The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is the oldest winter bathing organization in the United States. We swim the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island every Sunday from October through April.
The club was founded in 1904 by Bernarr Macfadden ("the Father of Physical Culture"), who is best remembered as publisher of the New York Graphic, the 1920s employer of Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell.
The club reaches great popularity on New Year's Day, when the local television stations annually record the swims. During other days, however, membership dwindles.
If you're looking for bathing beauties--well, as they say in Brooklyn, fuggeddaboutit! It's almost all old guys, many with several protective layers of good old fat.
It should be noted here that winter swimming did occur at Coney Island before the Polar Bears, and that there were other winter swimming clubs besides the Polar Bears.
CAUTION: SWIMMING IN FREEZING WATER IS NOT FOR EVERYONE! CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR!
1 January 1899, Brooklyn Eagle, pg. 10:
WINTER SWIMMING RACE.
The Ulmer Park Athletic Club will hold a 100 yard winter swimming championship off the Ulmer Park pier, Bensonhurst, on Sunday, January 15, at 3 P. M.
27 March 1899, New York Times, pg. 5:
LAST WINTER SWIMMING RACE.
Six men plunged into the chilly waters of Gravesend Bay yesterday at Ulmer Park, near Coney Island, to swim for the fold watch given as a prize by the Ulmer Athletic Association. All but one covered the course of 128 yards, and none of them seemed any the worse for the feat after he had finished, although several hundred spectators stood by shivering in heacy overcoats and telling one another how they wouldn't have done the same thing for millions.
The race was the last of a series of three.
30 November 1900, New York Times, pg. 2:
WINTER SWIMMERS IN A RACE.
Q. Sprague Won at Bath Beach from
Although overcoats and wraps were worn yesterday afternoon by most people, two hardy swimmers of Bath Beach, L. I., concluded that the weather was "just right" for a swim, and journeyed to the Captain's Pier and prepared for a plunge. They wore woollen suits and thick caps covering their ears. Both took to the water at once and struck out for Norton's Point, Coney Island.
14 December 1911, New York Times, pg. 24:
SWIMMING AT CONEY ISLAND
The water at Coney Island on Sunday was 45 degrees, the warmest for any December day since the temperature has been taken there. Members of the Arctic, Polar Bear and Snow Bird Swimming Clubs declared there wasn't any fun in swimming in such warm water. The members of these clubs go in every day all through Winter.
23 February 1914, New York Times, pg. 1:
WINTER SWIMMER HURT.
Bather's Leg Cur When He Is
Caught Between Ice Cakes
Forty Winter bathers, including members of the Arctic, Polar Bear, and Snow Bird Bathing Clubs, were in bathing at the Parkway Baths at Brighton Beach yesterdaty afternoon, when one of their number, Abe Blakeman, of West Third Street, Coney Island, started to swim back to shore.
29 December 1914, Washington Post, pg. 4:
52 "POLAR BEARS" SWIM IN OCEAN
EVERY DAY WITH NEVER A SHIVER
Mew York, Dec. 28. - Fifty-two persons, fully half of whom were young women, participated in the opening of the winter bathing season at Coney Island. The water temperature was 42 degrees and the air 25. Later in the season they will break the ice to get their daily sea bath.
Those who participated in the day's sports were members of the Polar Bears, the Arctics, the Snow Birds, the Icebergs, or the Sea Gulls, all winter sea bathing clubs.
8 January 1995, New York Times, pg. A8:
Who Are They Anyway? Meet the Coney Island Polar Bears
It is a rite of winter, a 10-second flash across the television screen. On New Year's Day, the Polar Bears appear comet-like on the landscape. And then they disappear, as far as most of us are concerned.
The club was founded in 1903 by Bernarr Macfadden, a health enthusiast and future owner of The New York Evening Graphic.
According to Dr. Seth Feltheimer, an expert on hypothermia at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, water temperatures off Coney Island rarely fall below 35 degrees, and that level is only dangerous if immersion lasts more than 10 minutes.