Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Why Sylvia Plath Loved to Tan

Boston's L Street Beach and Bathhouse, 1915

Sylvia Plath in her story/memoir “Among the Bumblebees” described how her big strapping father swam expertly and let her cling to him, but Aurelia Plath in Letters Home (22) clarified that it was Sylvia’s grandfather, Aurelia’s father Francis Schober, who took Sylvia on those memorable swims. In 1914 Schober was one of four Boston hotel waiters in the support boat as fellow waiter Charles Toth aced the Boston Marathon of open-water swim challenges: Charlestown Bridge to the Boston Light[house] on Little Brewster Island, 11-plus miles. Toth swam it in six hours and 42 minutes. [1]


The following year Toth swam the same route as a round trip, in 15 hours 47 minutes. Toth in 1923 became the fifth person to swim the English Channel and the first American to swim it from France to England. Toth famously trained for the Channel swim by towing a rowboat full of passengers, the tow rope in his teeth. Toth was built like a bear. Still he felt he ought to call himself Bavarian when his surname and all immigration papers declare he was born in Hungary.


The Boston Light race began in 1907 and was suspended from 1941 to 1976 because Boston Harbor was so filthy. The race’s route today begins at the venerable oceanfront L Street Bathhouse [pictured], home of Boston’s “L Street Brownies” who every January 1 since 1907 have taken an icy dip in the water. This has inspired others nationwide to do the same.


And the reason: In 1910, recent immigrants, mostly Europeans such as Schober and Toth, were a solid 30 percent of Boston’s population. They imported the habit of a steam bath followed by a plunge in icy water, for their health. Some swam almost every day of the year. These were called “Brownies” because of their perpetual suntans. Photos show Sylvia Plath in the 1950s enjoying beaches and sun. She equated tanning with health and her mother Aurelia did too. [2] It wasn’t for the view alone that Frank Schober bought a house on Point Shirley. And, unlike non-swimmer Otto Plath, Sylvia’s Grampy had several very athletic friends.


Before air-conditioning, those in urban housing had only the beach to cool down. The above photo, taken in 1915, is titled “Big Crowd at the L Street Bath House, Boston, on a 94 Degree Day.” You can tell the European-born from the Americans by their swimwear. The photo appears here with the permission of the Estate of Leslie Jones, Boston Herald photographer.

Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

[1] "Charles Toth Waiter-Athlete Swims to Light," Boston Herald, September 21, 1914, p. 11.

[2] Aurelia Plath made sure baby Sylvia was well tanned. (See the Baby Book, Lilly Library.) Sylvia Plath, from summer camp, to Aurelia Plath, July 5, 1947: "When I come home please do not expect me to have a very dark tan since I don't."


Christy said...

Were women not allowed at the Bath House in 1915?

Catherine Rankovic said...

The Bath House had women's facilities. The L Street Brownies first admitted women in 1915.