Book Signing At Our Place
Historian Dr Robert Heinly is conducting a book signing at Cape May Brew Co this weekend. But before we get into that, a history lesson:
Cape May has a reputation for quaint Victorian charm and that’s because, as America’s first seaside resort, this is where so many wealthy city-dwellers came to vacation in the early 1800s. Here, genteel ladies strolled the promenade in flannel bathing costumes while men challenged one another to civilized games of croquet.
But Exit 0 hasn’t always been a civilized place.
By the 1960s, town had fallen into complete disrepair. Time had taken a toll on the architecture, and affluent tourists abandoned the resort for more modern amenities in Wildwood. (This was before Wildwood sold tee-shirts emblazoned with poop emojis and tattooed Disney princesses.)
A less-than-genteel debate waged in Cape May. In one camp were preservationists who sought to restore the Victorian buildings that had once been a calling card. In the other camp was a wrecking ball-happy crowd. Picture name calling, incredulity, doily throwing!
Enter the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities (MAC), established by a small group of activists with the goal of saving one property in particular – the beautiful Emlen Physick Estate. Built in 1878, this was the home of Dr Emlem Physick, a medical student turned real estate investor and gentleman farmer. The group was successful in its campaign, and their victory marked a turning point: the beginning of Cape May’s Victorian renaissance.
Like beer (shameless self-plug alert), victoriana draws tourists to Cape Island.
Today, The Emlen Physick Estate operates as Cape May’s only Victorian house museum, and Dr Robert Heinly works for MAC as a living history interpreter, playing the estate’s namesake on tours of the space.
Now, Robert has written a book called Victorian Cape May, and he’ll be signing copies of it this Saturday between noon and 3pm in our tasting room.
What does any of this have to do with beer?
We talked to Robert to find out…
- First of all… what did the Victorians think of beer? It was very much a dilemma for them. Certainly the ability to savor fine food and drink was the mark of a genteel person of the ‘better sort,’ and therefore they would imbibe. But beer also had its downside because it tended to be the drink of German immigrants who were not people of the ‘better sort’ in the Victorian view and couldn’t be trusted to keep their baser emotions in check while drinking.
- What can we expect from your book? The first section goes over Victorian culture in general and as it relates to Cape May — what the Victorians believed in and why. The second part is selected highlights from Cape May history – major fires, automobile races on the beach, elephants…
- Elephants? In the 1800s, Cape May erected an enormous elephant on its beach, like Lucy the Elephant in Atlantic City. It was
designed as a tourist attraction, which begs the question: why?
- So…. why? In England in 1876, one of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers thought: You know, those annoying colonials across the ocean are celebrating the 100th anniversary of their unfortunate idea to become independent. We’re going to show them how to really celebrate. They wanted to upstage America’s party, so they hosted a grand celebration, the keystone of which was making Queen Victoria Empress of India, for some reason. So, around the world, anything east Indian became very popular – furniture, servants from India, servants dressed to look like they were from India. Hence the elephant in Cape May.
- That’s… bizarre. Yes, but we always tended to imitate the English. For example, no one started ocean bating until King George the III of England did. Up until that point, the only sane person swimming was someone whose ship had just sunk! But once George did it, all the beautiful people on both sides of the Atlantic started madly plunging in. In many ways, that’s how Cape May started as a resort.
- And the rest of the book? That deals with the architecture of Cape May, inside and out. Indoor plumbing, for instance. It had just come into vogue, but you couldn’t say the word ‘toilet’ in polite society. Rather, people would say, “I see you have the latest in waste disposal technology.” Then, my last chapter morphs into my relationship with Dr Physick’s family. I interview them, telepathically, to ask what they think of modern Cape May.
- Why is this signing happening at the brewery? I was sitting in the tasting room enjoying one of the brews one day when I noticed that roughly a third are named for local places I discuss in the book.
- Let’s discuss one. That’s easy, because it’s my favorite beer and my favorite place: Tower 23. That’s the fire control tower on Sunset Beach. You know, it was part of the defense of the Delaware Bay during World War II. From here, men would spot enemy submarines or a submarine attack. Then they’d relay target information to gun batteries.
- So what would Dr Physick think of Cape May having a brewery? He was a huge booster of new and invigorating ideas for this area, and certainly the brewery is a new and invigorating landmark here, so I’m sure he would approve of it. In fact, the next time I’m in telepathic communication with him, which I call T-mail, I’ll ask. Of course, I’m saying that tongue-in-cheek.
Victorian Cape May is available online at historypress.net or amazon.com, and locally at The Emlyn Physick Estate, Whales Tale, Cape Atlantic Books, Celebrate Cape May, Swain’s Hardware, Sunset Beach and, of course, CMBC this weekend.