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Cal Porter's Then & Now
BiographyThere are many famous opening lines from great works of literature: “It was a dark and stormy night”, Bulwer-Lytton, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens, “Call me Ishmael”, from Moby Dick, but ever was there a line more to the point than, “I Am Born”, in Chapter 1 of David Copperfield. So that’s where I will start. It happened to me in the year 1924, and by my calculation that makes me 88 this year.
I surfed at an early age. I had older brothers, and we had surfboards of one kind or another before I was five years old. I’ve surfed all my life. I’ve bodysurfed all my life. I dived for lobster and abalone and fish for dinner, and I sold them to restaurants and fish markets. I had a small fishing boat and fished commercially. I taught swimming. And when I was old enough I became a lifeguard so that I could earn a living and still be on the beach and in the water. Lifeguarding put me through college and graduate school. I became a teacher and then a school principal for many years. But I never left the beach. All my spare time and days off were on the beach. It’s a good thing for me that my family shared my love for the ocean. Most of our trips were to the watery places of the world, where the sea was warm, the water was clear, the diving was good, and the waves were beckoning. I lifeguarded for almost 40 years. And now many years into retirement I’m still on the beach. I live on the beach. Through my windows I can see the beach. And when that day comes and it’s time to “shuffle off this mortal coil” (Hamlet), I will return to the sea once more.
IN THE EYE OF THE ARTIST - EARLY SURFER GIRLS IN THE U.S.
Captain James Cook of Great Britain, commanding His Majesty’s Ship, The Resolution, witnessed the sport and pastime of surfing when he “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands in 1777. Surfing is well described in the ship’s journals, and the ship’s artist left illustrations of the sport. Girls surfing the waves of Hawaii have been depicted by artists as long ago as 1819 when an etching was done by French artist, Jacques Arago, entitled “Wahini of the Sandwich Isles”. The artist of the scene below and many other artists throughout the nineteenth century found Hawaiian female surfers, usually in a state of complete undress, a great source of inspiration.
Island of Maui, 1873
In the United States, however, there are very few early illustrations of females surfing the waves, and no photographs until probably the mid-thirties when Doc Ball with his camera caught Mary Ann Hawkins in action at Palos Verdes Cove. Then again, the coverage of male surfers in the U.S. in those days is skimpy as well, one reason being that there were very few surfers back then, plus the complete lack of awareness of surfing on the part of the American public. So it seems a bit of an anomaly that possibly the first depiction of a surfer in the United States came at such an early year; and was a girl, not a man. Nineteen years before George Freeth arrived in California from Hawaii in 1907 and introduced the sport to a public that had never even heard of surfing, the cover of a well-known magazine depicted a girl standing on a board fully involved with riding a wave. The date on the magazine was Saturday, August 18, 1888, and the location, of all places, was the coast of New Jersey. The publication was The National Police Gazette out of New York City that often used for its cover rather racy pictures that today would seem more than tame. The picture was of a young Hawaiian girl with long flowing hair done by an artist who, it would seem, knew very little about surfing. The caption under the illustration read, “A Gay Queen of the Waves”.
“Asbury Park, New Jersey, Surprised By the Daring of a Sandwich Island Girl”
Did this Hawaiian girl really surf at Asbury Park in 1888, making her probably the first girl to surf in the U.S. by a great many years, or was she just a figment of the artist’s imagination? And did he actually see her surf or just create the image from what he had heard about the event? The short description on page fourteen of the Gazette certainly makes this surfing event sound believable: “A group of summer loungers on the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey, were watching the extraordinary antics of a dark eyed, bronze faced girl in the sea a few mornings ago……….She is as completely at ease in the sea as you or I on land, and the broad plank obeys her slightest touch”. The surfer girl’s scanty bathing attire was also described in detail by the Police Gazette. There was some thought at first that this could be Hawaiian Princess Kaiulani, age 14, stopping off on her way to be educated in England but the date didn’t match.
The next depiction of a girl surfing in the U.S. probably wasn’t until 1911, twenty-three years after the Asbury Park etching above. And even this date was very early on since by 1911 there were only a handful of surfers in the whole country, all male, who took up the sport after George Freeth’s 1907 and 1908 surfing photos at Venice and Redondo Beach appeared in Southern California newspapers. This girl wearing the latest in proper surfing attire, stockings and all, was on the cover of the July 1911 Sunset Magazine and she is beckoning one and all to hit the surf on the beaches of Los Angeles.
The young lady (a regular foot, left foot forward) appears to be a very good surfer who never falls off her board since there is not a drop of water on her or her costume; which is a good thing since swimming with all the weight of salt water added to that outfit could prove difficult.
While there were drawings of girls surfing in Hawaii in travel guides and advertisements at this time, very little evidence of art work involving girls surfing in the U.S. could be found between the 1911 magazine cover above and the 1923 cover that follows. This is the January, 1923 edition of Judge Magazine, price 15 cents, the same price as Sunset twelve years before. Some things hadn’t changed but this surfer girl certainly had, but only in the mind of the artist. He was way ahead of his time with this rendition; no girl in 1923 would dare appear on a public beach in that attire. She might risk arrest if she did. She looks like a great surfer, however, as she moves toward the nose to hang ten. I have added a photo of what in reality girls did wear in those days, a far cry from the girl that this artist captioned as his “Gulf Streamlined Model”. I was a kid living at the beach in the 1920’s and have a hazy memory of such things.
The Artist’s 1923
The Real 1923
During the 1930’s there were a few girls who took up surfing, although I never saw one out in the waves where I grew up on the beaches of Playa Del Rey, Venice and Santa Monica. I did see Mary Ann Hawkins, a fine surfer, a time or two at Palos Verdes and I heard that Hermosa Beach had a couple of girls that surfed, but it was a very small total number in the U.S. The artist of the picture below probably never saw a girl surfing but he did a good job of putting her on the surfboard with a parallel stance and dressing her in the latest of practical but attractive aquatic apparel. This scene is apparently in the early 1930’s since her partner, the goofy-foot surfer just behind her, is wearing the full length bathing suit of that time.
Over eighty years have passed since the artist rendered the drawing above, and 125 years since the “bronze skinned” girl surfed at Asbury Park in the first ever depiction of a surfer in the U.S. Today girls are surfing all over the world, and images of girls surfing are everywhere, on billboards, magazines, books and ads.
I guess we’re not in 1888 anymore.
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 16 , 2012
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