Gorillas on the Beach

Twenty five years ago, three of these guys could have been fined for walking shirtless on the Rehoboth boardwalk. It’s true. Sure, there are some guys whom I’d rather not see without a shirt. But to legislate it? Well, that’s exactly what Rehoboth did, beginning in the 1930s and again in 1960 and in 1975.

It wasn’t until July 1980 that it finally became legal for men to walk on the Boardwalk without a shirt. That year, the City, in a 5-2 vote repealed its ordinance requiring males over the age of 5 to wear shirts on the Boardwalk after 6 p.m. and to wear shirts at all times “west of the Boardwalk.”

These ordinances, according to newspaper articles at the time, were put in place to protect Rehoboth’s “family image.” The 1975 affirmation of the ban was triggered supposedly because a city employee was spotted working outside without his shirt on. As absurd as it sounds, Rehoboth wasn’t alone in trying to keep the male torso covered.

It took a long time for the public to accept the idea of the bare male chest at the beach. The now infamous “Bathing Suit Regulations” issued in 1917 by the American Association of Park Superintendents—and quickly adopted by most public and private beaches throughout the nation—required men’s bathing suits to be worn with a shirt. The regulations were imposed in response to young beachgoers beginning to express a more relaxed and liberal view of revealing the body at the beach.

In the 1930s, the swimwear industry was revolutionized by the introduction of Lastex, a rubber yarn, and by the subsequent new form-fitting and pared down swimsuit designs like the “speed suit,” a one piece suit with deeply slashed armholes and closed leg trunks, and the “topper,” a convertible-style suit that allowed men to unzip and remove the top.

In 1933, the B.V.D. Company used Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller to promote its swimsuit line. Due to his recommendations of extra low cut arm holes on tank tops, a natural waist, and an extra full seat, what came about was the first pair of modern bathing trunks—which actually debuted first in France because conservatives in America still insisted on the two-piece suit. In an attempt to gain more public acceptance, companies tried to streamline the trunks with a more “dressed” look. This was done by showing a simulated fly front and giving them a kind of belt or buckle effect.

In 1936, the battle for men to wear only trunks on the beach heated up. Topless men were banned from the beaches of Atlantic City because the city fathers didn’t want “gorillas” on the beach. Galveston, Texas, still required men to wear tops. New York City and Cleveland permitted trunks and no tops. When Atlantic City finally acquiesced in 1937, the rest of the country followed suit, including Rehoboth Beach. City Ordinance 18 called for a $5 fine for unduly and improper exposure of his or her person on any beach or strand, boardwalk, or other public place within the City. It went on to say that male bathers could remove their top on the beach “east” of the Boardwalk and aren’t subject to this provision.

I’ve yet to uncover any articles or irate letters to the editor about all this—the microfiche at the Rehoboth Library isn’t the greatest quality… I can’t help but think that if topless men on the beach caused an uproar in Atlantic City, it certainly should have in a more conservative Rehoboth Beach.

On May 1, 2005, Cape May, New Jersey, lifted its ban on men wearing Speedos on the beach and also agreed to lift a rule that stopped bare-chested men from strolling the beach promenade. The “Speedo ban” was enacted in the 1960s in response to complaints about homosexual men who wore the suits on the beach. I’ve been told that this was just part of a larger effort by Cape May to get rid of gays and lesbians. I wouldn’t be surprised if the anti-gay atmosphere in Cape May coupled with the demise of the thriving gay ghetto in Atlantic City in the mid-70s when gambling arrived helped fuel Rehoboth’s rise in popularity among Mid-Atlantic gays and lesbians in the late 70s.

So gentleman, be proud, be bare. And embrace the gorilla within. Just look in the mirror first.


Mosquitoes, Matrons, and Biting Flies

Oh, constant singer in the night
And ruthless prober of my skin,

You flimsy, winged satellite,
How did you manage to get in?

Your whining voice inside the screen,

Tells me you’re much disturbed
As to whether “in” is really “in”,
Now that your liberty is curbed.

I’m long past the point now,

I don’t care if you bite,
But please stop your crooning
And let me sleep, one night.

No, I didn’t write this ditty. It’s called “To a Mosquito” and it was written in 1943 by Gilbert Byron, a Delaware poet. Mosquitoes and biting flies have been a part of coastal Delaware’s history since the time of the early settlers.

In the early 1900s, it’s been reported, clouds of mosquitoes enveloped Rehoboth at sunset. And up until the late 1930’s, according to a guide book of the times, farm families huddled around “smothers” of smouldering green leaves, and farm animals were driven to bellowing madness by swarms of stinging insects.

One still encounters mosquitoes and biting flies in Rehoboth. The “salt marsh mosquito” is the primary pest species in coastal Delaware. It can fly great distances to find a blood meal. The “salt-marsh greenhead fly” so named because of its large green eyes, most common during the summer, is the most abundant and annoying of the biting fly species on the salt marshes and nearby bathing beaches at Gordon’s Pond State Park. The biting flies at Gordon’s Pond are particularly irritating when the wind blows from the west and pushes them onto the beach. Thankfully, the problem is manageable. Due in part to Mrs. H.B. Thompson, whom I like to refer to as “the mosquito queen of Rehoboth.”

Mrs. H.B. Thompson was a wealthy summer resident of Rehoboth. She hailed from Greenville, Delaware, and she led a group of women in an effort to rid Rehoboth of its mosquito problems in the 1930s. Largely through her efforts with the Village Improvement Association, Rehoboth undertook a massive ditching project. Civilian Conservation Corps soldiers armed with shovels began in the marshes surrounding Rehoboth Beach but soon spread north and south along the length of the state’s coastline. The intent was to drain the marshes of expanses of standing water that served as mosquito breeding grounds.

By 1938, more than 2,000 miles of ditches had been dug, which helped curb the plague of salt-marsh mosquitos in the state. In her battle with Rehoboth’s mosquitoes, Mrs. H.B. Thompson consulted with experts from President Theodore Roosevet’s administration who had experience with mosquitoes during the building of the Panama Canal. She brought valuable tactical advice back to Rehoboth: massive doses of kerosene spray, drainage ditches, and proper disposal of debris and discarded automobiles and tires. Makes you wonder what this place looked like…

One of the state’s most influential women, Mrs. H.B. Thompson was also instrumental in establishing the Rehoboth Art Leage. She detested bright lipstick on women and even led the fight to defeat giving women the right to vote in Delaware. When the bill was defeated in the State Legislature, the story goes that the anti-suffragettes raised Mrs. H.B. Thompson up on a chair and carried her around he State House in triumph. Her summer cottage is still around, if you’re interested in taking a look — its the tasteful shingled house at the corner of Park Avenue and First Street that goes by the name of “Mon Plaisir.”

It’s her writing that is the photo for this story. I photographed it from a letter she wrote to Irenee du Pont in 1928, inviting him down to spend the weekend with her in Rehoboth. Irenee and Mrs. H.B. Thompson wrote each other frequently. His correspondence was often addressed to her as “Dear Queen.” Of course it was.