16 Retro Snapshots of Summers at the Beach
This year, Provincetown, Massachusetts earned the distinction of being the country’s favorite beach town in our annual America’s Favorite Places survey. But Provincetown’s charm is hardly news—the colorful hamlet at the tip of the Cape has a long tradition of being a beachy summer getaway.
People have been flocking to sandy stretches of coast for much longer than we have been capturing our holidays on film. It’s as if we are all instantly lulled into vacation mode by the sound of the waves lapping against the shore. Black-and-white, vintage photographs of summers at the beach may transport us just a bit farther back in time, but these vibrant images certainly encapsulate the spirit of a summer weekend whiled away on a candy-striped towel.
We’ve sifted through the TIME/LIFE archives to extract some of our favorite vintage photographs of beach scenes from as far back as the 1940s. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a shot from yesterday and one from yesteryear (especially now that chic one-pieces are back in style). Except for the photograph of the woman with toy pistols posing with an ox. That, almost certainly, would never happen on a public beach in the 21st century.
From the famed beaches of Brazil, where competition is fierce for prime waterfront real estate, to quiet, hidden lengths of foam-covered sand, these vivid photographs can ferry you to a balmy, summer afternoon long after Labor Day weekend ends.
In 1945, this young woman was photographed on the back of Ferdinand the ox while visiting a Florida beach. Instead of beach floats and coolers, she packed twin toy pistols for the staged shot.
Uniform rows of colorful beach umbrellas await beachgoers in Nantucket in 1957.
Students from the Hensche Art School paint iterations of the same model at a Provincetown beach in 1947.
A couple dozes off on a wrought iron park bench in the United Kingdom in August 1955, while a busy beach scene continues in the backdrop.
Another Side of Rio
Copacabana and Ipanema aren’t the only beaches worth visiting in Rio de Janeiro. In 1957, Dmitri Kessel captured this stunning shot of Leblon Beach.
Surf and Turf
Off Manly Beach, near Sydney, Australia, a row of surfers ride a low wave back to shore.
On a Bed of Sand
In the heat of the sun, one young American couple dozed off on their oversized beach blanket.
Dog Days of Summer
Bikinis and Butterfingers
On a beach in California, in 1970, one unsuspecting sunbather was captured snacking on a Butterfinger candy bar.
East Coast Escape
Lounging with Locals
Nothing sets the scene quite like the camel, which relaxes by the waters while a woman bronzes under the Egyptian sun.
In 1968, Julian Wasser photographed these teenagers tackling the waves at Malibu Beach.
The Coast at Dusk
Dusk washes this quiet Floridian beach with dramatic shades of purple in the 70s.
To this day, Ipanema Beach (shot here in the late 1980s) remains a popular destination for sunbathers and people-watchers.
An electric orange beach umbrella on this crowded crescent of sand says it all: summers are synonymous with long afternoons by the water.