Santa Monica owes a great deal to its beach, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to the lifeguards who watch out for us. There couldn’t be a more affectionate tribute than Santa Monica Lifeguards, a book of photographs and explanatory text by Arthur Verge, Jr., a former lifeguard, currently a professor of history at El Camino College.
Verge’s visual chronicle, part of Arcadia Books’ “Images Of America” series, presents photographs of the beach and the lifeguards culled from newspapers, private collections and the Santa Monica Library’s archives. The images date back as far as 1912 and record the days of the first volunteer lifeguards, the lively days of the 1920s, the Depression years (when many swimmers joined the lifeguard service because it was a paying job), the World War II years when lifeguards served in the armed forces and the surfing boom of the ’50s and ’60s.
As the accompanying text explains, the increasing popularity of Santa Monica Beach in the early 1900s led to a need for lifeguards (newspapers regularly reported on drowning deaths). The first lifeguards were local athletes who volunteered their swimming skills. One humorous photo shows a group of five of these volunteers sticking their heads through a lifesaver inner tube.
Another photo, “Beach Fashions of 1910,” demonstrates why so many swimmers were having problems. A “bathing suit” back then was either a long tunic with shorts for men or a slightly below-the-knee-length dress (and stockings) for women. The heavy clothing became heavier when wet and made swimming dangerous. By the 1920s, as another picture shows, women’s suits had become streamlined one-piece garments with low-cut backs, and church groups were complaining about the “parade of nakedness” on the beach.
Photos from the 1920s and early 1930s document the fun visitors had on the beach, the activities of the first Municipal Lifeguards, visits by celebrities (many lifeguards worked as stunt doubles in the movies and befriended such movie luminaries as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton) and early beauty contests, including a contest for the lifeguards with young ladies taking the men’s chest measurements.
Surfing came to Santa Monica Beach in the 1930s and some of the surfers became lifeguards. Photos from this period show how cumbersome surfboards were in those days. Surfer-lifeguard Tom Blake helped to redesign surfboards so that the sport could become more popular with the public. Later pictures from the 1950s show surfers like Tom Zahn and Joe Quigg, who created a balsa wood lightweight longboard that became “the rage in Malibu.”
Another surfer-lifeguard, Pete Peterson, can be seen in photos with his invention, the inflatable rubber rescue tube, known today as the Peterson Tube.
In 1974, Santa Monica’s Municipal Lifeguard Service merged with the Los Angeles City and Los Angeles County services. The resulting LA County Lifeguard Service became the world’s largest, and was opened up to female applicants in 1975. The last section of Santa Monica Lifeguards features photos of the coed lifeguard squad, surfing and swimming contests and the damage caused to the Santa Monica Pier by the 1983 El Niño rains.
Verge’s commentary offsets the images with much information about the beach, sports and lifeguards. And fittingly, he pays tribute to one particular lifeguard – his father Art Verge, Sr., who can be seen in a 1947 photo overseeing the difficult Pier-Jump drill, the ultimate test for those entering the lifeguard service.
Although the photographs are black and white, Santa Monica Lifeguards brings the history of our beach to colorful life.