Charleston Museum explores the history of area beaches in new exhibit 

Down by the Boardwalk

click to enlarge Jennifer McCormick is in charge of over 40,000 images in the Charleston Musuem's archive

Jonathan Boncek

Jennifer McCormick is in charge of over 40,000 images in the Charleston Musuem's archive

In 1937 thousands of people flocked to Folly Beach on the Fourth of July. Why? Well, folks, Folly Beach used to be home to the Atlantic Boardwalk, a pier and pavilion that entertained the Charleston area for almost two decades. We're talkin' about the carnival stuff you'd see at Coney Island or Atlantic City, Ferris wheels included.

"You used to just drive onto the sand," says Charleston Museum archivist Jennifer McCormick, the curator of the Lowcountry Image Gallery's current collection, Beaches and Boardwalks. McCormick spent months poring over old black-and-white images, carefully selecting the best pictures to represent Isle of Palms, Folly, and Sullivan's in their heyday. Think it's hard to find a parking spot on IOP now? Try getting there before 1926, the first year cars were allowed over the bridge. Before then you'd hop on the trolley, with tracks running through Sullivan's Island, which explains the station post markers that remain today — stations marked trolley stops.

McCormick stands before each image in the exhibit, explaining how the photos found their way into the museum. "These Folly images were used as ads for the Oceanfront Plaza," she says, referencing an image, taken at night, that seems surprisingly clear for something created before modern cameras. The history of the images is almost as interesting as the images themselves, with many collected from prolific photographers of the '20s and '30s, like Morton Brailsford Paine, Louis Schwartz, and Franklin Frost Sams.

A lot of the photos came to McCormick on glass negatives, like our personal favorite, a photo of a man and his son crouching near the edge of the water, their reflections glimmering in the wet sand. "The process deteriorates, the acetate degrades over time," says McCormick, pointing to the fuzzy lines around the image.

The exhibits' pictures are, for the most part, blown up from their original size. They maintain the clear integrity of the original shot, showing none of the fuzzy pixelation common to expanded digital images. "When you blow them up, you notice things. You get new info," says McCormick. We stand before a large image showing at least 20 cars parked on IOP's beach and notice individuals you couldn't have seen on a smaller image. One man stands half-hidden before an open car door, changing into his bathing suit behind a towel. One man appears to be pushing his car — we can only assume frantically — as waves lap dangerously close to its wheels.

In her research McCormick discovered that during the first half of the 20th century, most people traveled to Folly and IOP for entertainment and to Sullivan's to live. In the early 1900s Folly wasn't even inhabitable. Not really, at least, with the only residents set up in tents and condemned railroad boxcars. It wasn't until 1936 that Folly Road was actually paved, with the original dirt road piling up with cars every day of the summer. Sound familiar? It's clear in these images, both in McCormick's carefully curated exhibit and history books that detail Folly and IOP (check out Images of America: Isle of Palms and Folly Beach: A Brief History for more info), that Charleston's beaches have been a popular destination for many years.

One image shows a large crowd near IOP's pier, which was home to a popular dancing pavilion — the largest in the South, frolicking in their woolen bathing suits and waving to people perched on cars on the shore. Beachgoers arrived at the shore fully clothed, which necessitated the existence of bathing houses where men and women could change into their suits. The history of bathing suits is fascinating enough, so fascinating, that the Charleston Museum put together a blog showing the timeline of suits from the 1890s to the 1940s, with early 20th-century bathing gear featuring long sleeves and pants' legs, probably not too comfortable in a Charleston summer.

But swimming wasn't the only entertainment at the beaches. IOP boasted the steeplechase, five mechanical horses that raced around a U-shaped track. We peer closely at the image depicting this and see two women, fully dressed head to toe, speeding towards the camera. The image is sweet in its innocence and shocking in its content — can you imagine a wooden horse track allowed on any beach, anywhere, today?

There is certainly the sentiment of nostalgia in these images, something McCormick is all too aware of. She came up with the idea for the Lowcountry Image Gallery, a small space carved out into the museum's designated Civil War space, because she had access to all of these old Charleston images, but no place to put them. She has plans for a couple more exhibits, plantations and natural disasters, but she's not even sure if she'll have the small exhibit space that long. With plans for upcoming renovations, the museum may need to use her photo walls for something else.

"This is technically temporary," says McCormick. As temporary, of course, as Charleston's entertainment-focused beaches.

IOP's pavilion burned in 1953, the same year that cars were banned from racing on the beach. Folly's pier burned down in 1957 — the pier you see today was constructed in 1995. With tides, fires, and the relentless drumbeat of time, the fun times on Folly and IOP faded away to construction, roads, and lots of residences.

With a collection of over 40,000 images, McCormick doesn't plan on letting these images fade into the past, though, saying, "It's one thing to hear about history, but another to see it. It helps transport you to that period."

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