Beach Towels and a Short History of Modern Terry Cloth Towels
When we look at photographs of people on the beach before the 1920s we feel like something is missing, but initially we can not quite put our finger what that “something” is. Perhaps the difference lies in something associated with the fact that the people look as if they are all in motion. Whether dressed in street clothes or bathing costumes they are largely occupied walking, swimming, standing, and talking. Even when they are sitting, they look as if they have simply plunked themselves randomly down wherever they happened to be, on the sand or in the surf. A sense of leisure, as most of us would envision it, doesn’t appear to be part of the package, and comfort in the form of something to sit on or dry oneself with is nowhere in sight. Where are the beach towels?
As the century unfolded, and people took to sun bathing, and lounging on the sand, the need arose for a product that served the dual purposes of a blanket to lie on while tanning, and a towel to dry oneself with after taking a dip in the ocean. The solution was the beach towel. Early examples emerge in the 1920s. At least that is when we start seeing something resembling them in photographs, such as the picture of a young woman in Brighton, England from this period and on a cover of Life magazine from 1929 that appear below. Printed in geometric patterns or stripes the wraps that would evolve into beach towels resemble cloaks or robes that were loosely gathered around the bather.
It is interesting to note that the majority of towels we take for granted today were not in common use until the latter part of the 19th-century.
We owe our modern towels to an enterprising Englishman named Henry Christy who, during a visit to the Turkish capitol of Constantinople around 1850, became familiar with “pestemals”, which were long narrow flat sheets woven of linen or fine cotton meant to be wrapped around the body. A 17th-century invention, the pestemal was modified in the 18th century when it began to be made from a fabric named “havly” which means “with loops”. Christy saw the potential of the pestemal and the looped pile fabric from which they were made. Upon his return to England he and his brother founded a company to manufacture household linens.
At this time they also devised a loom that was capable of producing small loops like havly that protruded from both sides of the fabric they wove on it in imitation of the Turkish original. This feature of the fabric gave it an important advantage over other types of cloth used for drying things. The loops effectively increased the surface area of the towel raising its capacity to absorb large amounts of water. The Christys presented a set of the towels they made to Queen Victoria in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace. The towels were a success with the queen who became a devoted client. By the end of the century the company was producing what came to be known as “terry cloth” on over 300 specially designed looms. The technology for making terry cloth eventually spread to the United States where towels of various types and sizes were produced for the commercial and residential markets.
Beach towels today have several characteristics that differentiate them from towels we generally use in our homes. The are longer and thinner than bath towels. This facilitates their use for sunbathing and makes it easier to shake sand out of them. They are also generally printed in bright colors with patterns or graphics that make them easy to identify on large stretches of monochromatic sand. In this they present their owners with a means to express their interests and fashion sense while on the beach. Examples of beach towels popular in different decades are presented in Styling by the Sea.
Growing popularity and affordability of vacations at coastal resorts combined with an increase in the amount of leisure time enjoyed by Americans and, as noted earlier, the rising popularity of sunbathing resulted in a fertile market for beach towels. The rest is history.