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A gentle breeze carries the smell of ocean salt water and the sound of seagulls’ calls. The sun shines bright and warm on the crowd of people walking along the wide, wooden boardwalk of Atlantic City. Some faces are shielded with fashionable hats. Many people walk with hands clasped and fingers entwined with their loved ones. Perhaps to commemorate their vacation one couple decides to turn into a little photographic studio named The Royal Studio located at 827 Boardwalk where they had their portrait taken and mounted on postcard paper sometime around 1920.

The result of this couple’s decision, [Postcard portrait of an unidentified couple in Atlantic City], “The Baltimore Collection,” 2001.0017.0010, remains today. It is one of the objects within the so-called “Baltimore Collection,” which is a group of photographs taken during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the mid-Atlantic region. These photographs which were gifted to the University of Delaware in 2001. Many of the sitters in this collection, including the two in this example, appear to be Black or African American.

Postcard portrait of an unidentified couple in Atlantic City, 2001.0017.0010, The Baltimore Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

The woman is seated on a studio prop of a window and ledge. Her body is angled toward the center of the composition, where the man stands behind the ledge with his right arm slightly outstretched and hand resting on the woman’s back. Their positioning reflects their personal relationship. Perhaps they are a romantic couple, or maybe they are related or are good friends.

She wears a floral patterned hat over her hair, and he wears a Panama-style hat. She wears a long-sleeved blouse with a pussy bow necktie tucked into a pleated, calf-length skirt. Her lace-up heeled ankle boots are revealed by her short hem-length. The man wears a tailored two-piece light-colored suit with a high-collared white button-down shirt, thin necktie, and belt. Their casual good-style and posture also reveal the sitter’s outward representation of their middle-class stature.  

What did it mean to this couple to have their photograph taken in Atlantic City? While one can infer a great deal about the couple’s relationship and position in society solely from the imagery, the inclusion of the studio’s stamp on the postcard back of the portrait provides significant contextual information. This photograph is the only example in “The Baltimore Collection” that can be positively traced to Atlantic City, based on the photographic studio’s label on the back of the postcard.

Atlantic City was founded in 1854 on a 10-mile island between Absecon and Great Egg Harbor, only 5.5 miles from the mainland. By the late nineteenth century, it became known as a health resort that was first recommended by Philadelphia physicians and later on was more widely recommended.[1] The wooden boardwalk was an invention of this city; it was the city’s greatest artificial attraction. In the early twentieth century, the boardwalk was fifty to sixty feet wide, rising twelve feet above the beach and extending seven miles along the coast.[2] The boardwalk was romantically described as “opening uninterruptedly to the sea and backed by hundreds of stores, places of amusement and the magnificent hotels with their beautiful surroundings” in a visitor’s guidebook.[3] Furthermore, The Standard Guide of Atlantic City, NJ from 1909 advertised: “Atlantic City is the place that comes nearest being ideal. It is beyond all question the greatest Health Resort in the world, and what place can equal it for the great diversity of pleasures and recreations to be found here.”[4] Photographic studios were part of the great diversity of pleasures offered on the Boardwalk, but they were not often advertised in the guidebooks. This could be because the photographers and photographic studios were itinerant due to the seasonal quality of demand and vacationing in Atlantic City.

Boardwalk, Young’s $1,000,000 Pier, Atlantic City, N.J. Early 19th century postcard image of people walking on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Detroit: Detroit Publishing Company, 1907-1908. Courtesy of the The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Accessed November 25, 2017.

In the two aforementioned guidebooks, there is no mention of race or the African American presence in the city, but African Americans were among the earliest seashore settlers of New Jersey and have been a significant presence in Atlantic City since its founding.[5] The resort town needed a large workforce to fill the service positions, especially in the hotel industry, and African American workers largely fulfilled this need. The hotel industry was not the only source of work for African American individuals. Black entrepreneurs, entertainers, and various other professionals also came to Atlantic City with hopes of better economic opportunities.[6] By 1905, 23.5% of the city’s population was black, and the black population was growing faster than the white population.[7]

However, race-based segregation and discrimination dominated in the resort town’s social structures, public accommodations, and recreational facilities.[8] An example of this was recounted in the State Journal, a black newspaper from Harrisburg, PA, in an article from 1884 reading, “ a colored lady in Atlantic City upon application was, on account of her color, refused tickets at a bath house.”[9] The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 23, 1893 published an article titled “Down by the Sea Shore—Atlantic City” where they posed the question: “What are we going to do with our colored people?”[10] The Philadelphia Inquirer claimed that the significant population of blacks in the resort town “posed a severe problem for white visitors.”[11] The articles published in these newspapers reflect the white racism directed toward the black population in Atlantic City.

Though faced with discrimination, Blacks and African Americans did vacation alongside whites and recreate on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.  By the 1890s, the city was also a popular vacation destination for wealthy black individuals from Philadelphia and elsewhere.[12] As Funnell wrote: “[W]hile blacks suffered under the traditional exploitation and disadvantages of racial prejudice at the resort, they nevertheless enjoyed certain opportunities to outflank white society. Racial barriers more rigidly enforced elsewhere were hard to preserve at the seaside, and sometimes they were largely relaxed.”[13] In other words, one could enjoy sea bathing and walking along the boardwalk in Atlantic City regardless of their race and economic status.

It is likely that the couple captured in this photograph was vacationing in Atlantic City when they elected to sit for this portrait. Their decision was more than just a way to memorialize their experience in a postcard as a souvenir. Vacationing in Atlantic City, and by extension sitting for this photograph, was an action that claimed their right to enjoy a space in the face of racial discrimination. While the couple remains unidentified, and we cannot learn the specifics surrounding this portrait, the photograph does capture an important moment in their life, and it also reflects a significant historical moment in American history.

[1] Alfred M. Heston, Heston’s Hand Book: Atlantic City Illustrated (Atlantic City, NJ: A.M. Heston, 1907) 11.
[2] The Standard Guide of Atlantic City, NJ (Atlantic City, NJ: Standard Guide Publishing Co., 1909) 17.
[3] Ibid, 17.
[4] Ibid, 4.
[5] Richlyn F. Goddard, ‘Three Months to Hurry and Nine Months to Worry’: Resort Life for African Americans in Atlantic City, NJ (1850-1940) (PhD dissertation Howard University Washington DC, 2001) 1.
[6] Ibid, 8-9.
[7] Charles E. Funnell, By the Beautiful Sea: The Rise and High Times of That Great American Resort, Atlantic City (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975) 15.
[8] Goddard, Three Months to Hurry, 9.
[9] State Journal, Harrisburg, PA: September 27, 1824, from African American Newspapers, 1827-1998, accessed November 14, 2017.
[10] Funnell, By the Beautiful Sea, 29.
[11] Ibid, 16.
[12] Ibid, 30.
[13] Ibid, 31.

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