In 1875, a year before the centennial in 1876, Philadelphians published a book celebrating the history and heritage of their city. Included in the volume was a short description of Cape May, the favored bathing-place of the city dwellers. It provides a fascinating look at our town over a hundred years ago….
From time immemorial the citizens of Philadelphia have made their bathing-place of the Atlantic near the mouth of the Delaware River, -- resorting to Cape May as the wealthy Romans used to resort to Capri. To reach the spot, they were at first obliged to overcome all the inconveniences of bad roads and primitive boating facilities, until the invention of Robert Fulton and Oliver Evans gave them the power of reaching the spot with the speed of steam. In about three hours by locomotive, or in nine hours by steamer, they can now follow the axis-line of the long State of New Jersey, and arrive without fatigue at its southern extremity. Here the powerful surf of the Atlantic rolls upon the extremity of the peninsula, or drives the fresh water before it goes up the broad channel of Delaware Bay.
The curious feature of the little city of Cape May is that it combines the fashionable watering place with the rude provincial settlement. From the early part of the present century, it commenced to grow, as a humble aggregation of rustic houses and marine shops, where the fishermen and harvesters of the neighboring inlets might come to sell their produce, visit the doctor, leave their sunburnt children at the school, or gather for worship in the low-roofed church. The primitive buildings of this state of civilization still remain, covering a large flat area that stretches back from the sea, and sheltering a permanent village population of fifteen hundred souls; but this rude maritime settlement is now everywhere overshadowed and pierced by gorgeous modern structures, that lift their ornamental fronts among the weather-stained walls, and make a contrast like “cloth of gold matched with cloth of frieze.” The ambitious hotels have usurped the whole sea-front. The street-corners are occupied by fanciful shops for the sale of stylish trifles. Splendid equipages with liveried drivers dash between the rude antique houses. Modern villas of fanciful device are steadily pushing down the boatmen’s cottages and the humble country stores.
All through the winter and spring this aristocratic element is fast asleep. The monstrous hotels are as lifeless as the temples of Palmyra, -- their carpets are stripped from the floors and hung, to prevent molding, as festoons over the stair-railings; in the centre of the parlor floors, where the figures of the dance are wont to be woven, are mountains of chairs; vast heaps of crockery are built upon the tables in the dining-halls, and the pantries are piled with transparent structures of chandelier-globes, goblets, fruit-dishes in dozens, and salt-cellars in hundreds. Only the steps of a solitary watchman echo from time to time through the corridors, to prove that the lethargy is only sleep, not death. At the same time the private cottages stretch along the streets in long, inanimate rows, like the backbones of extinct monsters stranded by the sea, and emptied of the nerve and marrow that gave them purpose and energy in the battle of life. During these months the original and natural life of Cape May creeps timidly into notice. The rustic shops are visited by half-idle farmers, buying saddles, ax-handles, bags, or stoneware for the toiling wives at home. The village respectables come out and exchange modest visits, -- the schoolmaster and his wife calling upon Mr. and Mrs. Editor, the boat-builder and carpenter discussing the price of timber, and the clergyman receiving timid calls from the old maids and widows of the place. As spring opens, a new wave of animation steals over the village, prophetic of the great change that the warm weather is to bring. Truck gardens are manured with sea-weed and crushed crab-shells. The eggs of the horseshoe crab are collected in great quantities to feed whole aviaries of “spring chickens,” – accounting for the strange, sea-like flavor that city guests will presently notice and wonder at in those India-rubbery fowls. As June progresses, the farmers in the vicinity paint their boats, the fishermen grease their wagons – for in this amphibious region the yeomen are sailors, the sailors are yeomen, and the distinction between sea-faring and land-culture is merged in a pleasant confusion. Old nags – their coats as furry and salty as those of Neptune’s sea-horses – are clipped, curried, and made presentable; the father mends up the old harness with home-learnt skill, and rubs with oil the cracking cover of the dearborn; the son buys a box of paper collars; the gingham-gowned daughter pays additional visits to the barnyard, feeds the hens with a novel prodigality that astonishes those mild pensioners, and, like the immemorial girl of the fable, counts by scores and hundreds of dozens the fortune-bringing eggs that are not hatched, and may never be. If the summer’s business turns out well, the girl will come out with money for several new dresses, and the boy, after driving city belles all July and August, will be ready to marry a country one in September.
With the advancing season come certain signs that indicate to the citizen that July is at hand. The amphibious farmer of Cape May begins to prepare for his crops. His harvest is the rich citizen. “John,” he says to his son, “drop the oysters in brackish water in the inlet yonder, and take care you let them fall hinge down. Give them as much water to drink as they see fit.” That is the easy way in which the Cape May caterer feeds his bivalves for the inevitable oyster-stew of supper-time. A lean oyster, dropped properly into the liquid mud of the channels, where the soft water overflows him, will become firm and fat in a single night. “Ben and Tom,” continues the purveyor, “you must put the wheels on to the old wagon, and prepare to scoop me up a couple of bushels of soft crabs every day while the season lasts.” At the same time, the old man knows that he has a sure and liberal market secured for all the fine hay he has reaped from the salt meadow, for the Indian corn and tomatoes he has planted in his garden-patch, for the yield of the potato-acre, and for the calves and pigs whose infant graces are ripening, behind the barn.
Thus, when the season fairly arrives, every member of the farmer’s family is thrown out, like a tentacle, to suck in wealth and gain; every article of value in his possession is utilized, his goods are hired, his industry is directed to the same end, and the city man who employs the rough, freckled countryman to drive him for his pleasure, hardly feels the truth, that this homely rustic may be prepared, with the result of his accumulated savings, to buy him out ten times over. At the hotels, for a month before the earliest and hardiest city visitor appears, there are carpenters hammering, painters hanging like spiders from the eaves of lofty hotels, upholsterers stretching carpets, plumbers and gas-fitters darkly burying miles of pipe inside of solid walls. Then, on the eve of the opening-day, regiments of exiled and melancholy cooks come down by the train, with their white caps folded tip inside their French chests; whole choruses of waiters arrive, chattering and whistling; silent, stout men wander into the village with little caskets containing violins or oboes. Finally, the dazzling hotel clerk assumes his sweet smile and fixes himself like a jewel at the desk, and the season is opened.
Cape May is inferior to Newport in the solidity of its buildings, but with that exception, is, perhaps, the most substantial looking of our sea-side resorts. The finest hotels are more solid and ornamental, for example, than the finest of Long Branch. The Stockton House and Congress Hall are summer palaces that easily vie with the most splendid at Saratoga. Besides these, there are the Columbia, Atlantic, Sea-Breeze, United States, and Ocean Houses – each of them the favorite with certain classes and families, who loudly cry up their chosen resting-places. During the months of July and August the town literally becomes a Philadelphia-on-the-Sea; the visitors are old Philadelphia neighbors, who greet each other as they drive on the beach as they have habitually greeted each other in driving through Fairmount Park. The hotel parlors are filled with old acquaintances, g