Skipper Funderburg writes more about "The Sandwich Island Girl" -- that cover of the National Police Gazette, August 18, 1888, depicting a female surfer riding the waves off the beach at Ashbury Park, New Jersey.
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The following is a slightly edited version of Skipper's original article, prepared June 1, 2010:
Sandwich Island Girl Hangs Five, A Gay Queen Of The Waves
By Joseph “Skipper” Funderburg, www.carolinabeach.net
I have been encouraged to conduct further research on the woodcut engraving of [the] Sandwich Island Girl (SIG), as published in the National Police Gazette (NPG), August 18, 1888.
Richard Kyle Fox (Fox) was the Editor and Proprietor of the NPG from 1877 until his death in 1922. Fox perfected the sports page and the gossip column, as well as the use of large illustrations to dramatize the stories in his paper. Before Fox, these things did not exist as we know them today. Fox turned a text heavy medium into something visually exciting. Even Thomas Edison was a regular reader. Irving Berlin wrote a song about it: 'The Girl on The Police Gazette.' Hugely popular, even across the ocean, the publication made an appearance in James Joyce’s masterpiece 'Ulysses.'
... news reporting in the 19th century was not like today. There was no television, no movies, and no radio. We take many details for granted in a typical news story that were not considered important back then. Getting the names of participants, attributing quotes, and other factual details were often not priorities. The NPG decided what its focus was and stuck to it. One focus was on women’s appearance and movements – anything that was sexually titillating for the time. Who she was and where she came from was of less importance.
The NPG certainly was a publication that mixed fact with fiction. But my feeling is the description in the article is too detailed to be made up. If it were just the illustration with no accompanying story, I might be more inclined to accept the possibility that the incident didn’t happen. Either way, NPG specialized in depicting women doing manly things… shooting, fighting, drinking, playing sports… and so surfing is exactly the type of thing they would have jumped on, even if no other news outlets would give it a second look. It is a realistic possibility.
I would also agree with the discussion [amongst surf writers] regarding whether the activity can be called surfing. The woodcut engraving appears with the description that she may just be balancing on the plank, as the waves roll underneath. In any case, whether it’s surfing or balancing, this appears to be the first depiction of it on the American east coast. I have to continue to believe the NPG is describing a real event.
It must have been an attraction, because of the way they guarded the beach in those days with ropes, pilings and surf boats. The imagery in the background looks conservative, typically the public was not allowed to swim outside the ropes. As well, there were no bars or gambling in Asbury, in those days. This makes me think a surfing display would definitely have been a spectacle and worthy of an eyewitness writing it down somewhere. Also, at the time they were known as progressives… all of those temperance movements to curb drinking, violence, gambling was progressive legislation.
Asbury Park, NJ, is located 55 miles south of New York City and 60 miles away from Philadelphia, PA. Founded in 1871, Asbury Park was considered a country by the sea destination; boasted a mile and a quarter beach; is one of about fifty-four seaside cities on the Jersey Shore; and nestled about halfway along the hundred mile stretch of coastline between Cape May, NJ, and Sandy Hook, NJ. More than a half million people a year vacationed in Asbury Park during the summer season, riding the railways from the New York City Metropolitan Area.
The more I research about the history of Asbury Park, the more it seems like a prime getaway for New Yorkers looking for beach fun, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time on the Jersey Shore, Asbury Park would have been a more religious and teetotaling clientele than Cape May or Atlantic City. Founded in 1869, Ocean Grove, NJ, the seat of the Temperance Movement on the Jersey Shore, is the southern border of Asbury Park. A visionary Methodist clergyman, Reverend Ellwood H. Stokes, convinced his congregation to invest in three hundred acres and one mile of beach front. The community was known as the Queen of Religious Resorts, and enforced a multitude of strict rules, including no beach bathing on Sundays. This would have played into the hands of the NPG editors, who delighted in exposing hypocritical clergy and tended to scoff at religion and temperance in general. The NPG editors had great fun at the institution’s expense. In short, the NPG would have jumped at the chance to portray something extravagant or un-ladylike among the straight laced beach goers.
