Monday, January 30, 2017

Sandwich Island Girl, 1888

In 2006, East Coast surf historian Joseph "Skipper" Funderburg discovered an illustration of a young woman surfing in New Jersey, dated 1888. It was a woodcut engraving that appeared on the cover of the National Police Gazette of 18 August 1888, with a description on page 14. The covers caption read: “A Gay Queen Of The Waves: Asbury Park, New Jersey, Surprised By The Daring Of A Sandwich Island Girl.” The image depicts a girl surfing Asbury Park shore break.1

Needless to say, the print caused much discussion among us writers of surfing’s history.2 The big question the image raised: was there really a brief instance of someone -- female or not -- surfing Asbury Park, New Jersey, in the summer of 1888? If so, that would put that location as the first spot known to have been board surfed on the East Coast of the United States.

The description that goes with the engraving reads:

“A group of summer loungers on the beach at Asbury Park, N.J., were watching the extraordinary antics of a dark eyed, bronze-faced girl in the sea a few mornings ago. The object of all this interest and solicitude was beyond the line of breakers and standing on a plank that rose and fell with the swelling waves. Her bathing dress was of some dark material, fitting close to the figure, the skirts reaching scarce to her knee. Her stockings were of amber hue, adorned with what from the shore seemed to be vines and roses in colored embroidery. She wore no hat or cap. Her hair, bound across the forehead and above the ears by a silver fillet, tumbled down upon her shoulders or streamed out upon the wind in black and shining profusion. Her tunic was quite sleeveless, and one could scarcely fail to observe the perfect development and grace of her arms. As a wave larger than those which had gone before slowly lifted the plank upon its swelling surface, she poised herself daintily upon the support, her round arms stretched out and her body swaying to and fro in harmony with the motion of the waters. As the wave reached its fullest volume she suddenly, quick as thought, and with a laugh that rang full into shore, drew herself together, sprang into the air, and, her hands clasped together and clearing her a way, plunged into the rolling sea. There was a little cry from timid feminine watchers on the sand, but the smiling face was above water again while they cried, and the daring Triton was up on the plank again in another moment and waiting for a second high roller. So she has been amusing herself and interesting the mob for three mornings. She is as completely at ease in the sea as you or I on land, and the broad plank obeys her slightest touch.”3

Skepticism was the order of the day for all of us taking a critical eye to the print, caption and accompanying text. Questions centered around: Who could this be? What does the image and text really tell us? Can the source be trusted? Are there any other references to this event?

Who Could This Be?

Because it was a purportedly brief period of three days, one critic brought up the idea that it might be part of a larger event taking place at that time. Perhaps she was a performer promoting the circus that was in town on Aug. 15: “Frank A. Robbins' Gigantic and Sensationally realistic wild west hippodrome, caravan, circus, menagerie, museum, aviary and aquarium.” Or maybe she was a circus performer just out for a morning swim?4

DeSoto Brown of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum pointed out that “if she’d been a performer, there would have been some sort of plug in the text for where she was currently appearing. And if she had been performing – and she really was from Hawaii – I think we would know about her already. The hula was still too immodest to perform on stage then, I would say, so I don’t know what such a person would have been doing had she been an entertainer.”5

Another thought that this might be Hawaiian princess Ka’iulani, traveling on her way to England. However, this was discounted as Ka’iulani did not leave Hawaii until the following year, on May 10, 1889.6

What does the image and text really tell us?

“Illustrations of surfers had already appeared in a number of publications by this time,” continued DeSoto Brown, “although the image was certainly not yet very well known. These would have been descriptive books about other lands, or would have been personal accounts of travel to Hawaii. Tourism [in the Hawaiian Islands] at this point was practically nonexistent. The earliest publication which is purely commercial, specifically printed to promote travel to Hawaii, probably appeared in this same year. (There are at least 3 different editions of it, with different copyright dates). This is a foldout brochure from the Oceanic Steamship Co, which has a number of illustrations, including a surfing scene. I doubt many people on the east coast would have seen it, however, since the Oceanic ships traveled only in the Pacific. My point is, even though surfing was not yet widely known in the late 1880s, pictures of it had been published and there was at least some awareness in the American public. Certainly this picture and accompanying article show this is true, since there is no detailed explanation of what surfing was, or how it was done. Thus the readers of the Police Gazette can be assumed to have already had some familiarity with the concept.”7

Australian Geoff Cater questioned both the text and the image, summarizing that “the text and the image do not clearly indicate wave riding; the text does not resemble any of the many other accounts of surfriding published in the 19th century; the image is likely to be constructed from previously published images” -- specifically, “the board is almost a direct copy of the one in Jacques Arago’s Wahine, Hawaii, circa 1819...the stance and the hand positions are possibly analgam from the riders in Wallis McKay ‘Surf-swimmers, circa 1874.’”8

Elaborating further, Geoff wrote: “A close reading [of numerous descriptions of surf riding in the 1800s] indicates that the writers go to considerable effort to convey to the reader the elementary characteristics of surf-riding. They invariably include details that include the board, paddling-out, wave selection, take-off, riding in various positions, wave sliding angle and wipe-outs. Detailed descriptions of the rider's attire are scarce (both the number of descriptions and the attire).”9

If the rider existed and the event took place as described, how did she surf with a dress, stockings and head band? And where did she get the board from?

Can the source be trusted?

