Each year my family and I take a week at the beach, rent a furnished house as close to the water as we can afford, and spend our time participating in various seaside activities, from body surfing to putt-putt to collecting pretty bits of ocean detritus. We buy souvenirs and take home hermit crabs destined for backyard funerals. We buy towels printed with locally humorous sayings, destination place-names, or oversize images of one-million-dollar bills. For the duration of our stay, we live in an oddly rarefied visual environment determined by the landlord, amid pirate heads made of coconut shells, tongue-in-groove ceilings and walls, shell-motif furnishings, and mini replicas of schooners. Beach-house aesthetics remind us of a familial past lived on and near the water, an experience most middle-class Americans, including us, can’t claim. Ours is a nostalgia for an illusion.
Middle-class Americans have been spending a week at the beach—renting houses, borrowing cottages, or taking rooms in boardinghouses or motels—since the late nineteenth century, but most avidly since World War II, with the burgeoning of car culture, the standardization of vacation time for workers, the advent of the family vacation in the Eisenhower years, and the parallel popularity of what Susan Rugh (and others) has called “the ritual of mobile citizenship”—that is, in part, driving as a family to national monuments and parks. But the beach week is also an act of museumgoing. The beach house as a museum employs a coherent aesthetic variously termed “shabby chic,” “coastal chic,” “coastal style,” and “cottage” (although “cottage” has an inland connotation for many interior decorators). The beach house includes a paean to a life at sea as well as to a life barely ashore, but does so by referring to lives that were never lived, representing an original ethos that looks to be based on a previous generation’s values—but isn’t.
By incorporating handmade objects or handicrafts with mass-produced art—using materials such as driftwood, pebbles, raffia, rattan, and seashells, along with molded plastics, reproductions of paintings, and mechanically rendered screen prints—the curator of the beach house hopes to “blur the boundaries between indoors and out,” according to Sally Hayden and Alice Whately, authors of the coffee-table work Coastal Style: Home Decorating Ideas Inspired by Seaside Living. Extensive use of glass and rough wood architecturally promotes the “easy rusticity” of coastal style. Altogether, the aim is to serve as a “calming reminder… a soothing, well-ordered impression,” to provide a “breezy, barefoot feel” and evoke a “maritime mood.” The beach house as a museum institutionalizes reverie.
Rent a beach house for a week, and become a participant in a museum installation. Surrounded by embedded objects that look like mementos, that aren’t “real” but constructed, and that aren’t supposed to be touched or removed from the premises—the description could apply to one of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster shows—the vacationer pays for temporary values and becomes a participant in transactional aesthetics. On the living-room floor stands a pelican made out of driftwood, with seashell eyes and saw-grass feathers. The pelican is kind of campy, kind of kitschy, but not entirely either; it’s a guardian of an idyll. Proper souvenirs are available for purchase off-site. These nearby shops offer reminders of the week but, unlike the souvenirs for sale in a museum gift shop, no replicas of any artworks exist. You can’t buy a postcard of the exact view from your picture window, nor will you find a souvenir of the exact same driftwood pelican in your living room. There are no reproductions to be had. The beach-house museum can be memorialized only by association, and by the souvenirs like the objects in the museum. What if visitors who see Guernica could buy postcards in the Museo Reina Sofia only of a generic matador and a bull?
In her seminal 1984 work, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, poet and critic Susan Stewart writes, “The souvenir speaks to a context of origin through a language of longing, for it is not an object out of need or use value; it is an object arising out of the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia.” How might the souvenir be read as an act of nostalgia when the nostalgia itself is for a nonexistent past located exclusively in what Jean Baudrillard has called America’s “perpetual present”? The driftwood pelican sculpture reads like a souvenir—the fundamental iconography of coastal style is rooted in the idea of the souvenir—but it’s a souvenir that’s rented and can never be owned. In this museum, middle-class Americans rent their weeklong nostalgia, live amid their family’s non-belongings, and participate in the active consumption of artwork related to longing, though the real object of their longing is leisure itself.
