Every New Year's Day morning, when most people are nursing hangovers (or still imbibing the drink that will ensure a hangover, later) dozens upon dozens of hardy souls converge on Coney Island to observe a ritual more than one hundred years in the making -- the annual Coney Island Polar Bears' New Year's Day swim. As Polar Bear Club members will attest, there's nothing like a dip in frigid Atlantic waters on a cold winter's day to get the blood pumping, and as I can personally attest, there's no better way to kick off a new year than an invigorating brush with hypothermia.
An Irving Herzberg photograph of the Coney Island Polar Bears, 1977.
The Coney Island Polar Bear Club doesn't relegate its ice-diving activities to just one morning out of the year -- members meet every Sunday during the cold months, and have been since 1903. The club credits Bernarr Macfadden -- the so-called "father of physical culture" -- as its founder. Macfadden was an early proponent of weight-lifting and believed that spare living and rigorous physical activity could cure most of mankind's ailments. I couldn't find any historic documents definitively tying Macfadden to the Polar Bears, nor could two of the engrossing Macfadden biographies I picked up at the library, Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet and Weakness is a Crime: the Life of Bernarr Macfadden. Based on those evocative titles alone, though, it isn't hard to imagine that the idea of willingly bathing in freezing waters would appeal to Macfadden, who was a fascinating character in his own right. Although he is largely unknown now, he made (and lost) a fortune publishing magazines espousing his views on physical fitness in the early half of the 20th century. He also published the New York Evening Graphic, a splashy tabloid newspaper that, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "burst upon the city with all the noise of an unsafe and insane Fourth of July." Perhaps an unsafe and insane New Year's Day spent frolicking in the ocean would be a more apt metaphor?
Another Herzberg shot of the Polar Bears exercising in the snow, 1974.
Although the Eagle seems to have taken no notice of Macfadden and his band of aquatic daredevils in their club's inaugural season, the newspaper did routinely check in on the Polar Bears through the years, often as a light-hearted counterpart to the usual front-page tragedies. An Eagle article from March of 1914 incredulously lauded the Polar Bears for refusing to cancel their weekly swim despite a "blinding snowstorm" and treacherous waters "choked with miniature ice cakes." The Manhattan Beach branch of the club made news -- and one of my favorite pictures in our collection -- in 1941, when it began allowing women to its ranks.
From the Brooklyn Eagle, March 13, 1941: "First girl admitted -- The Polar Bear Club at Manhattan Beach, admission to which was closed to members of the female sex since its inception 25 years ago, recently opened its lists to women." Miss Dale Roberts, the lady bear pictured above, "was properly initiated with a face-wash of snow."
Other winter bathing clubs formed as the sport caught on, with a club sprouting up as far away as Chicago. Another Coney Island group formed in 1918 and called themselves the Iceberg Athletic Club. Although they may not have been the first winter swimmers' club, they probably had the snazziest uniforms, which they showed off annually when they marched in Coney Island's Mardi Gras parade.
Members of the Iceberg Athletic Club, 1952.
This card from the Brooklyn Collection's archival files -- presumably from a survey of local organizations that Brooklyn Public Library conducted in 1969 -- gives a bit of an idea of the Iceberg Athletic Club's mission, not to mention its high standards for membership:
"Purpose: Health -- Recreation -- Friendship"
"Who may Join: All males who qualify (swim in January)"
"Day and Time and Place of Meetings: Every Day"
Many of our best photographs of winter bathers come from amateur photographer and Coney Island resident Irving Herzberg. He captured the Polar Bears and their merry antics in the frigid air on several occasions throughout the 1970s.
Above and below, Polar Bears show off their strength, agility and sense of humor with medicine balls and handstands.
Above, a Herzberg picture of the Polar Bears' former headquarters at Cooks Baths on the boardwalk. Below, a group shot from 1974.
Have you fallen in love with them yet? Membership for the 2011 - 2012 season is, unfortunately, closed, but as always, the public is welcome to join in the club's most high-profile tradition, the annual New Year's Day Swim. In addition to being a memorable way to welcome the new year, the event is also a fundraiser for Camp Sunshine, and details on how to register or pledge can be found at the event's website. The mad dash for the water, sometimes attracting thousands of participants and many more observers, begins at 1:00pm sharp on the Boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue.
Having participated in the plunge myself last year, I'm looking forward to taking another dip this Sunday. It truly is an invigorating way to shake off the old year and welcome the new. See you there!
photo by Slim Evans