Wish They All Could Be Summer Girls

By: Lynn E. McElfresh

Volume 13, Issue 8, August 2018

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.”

Summer girl 2

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.”

In June

“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.”

In July

“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.”

By September

Summer 4

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?

Summer 5

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.

Summer 6

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.

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

Summer 8

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.

Posted in: Volume 13, Issue 8, August 2018, Places, History

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