Clam Skiff Vernacular

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Brigantine beach cottages, alleyway view

As a teenager in the seventies I spent summers on the South Jersey shore cooking at a seafood restaurant in Brigantine, a tiny island just to the north of Atlantic City. My great grandfather had built one of the first houses on the island in the 1920’s, my dad worked the beaches as a lifeguard in the 1950’s, and the island remains a touchstone for my siblings and me, my daughter and her generation of cousins. Being geographically remote and vulnerable to hurricanes, the island did not develop as rapidly or luxuriously as its neighboring communities to the south, and remained a working class destination well into the introduction of legalized gambling in the late seventies. For more than the past decade, houses like the ones above have been largely demolished and replaced with tacky ‘McMansions’ in response to an insatiable demand for seaside vacation homes in the urban Northeast corridor.

On my way to work in the late afternoon I would walk along sandy alleyways past the backsides of these houses, which then almost invariably had a ‘clam skiff’ stored for easy access on a trailer. These were the homes of island clammers and fishermen, whose catch was delivered daily to the restaurant- top necks, little necks, cherrystones and chowder clams, all bundled up in muddy burlap bags by sun-soaked and slightly innebriated skiffmen who spent their days on the marshes. Along with seasonal catches of flounder and blue claw crab, this bounty formed the staple of our menu at the restaurant.

I was always struck how the clammers’ skiffs resembled their houses, often coated with the same paint. The skiffs were flat-bottomed, hard-chined ‘sharpies’ designed to navigate the shallow tidal flats and sloughs of the Brigantine Bay and to take a heavy load. Because the skiffs were often in better repair than the houses, I thought of them as the maritime equivalent to a barn or tractor for the land-based, agricultural enterprises further inland.  The skiffs and beach cottages were more the domain of the last of the hunter-gatherers, but the relationship between the implements of livelihood and domestic comfort was simailarly structured. Resources were prioritized according to the requirements of rudimentary provision, and the design of houses followed the pattern of utilitarian necessity.

Up until the post-WWII ubiquity of sheet materials like plywood, clam skiffs and beach cottages were constructed of local pine and cedar from New Jersey’s deceptively expansive native forests. When material scarcity outpaced the demand for the material people naturally found substitutes, regardless of the trade-offs. This is especially the case in places like Brigantine, where working communities were historically under constant threat of poverty and natural disaster. Though plywood does not rival local materials in terms of environmental impact, it has proven to be of use in addressing established formal requirements  in response to regional conditions, both social and environmental. During the housing boom on the island  beginning in the late 1940’s and extending into the early 1970’s, plywood became the material of choice for the construction of both house and skiff. Suffice it to say that while clammers no longer occupy the island, the crop of new boats certainly continues to match the contemporary architecture.

I’m interested to see historic preservation extend into the contemporary vernacular of a region, protecting local resources as much as local character.

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underside of a modified sharpie skiff Ene and I built in the late 1980’s

3 replies on “Clam Skiff Vernacular”

  1. I was searching for some photos of the Seaside Cottages located between 3rd and 4th street and found your article. My father use to own them back in the late 70’s. I spent many summers there as a child. I think the cottages were torn down in the mid 80’s, what ashame. I enjoyed your article.
    Thank you very much,
    Bill

  2. It is? Great!! But I do miss those tiny cottages on the North End. Thanks for reading. Please keep in touch! Scott

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