Uptown Beaches

North Clarendon Avenue at Wilson Avenue

Wilson Avenue Bathing Beach, ca. 1910

Wilson Avenue Bathing Beach, ca. 1910

Between 1900 and 1930, as the number of people living on Chicago’s north and northwest sides grew dramatically, the Lake Michigan beachfront was placed into ever greater use by the city’s residents. Indicative of this trend were the beaches in the thriving Uptown business, entertainment, and residential district, including the privately owned Wilson Avenue Beach. Although extremely popular among young Chicagoans, private amusement beaches were frowned upon by politicians, clergy, and other self-respecting citizens in the early years of this century. Among other things, they condemned the excessive alcohol consumption, the risque bathing-suit fashions, and the improper relations between the sexes that these establishments allegedly sponsored and profited from.

In 1911, an especially rowdy summer beach-going season galvanized opposition to the private beaches and boosted support for the construction of a municipally owned and operated beach to the south of the increasingly notorious Wilson Avenue Beach.

Clarendon Municipal Bathing Beach, ca. 1917

Clarendon Municipal Bathing Beach, ca. 1917

Municipally-owned Clarendon Municipal Bathing Beach was the result. Financed by the publicly approved sale of municipal bonds, planning of the new facility began in 1912. The beach was opened to the public in 1915 and the bathing house was completed the year after. Barely two blocks in length, Clarendon Beach attracted over 425,000 admission-paying visitors during the summer of 1916, and this figure soared to an estimated 2 million or more by 1929.

Every measure possible was taken to prevent the sort of rowdiness that bedeviled the nearby private amusement beaches. Policemen carefully patrolled the beach. Alcoholic beverages were discouraged, dress codes were enforced, and men and women were kept apart from mingling with one another, not merely in the locker rooms but also on the beach itself.

Despite the congestion and the restrictions on their activities, beachgoers appeared to have greatly enjoyed their visits, both for social-recreational reasons as well as for more utilitarian ones (e.g., to bathe, to enjoy cool temperatures, etc.). Indications are that, by the late 1910s, the public, not beach officials, were ordering the beach to their own liking. Bathing-suit requirements were gradually relaxed to attract more visitors and co-ed sections of the beach were allotted. Officials even grew to accommodate the less desirable habits of beach-goers, not the least of which was the constant proliferation of picnic garbage and broken soda bottles along the beach.

The campaign to build and effectively manage Clarendon Beach revealed the extent to which Progressive urban reformers influenced matters of popular culture and outdoor recreation into political causes. By regulating access to and behavior upon Uptown’s beaches, they believed it would be possible to instill into the rest of society their own middle-class values and sensibilities.

Internet Resources
Photograph: Bathers in the water at Wilson Avenue beach, 1908 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Ice on rocks in Lake Michigan at the Wilson Avenue bathing beach in winter, 1910 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Men and boys, some wearing bathing suits, playing a ball game in the sand at the Wilson Avenue bathing beach, 1911 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: People wearing street clothes sitting on benches under a roof at the Wilson Avenue bathing beach, 1911 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Clubhouse at Clarendon Beach, 1916 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Women in the waves at Clarendon Beach, 20 June 1916 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Women playing with a beachball at Clarendon Beach, bathing house is visible in the background, 20 June 1916 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Lifeguards, in front of their tent, testing a lung motor machine on a female bather lying on a stretcher on the sand at Clarendon Beach, August 1916 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Bathers standing on the beach and in the water at Clarendon Beach, 1917 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Clarendon bathing beach, Lake Michigan, crowds at West Sunnyside Avenue, 1919 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Wilson bathing beach ,Lake Michigan, rowboats and people in water, 1919 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Two girls pushing a rowboat holding another girl into the water at Clarendon Beach, male lifeguard standing behind them, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Clarendon Beach, a boy flying in midair above a crowd of people who are holding a large blanket, standing on the sand at Clarendon Beach in Chicago, 1929 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Crowds of people wearing bathing suits or street clothes and sitting, lying, and standing on the sand or swimming and standing in the water at Wilson Avenue bathing beach, 1929 [Library of Congress]

Image sources: “Wilson Avenue Bathing Beach,” postcard, V.O. Hammon #1758 (n.d.); Walter D. Moody, What of the City? America’s Greatest Issue–City Planning, What It Is and How to Go About It to Achieve Success (Chicago: A.C. McClurg Co., 1919), 421.