What Depression?

Surfers in the 1930s already knew how to live on the cheap: they made their own boards, pulled lobsters from the sea, and could build an evening's entertainment around a ukulele, a guitar, and a passed-around bottle of jug wine.

This one's on the house. Enjoy!

The Depression did good things for surfing in America. Being poor on the beach in Southern California was a lot better than being poor in the Nebraska plains or on a New York street corner—or anywhere else in the country, for that matter. Surfers were already familiar with living on the cheap: they made their own trunks and surfboards, pulled lobsters and abalone from the sea, gathered wood for their own fires, and could build an evening’s entertainment around a ukulele, a guitar, and a passed-around bottle of jug wine. Riding waves didn’t make up for being jobless or underemployed, but it was a nice way to pass the time if you were. With a long curl-beating ride to the beach, surfers could still find grace moments, just as they had during an era of prosperity.

In California, and to a lesser degree Hawaii, beaches and lineups during the Depression were commanded by down-at-heels journeymen like Tom Blake, who sold his swimming medals and cups to pay for meals. Another was the hulking surfer-paddleboarder Gene “Tarzan” Smith, who during the 1930s lived on and off in a cave he excavated in a sandstone cliff near Corona del Mar. On weekend nights, Smith, a binge drinker and predatory brawler, would roll his only suit and a pair of old dress shoes into a piece of oilskin, paddle across Newport Harbor to the enormous Rendezvous Ballroom, change next to a nearby boathouse, dance and drink and bust a few heads, then roll the suit back up and make the return journey across the harbor to his cave. Smith would became famous among surfers for his otherworldly paddling stamina. In 1940 he paddled from Oahu to Kauai, a seventy-mile, thirty-hour journey, on a board outfitted with a compass, flashlight holder, hunting knife, and pneumatic pillow. Over the last few miles, Smith hallucinated that he was stroking down Hollywood Boulevard. Sixty-five years passed before another paddler made the crossing.

The masses—or at least those living along the coast—were being encouraged to surf like never before. Popular Mechanics and Popular Science both ran build-it-yourself surfboard articles, with blueprints and cutaway diagrams, launching thousands of woodshop projects. Bodysurfing was already a national craze in Australia and catching on fast in America. In 1931, The Art of Wave Riding—a short paperback primer by bodysurfing expert and former UCLA track-and-field star Ron Drummond—explained the difference between “sand busters” and “glide waves” and gave detailed advice on everything from wave-ducking techniques to the tricky somersault takeoff. Articles on surfing always introduced it as a “new” sport while noting its growing popularity. “At the California beaches there are schoolboys who easily rival the best Hawaiian experts in the thrilling sport of surfboard riding,” Popular Science announced, clearly hoping to inspire eager young builders to replicate the beautiful 11-foot laminated plank shown at the bottom of the page.

Meanwhile, beachgoing in general not only blossomed but was egalitarian to a degree found in almost no other public setting. The beach and the surf were free; a swimsuit and towel were the only two required accessories. The suntan—once viewed as a mark of the laboring classes, and thus fought with the aid of parasols, veils, wide-brimmed hats, tents, and pavilions—became a fashion statement, thanks to bronzed celebrities like Coco Channel and Charles Atlas. “A white unsunned body,” British author D. H. Lawrence noted, should now be considered “unhealthy, and fishy.” Tanned skin, of course, was a different thing altogether from dark skin, and Depression-era American beaches, either by city ordinance or general understanding, remained segregated by race.

Surfing did its part for social leveling, too, but also maintained an image as a plaything for the rich and famous. A great many surfing newcomers in the 1920s and 1930s were wealthy tourists vacationing in Waikiki. Duke Kahanamoku, throughout his long and forgettable LA-based film career, often went to the beach to surf and socialize with his Hollywood cohorts. With four-color printing, surf photography raised the sport’s glamour level. Previously, black-and-white surf photos were sometimes hand-tinted, but now wave-riding appeared in all its multihued glory, with oceanic blues and greens, warm redwood-plank browns, and sharp color bursts from all the new swimsuits. A glistening 1938 Vogue cover, shot from above, featured a beachboy in floral-pattern trunks and his redheaded tandem partner launching a ride at Waikiki. For Dole Pineapple’s long-running print ad campaign, the canned fruit in the foreground always disappeared into a perfect Hawaiian tableaux of surfers and waves, sunshine and clear blue skies.

The beachfront only got sexier. Latex-blend fabrics snapped their way into department stores, and the thick, wrinkled, perpetually damp woolen bathing costume of the 1920s was replaced by the elasticized body-hugging swimsuit of the 1930s. The women’s two-piece was introduced, and swimsuit material in general continued its merry disappearing act as it retreated up the thigh and across the back, and gave way down the chest inch by plunging inch. The surfboard became a fashion accessory. “Paddleboard models” were arranged like lifesize dolls before a row of Blake-style hollow boards at Southern California beach festivals. A 1932 Physical Culture cover illustration showed a woman riding a board in an ecstatic head-back, arms-up, finger-splayed pose that, in any other context, would have required a brown paper wrapper.

Surfing’s vast gender gap narrowed during the 1930s—a tiny bit. The default setting for women beachgoers was to be ornamental rather than active, and those who counted themselves as “surfers” were often lightly bedewed tandem partners carefully steered through the lineup by proud boyfriends. Still, women found the new hollow surfboards easier to handle than the solid-wood planks. The new swimsuits also helped, since they trimmed off the water-absorbing collars and leggings and pantaloons that had nearly dragged previous generations of American female surf-bathers to the ocean floor.

Furthermore, there was no real stigma, at least not like there would be in the future, for a woman to pick up a board and ride on her own. Mary Ann Hawkins, one of America’s best junior division middle-distance swimmers, became the teenaged queen of California surfing during the Depression. Hawkins won paddling events, rode alongside Duke Kahanamoku, stunt-doubled for Bathing Beauty star Esther Williams, hosted well-attended surfer soirees at her parents’ house, and later married one of the state’s best surfers, Bud Morrissey. A series of photographs in a 1938 issue of Life showed Hawkins walking smartly down the beach with her board, paddling out, and gliding back to shore with a radiant smile.