On June 26, 1870, the first section of the Atlantic City Boardwalk opened along the New Jersey beach. Dr. Jonathan Pitney and civil engineer Richard Osborne began developing the area on Absecon Island in the early 1850s. Long before this time, members of the Lenni-Lenape tribe were the first seasonal visitors to enjoy the summer splendor of the island.
Beautiful beaches, fresh sea air, luxurious hotels, fine restaurants, alluring shops, and a connecting railroad line from Camden, New Jersey, drew visitors from all over the world. Atlantic City soon became a popular summer resort and winter health spa.
Alexander Boardman, a railroad conductor, and Jacob Keim, a hotelier, conceived of the idea of constructing a boardwalk as a means of keeping sand out of the railroad cars and hotels. The city used its tax revenues to build an eight-foot-wide temporary wooden walkway from the beach into town that could be dismantled during the winter.
The rolling chair, introduced in 1884, was the only vehicle allowed on the boardwalk. The boardwalk was soon extended by an enormous amusement pier, the Steel Pier, visible in the background of the photograph above.
Any consideration of the boardwalk demands at least a nod to salt water taffy, a favorite beachside treat. Taffy, a candy made of corn syrup and white sugar is boiled; the confection is pulled and folded, then rolled into a long strip from which shorter (about two-inch-long) strips are cut, wrapped in stick resistant paper, and sold. Along the Atlantic City Boardwalk folks have purchased the product since at least the early 1880s. In 1925, the Supreme Court ruled that the term “salt water taffy” could not be trademarked, a decision which saved candy manufacturers from paying millions of dollars to John R. Edmiston of Wildwood, New Jersey, who claimed to be the originator of the candy and had applied for registration of the term with the U.S. Patent Office.
Early bathers wore bathing dresses of wool flannel with stockings, canvas shoes, and large straw hats. The more daring bloomer suits and stockings worn by these bathing beauties did not catch on until 1907. Censors roamed the beaches monitoring bathers’ self-exposure and looking for offenders who showed more flesh than the local code allowed.
Originally titled “Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest,” and traditionally held in Atlantic City since 1921, the Miss America pageant moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2006. The above photograph captures the 1926 contestants vying for the Golden Mermaid trophy.
- Search on Atlantic City in these collections to find more images of this summer attraction:
- Search on Atlantic City in the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress to find correspondence Bell wrote during a 1901 stay in Atlantic City.
- Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies contains two panoramic films of a moving boardwalk, or platform mobile, a novelty featured at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Search on boardwalk to find them.