The origins of the modern-day beach vacation may be located in the history of hydrotherapy in Europe: from the natatoriums of Roman times to the various spas, saunas, medicinal waters, and ritual shvitzes, hydrotherapy has long been part of both social and hygienic practices. But hydrotherapy requires that the patient be still—and stillness has often been associated with laziness, the morality of doing nothing viewed skeptically, especially by the clergy. In this light, hydrotherapy and ritual bathing may be seen as having developed as excuses for leisure, a clinical rationale for behaviors otherwise understood to be morally suspect.
Hydrotherapy was originally neither accessible nor affordable, at least not in the ways that seaside bathing would eventually become. Not to mention the houses themselves: until the end of the eighteenth century, seaside homes were built to face away from the sea, and often were nestled in naturally protected areas or harbor towns. As Sidney Parker remarks in Jane Austen’s unfinished 1817 novel, Sanditon, “The true sailor prefers to be landlocked rather than face the ocean.” When seaside houses edged closer and turned to face the water, the view became newly valued as an aspect of vacationers’ experiences, scenery and reverie romantically linked.
When we think of seaside aesthetics and coastal style, a number of staple materials come to mind, the most notable of which may be rattan and wicker. The story of rattan and wicker parallels the story of the American beach house from the mid-nineteenth century until the present, a tale of ingenuity and capitalist ambition that relates in complex ways to the currency of the beach house as a museum, as well as a site of middle-class nostalgia.
In the 1830s, a New Hampshire farm boy, Cyrus Wakefield, owned a grocery concern in Boston with his younger brother, Enoch. Cyrus purportedly moonlighted reselling wooden barrels and casks salvaged from the Boston docks. Sometime in this period, as John Wall relates in the local history Wakefield: 350 Years by the Lake, Cyrus came upon discarded packing materials made of cane, and after years of experimentation learned that the cane could be molded into sinuous shapes, that it was inordinately strong for its weight, and that when hand-split, the cane’s pith yielded an even lighter, tensile material suitable for use. Cyrus and Enoch Wakefield folded their grocery store and founded the Wakefield Rattan Company.
For a number of years, the Wakefield Rattan Company enjoyed a monopoly on cane in the United States; the company’s success led to the burgeoning of the company town, Wakefield, Massachusetts, as the firm developed from an importer of cane to a manufacturer of rattan and wicker products. Hoops for skirts were by far the most popular item produced by Wakefield Rattan—1,328,000 skirt hoops were produced in 1860 by the firm—but Cyrus wasn’t done imagining a new American future. At the end of the Civil War, with business still booming, the company employed its own shipping concern for importing cane from the Far East, and began to offer a line of furniture. The furniture was key: Cyrus Wakefield apparently foresaw the demise of the hoop skirt, and invested considerably and brilliantly in the technology necessary to mechanically produce both rattan and wicker, the latter material from a grass rather than from a palm (although the two materials are often referred to interchangeably, according to Dr. Stephen Siebert of the University of Montana, author of The Nature and Culture of Rattan: Reflections on Vanishing Life in the Forests of Southeast Asia).
There’s good reason to pursue the story of rattan. In the 1870s, Wakefield Rattan merged with its chief competitor to become the Heywood-Wakefield Company. By the end of the decade, which included the firm’s successful showing of its wares in a major exhibition at the 1876 centennial held in Philadelphia, Heywood-Wakefield had become instrumental in helping create demand for summer-home furniture among a new echelon of Americans, middle-class suburbanites. By the beginning of the twentieth century, rattan and wicker were commonly found in suburban homes, especially in lakeside and seaside dwellings. Rattan and wicker furniture was—and still is—considered “exotic,” its designs associated vaguely with the Far East, and advertised as such, even though Heywood-Wakefield’s furniture was never imported from the Far East: the designs were generated in Wakefield. Nowadays, of course, given globalization and outsourcing, rattan furniture may well be imported directly from southeast Asia (especially from Indonesia, notes Dr. Siebert), but rattan and wicker in American furniture design dates from the nineteenth century, and may be attributed to the acumen of Cyrus Wakefield. In effect, rattan furniture in American beach houses is an American invention—as are the values with which such furniture is linked.
