OLD NEWS: The 1920 Peek Ordinance was Long Beach’s big cover-up

Editor’s note: “Old News” is an occasional series looking at some of Long Beach’s quirky and interesting historical stories and headlines.

Try to imagine your Public Safety Commissioner just doing his job, strolling along the strand, shoes in hand and his pant cuffs rolled up to his ankles—not too high; nothing sexy. Do not imagine your Public Safety Commissioner as sexy, even though all around him are hundreds of square feet of exposed human flesh.

It’s 1920, early on in the decade and the Twenties aren’t in full roar yet, at least not in Long Beach, and Commissioner William Peek is scandalized—mortified—at what he’s seeing on his beach walk, which is much more than a good Christian man should have to see and, if maintaining decency and ample body coverage weren’t part of his job, then Commissioner Peek, as he’s aptly if misfortunately named, would have no problem. He could just metaphorically bury his head in the sand and ignore the unseemly visual assaults he’s subjected to.

He goes back to the safety of his office and, still reeling, drafts an ordinance:

No person above the age of 6 shall appear on any highway or public place or on the sand on the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach clothed in a bathing suit which does not completely conceal from view all that portion of the trunk of the body of such person below a line around the body even with the upper part of the armpits, except a circular armhole for each arm, with the maximum diameter not longer than twice the distance from the upper part of the armpit to the top of the shoulder, and which does not completely conceal from view each leg from the hip joining and without such bathing suit having attached a skirt made of opaque material completely surrounding the person and hanging loosely from the waistline to the bottom of such suit.

The Peek Bathing Suit Ordinance, as it was called, was adopted in the fall of 1920, and the national press had a field day with the prudish law. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Ever since Commissioner Peek took charge of the morals of the beach they call it Peekabootown.”

The Des Moines Register had a piece about the fact the Peek was originally a Hawkeye. “The man who issued the celebrated ordinance compelling the girls on the Long Beach, Ca. seashore to conceal their dimpled knees and wear ugly two-piece bathing suits is no other than an Iowan!”

The Santa Ana Register, in an article about the then-upcoming beachwear fashions in Orange County in 1921 wrote, “Oh, me! Oh, my! Boy, page Mr. Peek of Long Beach, Orange County beaches are going to be a riot of color this summer.”

And the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune noted that during the first week of the ordinance, the loss of beachgoing tourists cost Long Beach $10,000.

A headline from the May 29, 1923 Long Beach Telegram.

Long Beach didn’t suffer the comic barbs or the loss of money gladly. The Peek Ordinance was fairly rapidly repealed in 1923, much to the joy of most of the citizens and, especially the sunbathing women who no longer had to call in the use of licensed surveyors and a host of sophisticated measuring devices in order to dress legally for an outing on the strand and could go back to carrying their beachwear in vanity cases instead of steamer trunks.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.