Before the youth of America fooled around at drive-ins and necked on Lover’s Lane, they coupled in canoes. Boatloads of them. In the early 1900s, canoes offered randy young guys and gals a means of escape to a semi-private setting, away from the prying eyes of their pious Victorian chaperones.
“To go canoeing on the weekend was pretty much what you did with your best girl,” says canoe enthusiast and collector Roger Young. “There weren’t a whole lot of motorcars around at that time. You could go bicycling, but to go out canoeing was the thing.” These canoes weren’t your typical summer camp variety; they were designed for afternoons (and evenings) of stylish leisure. Most boaters accessorized them with pillows, lanterns, and picnicking supplies. Some even customized their canoes with built-in phonographs—floating boom-boxes for the paddle set.
“One Minneapolis Tribune headline read ‘Girl Canoeists’ Tight Skirts Menace Society'”
Adolescents took to the waters with the urgency of salmon fighting their way upstream, spawning a veritable canoe craze, particularly in places like Boston along the Charles River and at Belle Isle, near Detroit. While any canoe would do, companies such as Old Town, Kennebec, and White marketed “courting canoes” specifically designed for waterborne lovebirds. “These boats usually had long 4-foot decks and an 8-foot elliptical or oval cockpit,” says Young. “The woman would sit in the bottom of the canoe on cushions with her parasol to shade her from the sun, while her gentleman in his boater hat would paddle and probably croon to her. Or she might read poetry to him.” Make no mistake; these were wild times.
In North America, the earliest canoes weren’t meant for leisure; they were used by Native Americans as a means of efficient transportation along busy trade routes. During the late 1700s, the birch-bark canoe was adopted by European settlers to aid with the booming fur industry, and by the mid-1800s, entrepreneurs in the Peterborough region of Canada modified the standard canoe design to a more durable wood-plank construction.
Canoeing as a sport can be traced to Scottish lawyer John MacGregor, who designed a type of covered canoe using both a sail and paddles that he called the “Rob Roy.” MacGregor’s love of travel motivated him to commission this specialized boat from Searle & Son of London in 1865. The resulting canoe had cedar decks and an oak hull, and at 15 feet long was just short enough to fit into a train car.
To help publicize the freedoms of solo canoe travel, MacGregor chose popular routes through central Europe, like the Danube River, where he experimented with his new craft and discussed its merits with locals. The following year, he published a book about his experiences, espousing the many virtues of travel by canoe. But even MacGregor, who was also the inventor of the pleasure boat, noted that his craft offered plenty of space for horizontal bliss, “with at least as much room for turning in your bed as sufficed for the great Duke of Wellington.”
The concept of canoes as recreational vehicles was cemented. Regattas and informal competitions spread throughout the 19th century, and a centrally organized sporting group, the American Canoe Association, was founded in 1880. Simultaneously, the industrialization and urbanization of the factory world implemented new ideas about “weekends” and “free time,” when people could enjoy personal interests and pursuits. According to Benson Gray, the great-grandson of the Old Town Canoe company’s founder, “urban populations were looking for something to do on the weekends, and streetcar companies were more than happy to take them out of the cities to local waterways where they could paddle around in canoes.”
Increasing globalization also led to large international expositions, like the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, where various styles of indigenous and modern canoes were presented to the public alongside other technological marvels. Canoe clubs and rental facilities soon popped up in parks across the country, from San Francisco to New Orleans to New York City.
“In its heyday,” says Young, “thousands of young and even older folks would turn out in these popular areas, so many that it was often said you could cross the river without getting wet simply by stepping from canoe to canoe. There were even policemen patrolling by canoe as ‘morality enforcement,’ making sure that everyone remained upright and reputations remained intact.”
In 1903, before the trend really took off, a “Boston Herald” article scoffed at the effectiveness of puritanical boating ordinances: “It may not be wicked to go canoeing on the Charles with young women on Sunday, but we continue to be reminded that it is frequently perilous…The canoeist arrested for kissing his sweetheart at Riverside was fined $20. At that rate it is estimated that over a million dollars’ worth of kisses are exchanged at that popular canoeing resort every fine Saturday night and Sunday.”
A 1904 souvenir brochure for the Charles River area emphasized its natural beauty and praised the healthful benefits of boat trips, interspersing scenic photographs with lines of poetry. The pamphlet began, “If you are fortunate enough to be canoeing at sunset…and to spend an evening on the river during a concert or an illumination, to see the canoes appearing one by one, tastily decorated with Japanese lanterns, to hear the sweet tones of a passing guitar or the strains of some glee club floating down stream, you can very easily imagine yourself in Fairyland.” If the make-out potential of a canoe date wasn’t clear enough, accompanying advertisements for no less than 10 different chocolate companies drove the point home.
By 1912, in Minnesota, the undisputed lake capitol of the U.S., canoe permits and rental spaces were off the charts. The Minneapolis Parks Department’s 2,000 permit spaces were almost maxed out, and the city was having a tough time enforcing its 12 a.m. lake curfew. A “Minneapolis Tribune” story reported that, “misconduct in canoes has become so grave and flagrant that it threatens to throw a shadow upon the lakes as recreation resorts and to bring shame upon the city.” Regardless of the curfew, a lot could happen in the dark hours between dusk and midnight, inspiring park police to patrol the lakes for inappropriate behavior on motorized boats equipped with spotlights.
As further proof that canoeing had become a hotbed for teenage delinquents, in 1913 the Minneapolis Parks Board refused to issue permits for canoes with unpalatable names. Local newspapers published some of the offensive phrases that slipped past the board the previous summer, including “Thehelusa,” “Kumonin Kid,” “Kismekwik,” “Damfino,” “Ilgetu,” “Aw-kom-in,” “G-I-Lov-U,” “Skwizmtyt,” “Ildaryoo,” “Win-kat-us,” “O-U-Q-T,” “What the?,” “Joy-tub,” “Cupid’s Nest,” and “I Would Like to Try It.” The commissioners unanimously agreed to outlaw phrases lacking obvious moral and grammatical standards, though a few of these clever pre-text-message abbreviations clearly had them scratching their heads.
Meanwhile, the drama was heightened by a frenzied headline printed by the “Tribune” in June of 1914: “Girl Canoeists’ Tight Skirts Menace Society,” it wailed. In the article itself, F.C. Berry, a supposed park expert on recreational features, warned of the dangers narrow skirts posed to female boaters—in the event of a capsize, they’d be unable to swim.
Whether or not any actual drownings were attributed to tight skirts, safety wasn’t the top concern for most canoers; a boat’s ability to hold two passengers, preferably side by side, was generally of higher priority. Though the Minneapolis Parks Board attempted to institute an ordinance requiring opposite sex couples (over age 10) to sit facing each other, public outcry helped to quickly repeal the restriction.
By 1916, the canoe-courting trend was widespread enough to warrant mention in a musical comedy called “Tres Rouge” by Jay Gorney, which included a song called “Out in My Old Town Canoe.” But this floating, petting paradise would not last. “When motorcars became more available in the early ’20s, courting in canoes sort of fell off,” says Young. “Guys were getting into their Model Ts or Model As and going off with girls for a Sunday drive instead of canoeing.” And what went on in the backseats of those cars? Well, that’s a whole different story.