As one of the exotic objects associated exclusively with leisure living, rattan embodies the “calming reminder” and “soothing, well-ordered precision” described in Coastal Style, the orientalized concepts of the furniture having become part and parcel of the beach-house experience. But we’re talking about more than the offerings of Pier 1 or World Market. Since the 1950s, consumption of the exotic in the beach house has coincided with a notion of leisure originating in more than just orientalism or material consumption. Consider the difference between a particle-board-and-foam IKEA couch in a two-bedroom apartment in Dupont Circle, an oak Colonial bedroom set in a house in Potomac, and a rattan rocking chair on a Rehoboth Beach porch: materials and objects mean. From the names of the beach houses (e.g., “We Did It,” “It’s 5 o’Clock Somewhere,” “Seaclusion,” “The Last Resort,” “Building Memoreez”) to the ubiquitous lighthouse ornaments and sunset scenes on the walls, the particulars of the beach-house week codify and signify. Rattan remains one of the more conspicuous and popular materials dedicated to an imagined notion of reverie in a museum of leisure.
So what does the pelican made of driftwood mean? The materials are scavenged from wood washed ashore, feathered with dried dune grass, and adorned with seashells—“an empty shell… invites day-dreams of refuge,” according to Gaston Bachelard. The whole thing resembles a prehistoric bird that has been split from scavenged wood and glued together to look like a pelican, the realism outsize. But the pelican could have been made by anyone with access to the materials: this DIY replica is memorialized in the form of attainable sculpture. The pelican says: You can do this too, Americans. Anyone can live here—that is, anyone who can afford to rent a beach house for a week, middle-class folk particularly welcome, kids OK, dogs permitted for an additional fee. Anyone can be inundated with such an abundance of leisure time that he or she might even pursue a self-expressive hobby, such as making driftwood pelican sculptures.
The beach-house museum also houses a number of actual paintings. In my annually rented museum, a huge six-by-eight print of waves breaking over rocks hangs in the living room, the sky in the artwork muted and gray. Five seagulls on the wing scan the shallows for edibles. The palette has a Caspar David Friedrich feel, especially in the murkiness of the horizon and sky. The surf in the scene looks dramatically rough, the breakers and spray highlighted in white. The sun could be setting, given the angle of the light source—although upon inspection, two light sources can be identified, one from the sky and another, bizarrely, from the viewer’s implied position on the beach.
The second light source reads as a mistake, but also an argument: the transactional aesthetics of the beach-house print require the viewer and the unseen sun together to activate the seascape. The frozen millisecond of the breaking waves and splattering spray seems suitable for contemplation, an artificial stillness best appreciated by the artificially still. Out the window, there’s the ocean in motion; in the beach-house museum, there’s the ocean in stopped time. Reverie awaits today—courtesy of the Florida-based company American Rattan, which currently offers an almost-identical free painting, Seagulls Flying Over Waves Theme, valued at $19, with any order over $500.
Let’s look more closely at the naming of beach houses, and take as a test case one small island beach in southern North Carolina. The beach house I like to rent (and can afford only if the three other bedrooms are taken by friends, all of us staunchly mired in middle-class incomes, if that, as teachers or artists) stands on a nine-mile island called Holden Beach. Purchased from the British in 1756 by Benjamin Holden, mostly for fishing and cattle grazing, what is now Holden Beach stayed in the Holden family for generations, and was used primarily in utilitarian ways for over 150 years. In 1925, Benjamin’s grandson “Mr. Johnny”—the Southern-ness of that appellation notable, and perhaps frightening—built a bridge to the island and opened “Holden Beach Resort,” though the bridge was soon torn down by the Intracoastal Waterway construction, a federal project. In 1934, public ferry service began to the island, and a tumbridge was added in 1954. After the devastation of Hurricane Hazel, which struck Holden Beach on October 15, 1954, as a Category 4 storm, it took thirty-two years before a high-rise bridge would service the approximately seventeen hundred homes on the island.
Holden Beach is accessible by car and boat, and boasts a public campground for RVs and tents but few motels and almost no restaurants; there are sixteen public-access beaches on the island, but very little public parking. As a result, most beachgoers arrive for a week’s stay, and the majority of the summer housing consists of full-week rentals, only a few of which are high-end (in a gated community at the westernmost tip, where there are no public-access beaches). Alan Holden Vacations—its 2012 catalog is called ESCAPE—caters to middle-class vacationers and, especially, to middle-class families: “Safety, water, sewer, and all the services expected are available to help ensure that a vacation generating fond memories can be found here.”
