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The Case of the Disappearing Beach Ball
In 1778, The Duke of Cornwall threw a legendary, invitation-only and fancy-dress party near Newquay on the southeastern coast of England. What made this festive masquerade noteworthy however, is that it was considered the high water mark for the golden age of the beach ball. Rather than hosting it indoors in a manor house or palace, this spectacle took place on the sands of Perranporth beach.
There were fancy balls on the beach before this one. The fad is thought to have started around the mid 18th century when the indoor ball was also in its heyday. Wealthy hosts of these events sought to outdo one another in hosting parties that bedazzled with their splendor and elegance. It wasn’t long before the well-to-do started coming up with ways to impress guests by adding unique twists to the standard ball, and the ‘ball on the beach’ — or ‘beach ball’ — was born.
However, as with any fad, the beach ball seemed to run its course. Attendance waned along with their popularity around the turn of the 19th century as ball-faring revelers and enthusiasts abandoned the beaches and opted for the more traditional indoor experience.
William Thomas — distinguished professor of history in the UK — has spent hundreds of hours trawling through archived journal entries and correspondence while researching his forthcoming book on balls and party culture in 18th century England. We asked him about the rise and fall of the beach ball.
“Well, the beach balls were not unlike the meme-driven fads and trends of today. They seemed to explode in sudden popularity around 1750 all along beaches in the UK. However, I’ve found no mention of a single one after 1800 in all of my research. That’s not a bad run though as far as fads go, even for the 18th century.”
So what contributed to the eventual decline and disappearance of the beach ball? Thomas shared some interesting perspectives from beach ball goers gleaned from the archives.
“It seems that sand was the number one grievance of attendees. It would ruin expensive gowns that were dragged through it, get trapped in corsets (as well as other embarrassing places), stick to makeup and powder, and get trapped in the ornate wigs so loved by both men and women of the period. Musicians had to take frequent breaks to empty it from their instruments. Dancing in it proved cumbersome and awkward, even for the most experienced of ballroom dancers.”
Wildlife and the detritus of the booming commercial whaling industry was often a nuisance.
“I found several accounts of ballgoers complaining about seagulls defecating on ornate hair pieces, wigs, and other expensive items of clothing. In another account, there is mention of a beach ball being spoilt by the putrid odors emanating from a discarded whale carcass…”
The beach terrain also proved challenging for transportation and logistics.
“I discovered numerous accounts from attendees who witnessed unfortunate accidents and mishaps involving horses and carriages getting bogged down in wet sand. Even dry sand proved to be quite difficult to traverse with wooden-wheeled carriages of the time. Tides were a problem too. Tide tables were woefully inaccurate at that time and few people besides fisherman and sailors could make sense of them. Often, event planners failed to take this into consideration and many beach balls ended prematurely with the near drowning of guests and musicians. High tides also frustrated evacuation efforts by carriages ill-equipped to traverse sand, much less 5 feet of water. Many guests were forced to walk in their ruined gowns to the nearest road — a severe embarrassment for people of their social status and standing”
Security and guest safety were also problematic.
“I uncovered quite a fascinating letter from a gentleman who specialized in coordinating security for beach balls from 1772 - 1775. He lamented the impossible challenges of the job. Beach ball bouncers had to secure the ball perimeter from peasants and party-crashers that could approach from any direction, including amphibious assaults from the sea which apparently happened at least once in 1781. Two dozen fishermen outraged at not having been invited to a beach ball flanked the beach ball bouncers stationed on the beach via boat and proceeded to crash the party.”
The beach balls also encountered mounting legal pressure from municipal governments.
“In 1799, residents sick of the noise and drunken aristocrats behaving poorly all hours of the night on a nearby beach successfully petitioned the mayor to approve a new ordinance banning beach balls. However, the ordinance was overturned by the governor of the province who happened to be an enthusiastic beach ball attendee himself. Not to be foiled, the community banded together and drafted a clever new ordinance: Knowing that most aristocratic types would rather die than be spotted with a commoner at a party, they mandated that all beach balls were to be public events open to citizens of all social statuses and free of charge to attend. This was entirely effective at curtailing all subsequent beach ball activity in that locale.”
Despite no known record of a formal beach ball occurring after 1800, fear not intrepid beach-bound party seekers! Though the fancy gowns, wigs, and horse-drawn carriages are relics of a bygone era, the spirit of the beach party lives on in today’s beach clubs, parties, and raves. Just ask any spring-break partygoer recently returned from Ft. Lauderdale, South Padre Island, or Ibiza and they’ll confirm this.
They’re also likely to complain of defecating seagulls, sand fouling audio equipment (and other embarrassing places), frustrated security/staff, and inclement weather.
The beach balls may have disappeared, but some things never change.