Shipwrecked: Coastal Disasters and the Making of the American Beach

Univ. of North Carolina. Dec. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781469660905. pap. $29.95. SOC SCI
In this book, Wells (history, Univ. of West Florida) argues that the increase in shipwrecks in the 19th century helped usher in a transformation of the beach. He focuses on three pivotal factors: federal/state interventions (in the form of wreck laws and lifesaving huts), increased commercialization (i.e., tourism), and the professionalization of salvage operations and other cultural changes, such as the period’s search for authenticity and the increased popularity of sea-based stories. All of which turned a former frontier into the modern tourist hotspot that it is today. Focusing exclusively on the eastern shoreline of New York and New Jersey, Wells makes a compelling argument for how coastal disasters, in the form of shipwrecks, contributed to a change in Americans’ perceptions of beaches from no-man’s lands to eventual tourist hotspots. There are moments where it seems more like a chicken and egg question rather than a fully substantiated correlation, but Wells has certainly done his research as evidenced by an exhaustive bibliography and source notes.
VERDICT This accessible, thoughtful work is ideally suited for academic libraries, as well as undergraduate and graduate courses, and general readers of maritime history.
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