Copyright 2011 by William A. Mays, Proprietor
The existence of the "Sandwich Island girl" illustration from the August 18, 1888, cover of the National Police Gazette is of profound significance to the surfing community. The image, showing a woman on a board off the coast of Asbury Park, New Jersey, has rocked the foundation of surfing history. While Sandwich Island Girl's publication may be considered an anomaly, her iconic image is culturally, historically and aesthetically significant to the world. Hawaii historian DeSoto Brown has said, "Whatever the story, I still think this is a terrific find to add to surfing’s history."
Richard Kyle Fox was the editor and proprietor of the National Police Gazette 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. He turned a text heavy medium into something visually exciting. Irving Berlin would write a song about it called "The Girl on The Police Gazette." Hugely popular, even across the ocean, the publication made an appearance in James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses.
Many of us remember Colonel Kilgore's line from "Apocalypse Now" when he barks, "What do you know about surfing, major? You’re from G*d d**n New Jersey!" Unbeknownst to him, surfing in the United States may have actually begun in New Jersey.
It might be noted that 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. So Sandwich Island Girl's identity, as well as that of the witnesses, remains unknown. The National Police Gazette decided what its focus was and stuck to it. And their particular focus emphasized descriptions of women’s appearance and movements—anything that was sexually titillating for the time. Who she was and why she was there were of less importance.
The National Police Gazette, like its tabloid followers in later years, certainly was a publication that mixed fact with fiction. But in this case, the description in the accompanying article is too detailed to be made up. If it were just the illustration with no accompanying story, one might be more inclined to accept the possibility that the incident never happened. That descriptions of this event can't be found in other contemporary publications may be explained by what differentiated the National Police Gazette from its peers. The Gazette specialized in depicting women doing manly things—shooting, fighting, drinking, playing sports. So a woman surfing is exactly the type of thing they would have jumped on, even if no other news outlets would give it a second look—perhaps even more because no other news outlets would give it a second look.
Then there's the discussion 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. And it's something that evidently really happened, meaning the "Sandwich Island girl" in the picture—artist's conception though she may be—is a real person, an actual historical figure. The term "Sandwich Island" itself is the old name for Hawaii.
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 Park in those days. So a surfing display would definitely have been a spectacle and worthy of an eyewitness writing it down somewhere. Also, at the time the locals 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 a country by the sea destination, boasted a mile and a quarter beach, is one of about 54 seaside cities on the Jersey Shore, and is nestled about halfway along the hundred mile stretch of coastline between Cape May, NJ, and Sandy Hook, NJ. It was considered a prime getaway for New Yorkers looking for beach fun in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 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.
In 1888 on the Jersey Shore, Asbury Park would have had 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 National Police Gazette editors, who delighted in exposing hypocritical clergy and tended to scoff at religion and temperance in general. Police Gazette editors had great fun at the institution’s expense. In short, the Gazette would have jumped at the chance to portray something extravagant and unladylike among the straightlaced beachgoers.
September 8, 2011
|“Sandwich Island Girl” and Her
Place in the History of Surfing
The following is research and analysis by Joseph "Skipper" Funderburg and William A. Mays of the so-called "Sandwich Island Girl" cover illustration that appeared on an 1888 Police Gazette. Sandwich Island Girl may be the first person ever to have surfed on the East Coast of the United States.
Joseph "Skipper" Funderburg is a pioneer surfer and waterman of the Cape Fear Coast, North Carolina. He started his apprenticeship in surfing in the 1950s and helped popularize stand-up surfing by the early 1960s. Skipper has been writing about surfing for over forty years and serves as the native Cape Fear Coast’s preeminent surfing historian.
William A. Mays is editor of the National Police Gazette, America's original tabloid, covering crime, sports, celebrities, and all things sensational since 1845.