los Angeles pitched L.A. to potential residents and investors as the “white spot” of the nation — with its double meanings: a place free from unsavory civic corruption, free from unions and free from the unpleasantries of integration.

The travails of people of color to get space on the sand have taken decades of nasty plot twists, but Southern California saw a kind of progress last month, when the heirs to a black family hounded and hornswoggled out of Bruce’s Beach, the Manhattan Beach waterfront property the family bought in 1912, got the land back.

So the multiple millions of Southern California come-hither beach postcards generated from the late 19th century well into the 20th were of many colors, all right — the water, the sky, the umbrellas, the swimsuits — everything but the people.

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

Explaining L.A. With Patt Morrison

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

Beachgoers, of course, knew and still know better. One spring just before World War II, the renowned expatriate writers Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann and their wives were searching for a picnic spot on a beach stroll south of L.A. Huxley made some remark about all the white shapes strewn along the beach; as he wrote of them later, they reminded him of windblown flowers. His wife informed him that they were, in fact, used condoms.

And screenwriter and director Rupert Hughes, uncle of Howard, author of the sardonic 1941 novel “City of Angels,” opens his book with a Santa Monica beach lifeguard’s disdain for the multitudes at his feet on the sand who “had shucked off their decency and dignity along with most of their clothes,” sprawling across a hundred miles of beachfront under “huge, gaudy umbrellas in a plague of monstrous toadstools. … Everywhere, people, people, people, in the raw, in a mob, crazy as maniacs escaped from a burning asylum.”

You can also track Angelenos’ relationship with the beach and the ocean, women’s especially, by postcards showing what they wore, and didn’t wear, over the decades.

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A man helps a woman -- dressed in a red, knee-length bathing suit and black stockings -- learn to swim.
Imagine learning to swim in this getup. This vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection bears a 1907 postmark and was addressed to someone in Cleveland, Ohio.

People in heavy beach costumes play in the ocean, where a safety rope extends into the surf.
A vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection was sent to a recipient in St. Louis in 1907. The sender wrote: “This is all we have to do out here. Salt water is grand.”

People play in the surf and sand. "Surf Bathing at Venice, Cal." the text on the front of the postcard reads.
A postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection with a 1934 postmark shows people in heavy swim costumes holding onto a safety rope in the surf.

Who is Griffith Park named for? What about Vasquez Rocks? The Broad? Mt. Baldy? Here are the namesakes of L.A.'s best-known landmarks.

Victorian women — that is to say, 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 “bathing machine.” It was a combination dressing room and wheeled wagon in which ladies could change out of their pounds of street clothing and into pounds of demure and cumbersome bathing ensembles. The bathing machine was then rolled or dragged far enough into the surf that the lady could slip directly down its steps and into the water without much risk of being seen thus clothed. (She never went out too far; the weight of all that clothing could have pulled her under.)

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In July 1847, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal of her maiden swim: “… drove down to the beach with my maids & went into the bathing machines, where I undressed & bathed in the sea, (for the 1st time in my life) a very nice bathing woman attending me.” She did not like putting her anointed head under water.

Decades before then, first lady Martha Washington had visited a mineral springs and dipped into healthful waters wearing a blue and white linen dress with weights in the hem so it would not float up around her as she floated. Still, the dress — in the Mount Vernon collection — is featherweight compared with Victoria’s swim getup.

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

At first, women sat on dry sand in stiflingly layered dresses. Some hitched up their skirts a bit to set their bare feet on wet sand. In time, two- and three-piece black ensembles of top, trousers and overskirt, oddly like feminized sailor suits, let women plunge in but not go too far.

About 15 women sit or lie in the sand wearing black dresses and stockings in front of a neoclassical building
A group of black-clad women sit on the sand in front of the Long Beach Bath House. This vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection bears a 1908 postmark.

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Men in suits and women in dresses and hats gather around a thermometer on the sand in Long Beach.
Looks like it was a nice day in Long Beach — about 78 degrees, according to this 1907 postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection. The L.A. Times-branded thermometer was characteristic of the way the beach was used for promotions of all kinds.

In 1920 women got the vote, and got the urge to plunge. The next year, the first Miss America contestants wore bold one-piece suits that still had more fabric than a modern-day office dress. Women decided they wanted to swim, really swim, and one-piece bathing suits met those practicalities. The modern bikini was crafted in 1946, by a French engineer, and the fabric of the very first one was a newsprint material copied from the newspaper Le Monde.

Four women walk in the sand outside a large beachfront home
A vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection shows beachgoers outside Hollywood luminary Jesse Lasky’s home. Lasky was a founder of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures.

People lie on the strip of sand south of the Redondo Beach Pier
The Redondo Beach Pier and Strand are seen in a 1941-postmarked postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.

The beach represented a kind of public freedom — brazen license, is what some people called it — that treated the ocean as a kind of exempt zone for freewheeling fun of the sort one didn’t undertake back home.

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And still, it was a public space that was in practice almost always for white people — nominally public beaches, nominally public pools.

People swim in a large pool steps away from the Pacific.
A day at the beach and a day at the pool could be one and the same in Venice. Writing on the back of this postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection says this is “where Sam is going to try to learn to swim.”

Colorful umbrellas and swimsuits dot an expanse of sand and shore, with a jetty and tall buildings in the background
The Long Beach sand is packed with beachgoers on this vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.

Large homes and the imposing facade of a beach club are seen on the Santa Monica shoreline
The reverse side of this vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection reads: “Many fine beach clubs have been established at Santa Monica because of its continual moderate climate and beautiful shores, and excellent yacht harbor.”

In 1926, a Black-owned resort arose on seven rented acres on the Orange County coast between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. It was a rare membership club for Black Californians, and it had national attention. But the local Chamber of Commerce and other white civic groups were paying attention too and passed futile resolutions to stop it.

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The previous September, The Times had written about “negro belles appear[ing] in [a] bathing parade” staged for about 5,000 picnickers at the unfinished resort. It was probably the first such pageant in the nation.

And when the railroads unexpectedly granted legal access to the club across their tracks, it looked like it was a done deal. The grand opening was three weeks away when the place was torched, in January 1926.

I’ll be looking to add to my collection the postcards of democratized beach demographics. Now it all depends on being able to find a place to park. Those are postcards I’d like to see.

In the foreground, two people lie in the wet sand as the sun sets on other bathers and a pier behind them.
A picturesque scene of Long Beach at sunset on a vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.

The legs of two swimmers are all that can be seen sticking out of the surf. "Surf bathing on the Pacific," the card reads.
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?

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In cases such as the French dip and the California roll, the L.A. inventor is disputed. Not so with the cheeseburger, which is SoCal from top bun to bottom.

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