Surfing biographer Craig Lockwood addressed the subject matter of the National Police Gazette, itself:

”... the Police Gazette, (there were several and were euphemistically referred to as "Gentleman's Periodicals")... Socially and culturally, the Police Gazette and its subsequent imitators were roughly the equivalent of a combined Ring Magazine-National Inquirer-Playboy-True Detective, typically in a tabloid or digest format. The subjects were those aimed at titillating a very sexually inhibited and repressed Victorian male audience, and it was a table-top staple of the neighborhood saloon, barbershop, and athletic club -- all bastions of the younger male middle-class and skilled tradesmen.”10

“Scantily clad -- well, by the mores of the times, scantily clad -- women were featured at every possible opportunity... As can be imagined by reading the pages of the Star or Inquirer today, the level of journalism found in these periodicals was inspired by a combination of rumor, innuendo, and extrapolative falsification, with as much emphasis on females in ‘unusual’ situations as possible.”11

Craig’s opinion was that to ascribe much validity to a magazine like the Police Gazette was giving it more credit than it deserved.12 He added, however: “If memory serves me right, Robert Louis Stevenson visited and wrote about Hawaii and seeing surfing about this time. His adventures in the South Seas were widely published and commented upon during the late 1880s. I seem to recall that something about his travels -- letters or other correspondence -- were published in Harper's during the same period. It might prove interesting to do a little literary detective work, i.e., an analytic comparison between the Police Gazette’s piece’s details and those of R.L. Stevenson’s.”13

In “Sandwich Island Girl Hangs Five,” Skipper Funderburg went into greater detail about the National Police Gazette [NPG]:

“Richard Kyle 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.’”14

“... 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.”15

“I have to continue to believe the NPG is describing a real event.”16

Writing about Asbury Park, itself, Skipper continued:

“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.”17

“At that time on the Jersey Shore, Asbury Park would have been a more religious and teetotaling clientèle 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.”18

Are there any other references to this event?

A local newspaper reporter and surfer “bfrank” left a comment about his local research:

“I spent a full day this week poring over microfilm at the Asbury Park public library. I read every edition of both the Daily Journal and the Asbury Park Daily Press from July 1 to Aug. 18 of 1888 and there was no mention of the girl. If it happened, I doubt they would have missed it. These papers are full of every imaginable bit of gossip and snippets of beach and boardwalk life. There is a full story on a woman who went wading without a bathing suit on, many stories about police citing people form improper beach garb, etc. In fact, the police seemed so vigilant in stopping people from engaging in foolish behavior (like walking to the beach in your bathing suit instead of changing once you got to the beach) that I doubt the Sandwich Island girl would have gotten away with this for more than a few minutes. I suppose the papers could have missed it... Or perhaps, the Police Gazette simply made this up.”19

Undeterred, Skipper Funderburg continued his search for whether this event did happen or not and who “The Sandwich Island Girl” could be.

At the very beginning of this year [2017], he wrote me with some exciting news:

“I have recovered a Philadelphia Press Letter release published in three United States newspapers [Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 2 August 1888, page 9; St. Louis Post Dispatch, main edition, St. Louis, Illinois, 4 August 1888, page 7; The Tennessean, Nashville, Tennessee, 5 August 1888, page 8]. They provide important additional information, not published in the National Police Gazette, August 18, 1888 article.”20

The new information is as follows:

"When she has had enough of it she will bring the plank into shore, she riding upon the further and gliding it like a goddess over the crests and through the foam of the biggest breakers. She comes from the Sandwich Islands and is making a tour of the country. Her father is an enormously rich planter. She arrived in the Park a week ago with the family of a wealthy New York importer. She is at a fashionable hotel and is one of the most charming dancers at the hotel hops, as well as the most daring swimmer on the Jersey coast. She is well educated and accomplished, and, of course, speaks English perfectly and with a swell British accent that is the despair of the dudes. She learned to be the mistress of the waves in her childhood at her native home by the sea, where she modestly says, all girls learn swimming as a matter of course, quite as much as girls in this country learn tennis or croquet.”21

So, apparently the event -- which looks increasingly like it did happen -- was not a fabrication of the National Police Gazette, but part of a released story from the Philadelphia Press Letter that was picked-up by three other newspapers in addition to the NPG.

It is Skipper’s hope that these additional details will not only help validate the event itself but also help lead to the identity of “The Sandwich Island Girl.”

Additional Details

1  National Police Gazette, 18 August 1888, p. 1.
2  “Sandwich Island Girl,” LEGENDARY SURFERS, 23 March 2006,
3  National Police Gazette, 18 August 1888, p. 14.
4  LEGENDARY SURFERS, 21 July 2006. Comment by “bfrank.”
5  “Sandwich Island Girl 2,” LEGENDARY SURFERS, 22 April 2006 - DeSoto Brown quoted.
6  “The Ka’iulani Board,” LEGENDARY SURFERS,
7  “Sandwich Island Girl 2,” LEGENDARY SURFERS, 22 April 2006 - DeSoto Brown quoted.
9  “Sandwich Island Girl 4”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 3 May 2006 -
10  “Sandwich Island Girl 3”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 24 April 2006 - Craig Lockwood quoted.
11  “Sandwich Island Girl 3”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 24 April 2006 - Craig Lockwood quoted.
12  “Sandwich Island Girl 3”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 24 April 2006 - Craig Lockwood quoted.
13  “Sandwich Island Girl 3”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 24 April 2006 - Craig Lockwood quoted.
20  Funderburg, J. Skipper. Letter to SHACC and Malcolm, 1 January 2017, send in email 3 January 2017 with three scans of the newspaper items referenced.
21  Funderburg, J. Skipper. Letter to SHACC and Malcolm, 1 January 2017, send in email 3 January 2017 with three scans of the newspaper items referenced. New material from the newspapers quoted.