In the 1960s, the Beach Boys were crooning about California Girls. But in the late 19th century, a young man’s thoughts of summer romance was focused on the Summer Girl. As I comb through the newspaper archives from the 19th century, I continually run across articles about Summer Girl with titles like The Summer Girl: In All Her Moods She Makes the World Brighter, The Summer Girl’s Ways and Wiles, or Twentieth Century Summer Girl.
Who or What Is a Summer Girl?
The earliest news clipping I have concerning a Summer Girl dates back to 1883. The first thing I learned is that a Summer Girl is uniquely American. A July 13, 1883, Watertown Times article stated that “The Summer Girl is a peculiarly American product. No other sun, as far as known, has produced.”
From the same article, I learned that a Summer Girl is pretty and easy to please. “If she wasn’t pretty she wouldn’t be a Summer Girl. She wears pretty girl’s dresses, has pretty girl’s teeth and puts on pretty girl smiles. The Summer Girl never gets soiled or looks dirty. The Summer Girl is not very expensive. Her wishes are few and cheap. A row on the River now and then, an occasional buggy ride, a plate of ice cream on a warm evening, and an escort to a picnic about once in two weeks, nearly sums up her wants.”
The 1883 article ended very succinctly with this definition: “The Summer Girl is more like some luscious fruit that comes only for a time and then is gone for the year, but it is peculiarly sweet while it lasts.”
Where can you find a Summer Girl?
“All over this broad land of ours, wherever a summer resort is to be found, the Summer Girl holds her court…” according to one 1893 newspaper. “It matters little where you go, along the mountain path or where the ocean roars, the Summer Girl is sure to be found in all her glory, queen of all that she surveys, and more important to the landlord of the successful hotel than the best band he can gather, or the most accomplished of French chefs, for the Summer Girl is a business card for him.”
The Summer Girl through the Season
By 1890, the Watertown Times declares that Summer Girl is an “American Institution,” who is a “Perennial delight; ageless and fadeless, whose genesis is an immortal mystery.”
“The summer girl is but a modest bud in June, peeping shyly under her curling lashes, and timidly bestowing glimpses of her graces to casual young men.”
“But when July comes, she has bloomed forth in splendor unrivaled, and decked the summer resort landscape with her radiant reflection. Jaunty and firm in her step and victorious in her air. Her scepter is a parasol of lace and her throne a varnished buckboard. Her mocking eyes are wide open now and they have found the coziest nook on the hotel veranda and the shadiest path in the woods.”
When September comes, the Summer Girl fades from the face of nature, and her memory is as the faint flavor of dried rose leaves.
What does a Summer Girl Do?
From the 1890 Watertown Times article we learn that: “The summer girl can do many things and prattle about all; but better than tennis or riding or bathing or dancing, she loves flirtation.” And while the paper seems to sometimes describe her as queenly and sometimes as a seductress they throw in this line: “[The Summer Girl] is perfectly innocent, wholly delightful and as irresponsible as a butterfly.” I thought those were three incongruent adjectives: innocent, delightful and irresponsible.
An 1892 article says, “It is a la mode for the Summer Girl this year to look wistful. In the past, the Summer Girl cultivated brilliancy and repartee. This season [the Summer Girl] will be ‘in line’ if she practices gazing wistfully up and down the River.” Another article stated that waving handkerchiefs at passing steamers was also a popular activity On the St. Lawrence.
What does a Summer Girl Wear?
There were endless advertisements and columns in the lady’s section of the paper about ribbons, bonnets, and parasols, but it was this article in the 1891 which caught my attention. Under the heading, “Mustn’t Wear a Starched Blazer,” the writer quickly points out that a white starched blazer gives the appearance of a man and the ideal Summer Girl, “doesn’t wear any such rig.” It then goes on to state that “The Summer Girl doesn’t wear red shoes. She may wear russet shoes, but when she dons red ones, she ceases to be a Summer Girl.” And, then explains, “Modesty doesn’t court loudness of attire and if there’s anything that should predominate in a Summer Girl, it’s modesty.” Buffalo Enquirer
How a Summer Girl Stays Cool
The 1891 article also had a great explanation of how Summer Girls stay cool: “Of course you have noticed and wondered—if you’re a man—how the Summer Girl keeps cool. A man on a scorching hot day looks hot, shiny, disreputable and villainous, no matter how handsome he may be, while the Summer Girl reminds you of a rose in a refrigerator. One reason for this is that women possess the power of concealment in a greater degree than man. If she suffers from the weather she is not constantly reminding one of it and blowing like a porpoise. She knows that if she wants to appear in the best light before men she must not be complaining and spreading her discomfort.“ Buffalo Enquirer
We’ve had a pretty hot summer and I tried the not complaining tactic. I still looked like a sweat ball. But then the article reveals another secret. Apparently, the Summer Girl adapts her garments to the day more closely than a man. On a sultry day, she will wear white and light clothing, including lots of ruffles and lace. Very lightweight! Considering most gentlemen of the era wore dark-colored suits complete with waistcoats even to go fishing, perhaps they are right.
In 1892, it was fashionable for Summer Girls to wear a dainty bunch of sweet peas at her waist. “One imagines that these little trifles are part of her personality and the Summer Girl, is not slow to take advantage of trifles. The dainty colors rival the peach-bloom of her cheeks.”
Progressive Hammock Party
An 1891 article from Daily on the St. Lawrence, described a Progressive Hammock Party which was a Thousand Island Park fad that season. “A dozen hammocks are strung, and in each hammock a young lady seats herself. Numbers are drawn, and the young men of the party seat themselves on the hammock which their number calls for. Conversation on a certain subject, which is specified beforehand, is taken up, and concluded at the ringing of a bell.” At the end of a full rotation, a vote is taken and the best conversationalists—one lady and one gentlemen—are awarded prizes. Sounds like a precursor to speed dating.
The St. Lawrence River Summer Girl
Mostly, I found articles that described a Summer Girl one might find at any resort, but I was pleased to find a September 18, 1888 article that described specifically the St. Lawrence River Summer Girl. “The main business and real industry of the young people at the parks and their adjoining cottages is flirting.” New York Sun
To understand what a St. Lawrence River flirtation is, one must know what a typical St. Lawrence River girl is like. She is a merry, healthy, frank, honest young woman, who can row about like an athlete, bring a steamer into port, play any kind of game and win, pick the naughtiest, jolliest kind of tune on a banjo or guitar, run like a fawn, dance like Fay and has a smile that is warranted to knock a man off his feet at a distance of forty yards.
The boys all like her and she likes the boys. It is a follow-my-leader sort of game she plays, and she invariably leads. The boys all rally around her, but if they talk any nonsense she has a way of looking at them with her big, frank eyes that puts them on their good behavior.”
Compared to other Summer Girls, I thought the St. Lawrence River Girl sounded top-notch. Until I read the piece about the St. Lawrence River Summer Girl, I thought the concept of the Summer Girl had disappeared with steamers and Saratoga trunks. Now I’m not so sure. They didn’t have parasols, nor a dainty bunch of sweet peas tied to their waists, but I’m pretty sure I saw a group of St. Lawrence River Summer Girls at the Thousand Island Park dock earlier this week.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh has written 115 articles for TI Life. This month she found extremely interesting and unusual information about the early summer days in the Islands! Enjoy.
Lynn often writes about island life. We have learned a great deal over the years from her musings, from moving pianos to island weddings, or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends and taking nature walks. To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under McElfresh.