Dauphin Island Surfing

A photo on Dauphin Island in the late 1950s offers insight into surfing and beachwear.

Surfers on the beach at Dauphin Island
The “3” on this woman’s arm and the crown atop the head of the woman at center likely indicate their participation in the annual Dauphin Island beauty contest. Photo courtesy Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce Dauphin Island Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Surfing provided an escape from the realities of life post-World War II. The sport, which gained steam in the 1950s and peaked a decade later, offered riders the ability to break away from mental anguish and focus on the moment at hand.

Dauphin Island was the perfect location for both objectives, with its rolling swells and uncluttered, white-sand beaches (although herds of cattle and goats were known to ramble the island).

Touted as the Gulf Coast’s “great new playground,” the Chamber of Commerce made a push in the late ’50s to promote the island as a tourist site. Whether the photo above, presumably taken at the end of the decade, was used in promotional materials or not is disputed among sources. 

“I could see the low-lying white sand banks that edge it. Iberville saw them in 1699, blown by gulf-storm into the little harbor at the east end, in the lee of Pelican Island. He found there ‘burning heat, barren soil, and sand so white as to injure the eye.’” 

Excerpt from Carl Lamson Carmer’s 1934 book, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” on his first sight of Dauphin Island

Fashioned in the Fifties

Gordon Persons Bridge
So named for the Alabama governor who approved the project, the 3-mile span connecting the mainland to Dauphin Island opened July 2, 1957. Until tolling ended in 1963, it cost travelers $1 to cross. The now-named Dauphin Island Bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Frederic in 1979 and was replaced in 1982.

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Women’s swimwear
Ladies’ swimsuits of the era focused less on swimming and more on looking like a pinup model. Tops touted sweetheart necklines and removable straps, for sunbathing, and pencil skirt-shaped bottoms or boy shorts completed the ensemble. Ruching was a popular, slimming addition.

Men’s swimwear
Swim boxers and trunks ranged in length from a couple-inch inseam to near the knees. Elastic waistbands replaced earlier decades’ belts. 

By the late 1950s, surfboard construction shifted from wood to fiberglass, making boards easier to haul. Thanks, in part, to surf bands like the Beach Boys and the surf-centered movie, “The Endless Summer,” surf culture skyrocketed in the 1960s.   

Sand Dunes Casino
Opened on Dauphin Island in the late ’50s, the casino overlooked a mile-long stretch of beach and offered gambling, restaurants, a lounge, a bathhouse and a fishing pier. Tourists did not arrive in droves, as was hoped, and by the early ’70s, the casino had been destroyed.

By the Numbers

Length in feet of the Dauphin Island fishing pier (seen in the picture above, far left) that is now over dry land

Dauphin Island’s total area, in square miles (6.2 of which is land; 160.9 is water)

Cost per night, from June to August, as seen in a 1957 ad for Dauphin Island’s Moulin Rouge Motel – it cost $7.50 the rest of the year.

Do you have fond memories of Dauphin Island from the 1950s? Let us know! Email [email protected]

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