Jersey Wash Day

Marriott C. Morris took many photographs at his family’s summer home in Sea Girt, New Jersey over the course of his life. While a majority of the negatives in the Library Company’s collection show various views of their estate Avocado, a small series of negatives shows large crowds and carriages as far as the eye can see on the beach. But what are all of these people doing here? And why does this event seem to only last for one day each year?

Morris had captured images of the famous Jersey Wash Day, also variously known as Salt Water Day, Ocean Day, Farmer’s Wash Day, and Beach Day, among others. It was a tradition held by farmers living in a radius of twenty or thirty miles from the shore. Once a year on the second Saturday of August, these locals would gather at the beach for a sort-of harvest celebration, with picnics and bathing in the ocean.  No sources I looked at could pin-point exactly when this tradition began. Some claimed a Native American origin based on (likely false) stories of ancient clam bakes by the sea. Most scholars today debunk this as myth. According to various contemporary sources, the event seems to have started small. It existed at least before 1853, long before the area became a popular tourist destination, when Robert Stockton bought up the sea-side land in the area and named it Sea Girt. Similar excursions also happened around Raritan Bay and South Amboy. The Sea Girt holiday seems to have picked up speed as the century progressed, with crowds swelling larger and larger and the celebrations becoming more involved. By the time Morris began photographing the event, Salt Water Day had become a festival ground on the beach, with games to play and food vendors selling treats.

While Salt Water Day was never officially advertised, it still managed to attract attention. Many contemporary accounts comment on the “rustic” nature of the event. Apparently, it was quite a spectacle for city folk to see the masses of farmers descending on the beach. Reports on the event focus on the elaborate bathing costumes worn by men and women throughout the day.  [Marriott Canby Morris. Wash Day. Morris too seemed to be fascinated by the festivities happening nearby, as evidenced by these negatives. Salt Water Day eventually became a relic of the past. By 1905, the more affluent residents and vacation house owners of Sea Girt complained to the municipal government about the rowdy festivities and asked for the event to be moved to another beach. By around the 1930s the farmers’ holiday appears to have ended. These images capture a tradition that once meant a great deal to the people living in the area surrounding Sea Girt. While today we do not have a comparable type of festival day at the beach, we do still appreciate our beach vacations.

Em Ricciardi
Curatorial and Reading Room Assistant