Monday, April 11, 2011

One summer day in 1905

"Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."
~ Henry James

About a month ago one of my favorite Internet places, the Shorpy Historic Photo Archive, published this photo. It was taken at the beach on Coney Island in 1905. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. Do yourself an enormous favor and go here to see it full size.

Just look at this little one, with her hair ribbon and biggish bare feet and face filled with bliss. Coney Island was a place that beggared the imagination in 1905 — more Disney than Disneyland, with Dreamland and Luna Park enticing visitors from all over the world with exotic architecture, rides and attractions.

At some point I realized my father was a newborn that summer and started wondering what else was going on with children in and around 1905.

After spending time with U.S. Census Bureau records, the Library of Congress and other government and educational sources, I learned these things about the first decade of the 20th century:
  • Life was short: The average woman lived 47.3 years and the average man, 46.3. 
  • Work was hard. The average work week was 59 hours, for which the average worker earned $12.98. The average teacher earned about half as much — $325 a year. 
  • Only about half of all children attended school, probably because so many of them were working. Child labor was unregulated until 1938, when the FDR administration passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.
To engage in child's play on a beautiful summer's day is always a joy for a child, but for some of these children it was probably a rare luxury as well.

E. E. Cummings might have had them in mind when he wrote this poem.

"maggie and millie and molly and may"
by E. E. Cummings

maggie and millie and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,

and millie befriended a stranded star
who's rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles;

and may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
It's always ourselves we find in the sea."

Bonus: I found a film clip purporting to be a trip to Coney Island in 1905 by a group of boarding school girls. I seriously doubt it's a documentary — much of it seems staged. But it does show Coney Island during that same, magical summer.


  1. Thank you, Julia. The photo, the poem, the film, the year. Lots to work with.