October 26, 2020 | Number of The Day
Atlantic City boardwalk, both the oldest and the longest such structure in the world

If you ever strolled, biked or rode in a pedicab along the Atlantic City boardwalk, you can thank Alexander Boardman, a railroad conductor who came up with the idea to build a wooden walkway to keep sand out of hotel lobbies and trains. The original infrastructure, which opened on June 26, 1870, was a puny affair that was taken up in winter. Each section was 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. Today’s boardwalk is 60 feet wide and stretches 5.5 miles, from Absecon Inlet to Ventnor City. That familiar herringbone plank-pattern is not an aesthetic decision. It ensures a smooth ride for wheeled vehicles.

Once the boardwalk went from sand trap to something a bit grander, it quickly became a promenade for fashionably dressed wealthy visitors, but democratization didn’t take long to reach the planks. The boardwalk quickly became a site for marathon dance contests and Dr. Courtney’s Premature Infant Exhibit — stunts, boxing matches, big-band concerts, parades and the original Miss America Pageant soon followed. Commenting on the glitter and galas just before the market crashed in 1929, The New York Times called it “magnificent proof of America’s newly found wealth and leisure. It is an iridescent bubble on the surface of our fabulous prosperity.”

Any discussion of the Atlantic City boardwalk would be incomplete without mentioning that bane of dentists everywhere, saltwater taffy. Historians of popular culture long ago laid to rest the urban legend that the salty-sweet treat was born when the ocean flooded boardwalk taffy stands. There is no saltwater in the confection.

But the candy did have its day in the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1921, when Justice William Howard Taft ruled manufacturers could not patent or protect their proprietary recipes, saying saltwater taffy “is born of the ocean and summer resorts and other ingredients that are the common property of all men everywhere.” We can only hope that our current justices will show such common sense.