Fox had a residence in Red Bank, New Jersey, which is a good location for those interested in boating and a life by the sea. Fox was certainly wealthy enough to afford whatever hobby he chose, but he loved the sea, cruising in his yacht, surf bathing and picnicking. In the June 30, 1888 issue of NPG, I unearthed Yacht Richard K. Fox, an expensive private ocean going sailing vessel. Turns out he fancied sailing the Jersey Shore, the northeast and extending further to the blue chip beaches of New England and Cape Cod. Fox sponsored many competitive events --including seafaring ones --such as the trans-Atlantic rowboat “FOX” in 1896...
Fox wrote a book in 1883 titled, 'Coney Island Frolics: How New York’s Gay Girls and Jolly Boys Enjoy Themselves by the Sea.' He wrote descriptions of women in the surf; various amusements of the late 19th century; discussed social changes of this era that made the water based activities possible; and served as an instructional manual or visual travel guide to the beaches of the northeast. He described beach and water based activities on Manhattan Beach, NY, and Brighton Beach, NY.
There is no question Fox and the NPG were an integral part of the development of professional women boxers, wrestlers and strongwomen of the 1880s and 1890s. Though many upper class Victorians may have viewed these athletic activities as unfeminine and even demeaning, these female athletes were seen as competent professionals and, in many ways, the equal of their male peers. It is important when looking at these women, however, to keep in mind how limited their professional options truly were. Fifteen to twenty-five dollars a week, working for Fox, no doubt proved a powerful incentive for women whose primary employment option was back-breaking factory work, sweatshops, kitchens or farm labor. Furthermore, these women knew that if they became good enough that there was a realistic chance that they could earn even greater sums by defying the traditional ideals of Victorian womanhood. As the owner, Fox had full control of the womens’ activities. They did as they were told, especially for NPG publicity.
Regarding the NPG woodcut engravings, Fox was notorious for not giving credit to his artists and writers. When reading all 26 NPG issues in volume 52, covering March to September 1888, one will notice there are virtually no bylines on NPG stories. The woodcut artists were first class --there are descriptions that state one couldn’t find better quality in the medium of woodcut engraving...
Today, William A. Mays, the current editor and proprietor of the NPG, is on a mission to properly photograph and catalog the paper images before the original copies deteriorate. An old history of American magazines lists Matt Morgan, Charles Kendrick, Philip G. Cusacha, George G. White and George E. McEvoy as having done illustrations for the late 19th century NPG. The creator of the NPG logo is Henry W. Troy. His signature appears in every issue.
There was also a world famous wood carver on the beach in Asbury Park. In the winter of 1888, Palace Amusements was founded in Asbury Park. Palace provided refined amusements and became famous for having one of America’s greatest hand-carved wooden carousels. Charles I.D. Looff was a master carver and builder of handcrafted wood carousels. Early in his career, he found work as a wood furniture carver and took wood scraps home, carving them into wooden carousel animals and more. Looff built the first carousel at Coney Island, NY, in 1876 and is credited for creating the Coney Island style of wood carving... Charles I.D. Looff and his son Arthur Looff also built the Santa Monica Pier in 1909, then the Santa Monica Looff Hippodrome was built in 1916.
Just off the coast of New Jersey exists the Gulf Stream, a powerful, warm and swift Atlantic Ocean current which attracted whaling ships in search of whales.
... The early whaling voyages and whaling era had a phenomenal impact on 19th century America, both east and west coasts. In the early 1800’s, Hawaii was a favorite destination of whaling vessels, and their crews were in direct contact with surfers. It is also well documented some whaling crews jumped ship once they arrived in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. Many, including Herman Melville, jumped ship, apparently without repercussions. Once the original crew jumped ship, many Hawaiians were hired to work aboard whaling vessels. It is well documented that Hawaiian crewman were sailing to the United States by the early 19th century. It has been said that sooner or later someone will uncover proof of surfing in the 19th century. While SIG may represent an isolated incident, it is probable Hawaiian crews were sailing in ports on the east coast. By about 1840, more passengers and greater tonnage of cargo came through New York than all other major harbors in the country combined. By 1900 New York was one of the great international ports...
... SIG’s three day surfing exhibition probably occurred in Asbury Park. The logical possibility, proof and indirect evidence it occurred in Asbury Park is reasonable. Because of her tie to a historical event, and the location, her story is believable. Most significantly, SIG is one of the earliest known surfing illustrations in the contiguous United States. The fact that her mythic tale is being told at all allows scholars to use her as commentary upon cultures that produce and circulate legends. It’s a tricky domain, but for most of us, her legend and her image are enough...
-- Joseph “Skipper” Funderburg, Author