Beach houses are named by their owners. From the more predictable “Water’s Edge” condos, of which there are twenty available for rent, to houses named “Conky Tonkin’,” “On Holden Pond,” and “Club Ed,” the houses along Ocean Beach Boulevard line up like a series of Jeff Foxworthy one-liners. The genre is comedy, the playfulness and the wit of the owners on parade: “Breathe E-Z,” “C-D-C,” “Sand N Yr Shorts,” “Ship’s N,” “What’s Up Dock,” and “Worker’s Compensation.” It’s an ode to pop art; it’s a paean to witty newspaper headlines; it’s a self-satire of an English manor home. Houses with names are different from homes without names; houses for rent need to be catchy destinations that appeal to consumers, while homes need street addresses. In effect, the museum of leisure named “Wedidit” announces the owner’s middle-class success—by suggesting he or she has finally been able to afford a beach house (albeit rented out)—while embracing the tenant’s middle-class aspirations, by suggesting that vacationing at Wedidit is an accomplishment unto itself.
A beach house usually has an outdoor shower enclosed within a wooden stall. The floorboards are often left open, so as to allow for drainage; sand, salt, and sunscreen wash below, neatly out of sight, the plumbing nature’s own. Utilitarian and sanitary, the outdoor shower also serves a ritual function: the washing off of the day’s activities effected in advance of the evening’s festivities. After dark, the interior of the beach house—the museum—becomes most activated, with sun-worshippers returning to what Hayden and Whateley call a “soporific sanctum.” The outdoor shower, often roughly hewn and practical, makes washing up an essential part of the vacationer’s day, with all beachgoers treated equally as tradespeople who aren’t allowed inside as is. It’s not the same as hosing off the kids in the backyard: the lines between outside and inside indeed blur as coastal style dictates, the shower alien to a suburbanite’s experience, as an evocation of class and work, but also architecturally distinct from middle-class living.
Coastal style is rife with similar class confusions: “Blistered paint surfaces evoke memories of old fishing boats, paint-flaked beach huts, and derelict lighthouses,” claim Hayden and Whateley. The materials endorsed clearly indicate the vacationers’ longing, and also document how detached the beach-house reverie is from middle-class experience. Whose memories are we trying to evoke? Why would we want to remember an old fishing boat that needs a coat of paint, or an abandoned lighthouse? What are “paint-flaked beach huts”?
Also, let’s not forget that oceans kill people, especially those throughout history who have endeavored to make their living on or from the water. The violence and the poverty of these lives have been excised from the beach-house museum—a censoring of its collected works of art.
Which isn’t to assign particular responsibility or blame to Hayden and Whateley: “shabby chic” remains a distinct decorative style, and has its satisfactions, as many of the gorgeous photos in Coastal Style attest to, even where “brightly colored floats, reels, flies, lures, and other fishing tackle” introduce a “gritty, workmanlike feel.”
Coastal style isn’t exclusively a memorial to seafarers, or blue-collar lives; the “easy rusticity” of the aesthetic allows for class ambitions as part of the decor. As Hayden and Whateley comment, “Glossy mahogany, which calls to mind the deluxe interior of an expensive yacht, is a surefire way to add gravitas and weight to your interior spaces.” The beach-house as a museum often evokes seagoing leisure, the paneling of the bedrooms nautically inspired, the tongue-in-groove floor or ceiling boards born of shipbuilding techniques that evoke a “cool, colonial feel.” Look for the model yacht among the driftwood pelicans in the living room, or the portrait of the pipe-puffing sea dog; check for inoperable barometers and mysterious block-and-tackle objects deployed strategically as decorative elements; there might even be an imitation ship’s wheel on the wall, or a lightweight anchor in a bedroom. Living in a rented beach house for a week can be very much like living on a fake tall ship, only without the ship. Just remember to shower thoroughly before you step into the galley-gallery, down your first g-and-t, and toast the driftwood pelican’s knowing, nostalgic calm.