The History of Sand Sculpture
by Lucinda "sandy feet" Wierenga
It is hard to believe that there was ever a time when people did not sit down near a shoreline and try to push wet sand around until it resembled something else. My fellow sand sculptor Ted Siebert writes in his book The Art of Sandcastling that the ancient Egyptians made sand models of the pyramids - though I doubt this is more than conjecture. An Orissan (India) myth dating back to the 14th century makes reference to the poet Balaram Das who built devotional sculptures from sand, but the first documented references of serious sand sculpture will not appear for another 500 years.
It is commonly believed that the first artists to actually profit from their sand sculpting abilities surfaced in Atlantic City, NJ in the late 19th century. Spectators walking along the boardwalk would throw tips to the bowler-hat wearing artists. Some credit one Philip McCord with creating the first true sand sculpture in 1897 - it featured a drowned mother and her baby. By the early 1900s, word had gotten around that there was money in sand sculpture and enterprising "artistes" could be found at nearly every block -- so much so that the town fathers began to view them as a nuisance. In 1944 a hurricane ripped up the Boardwalk and demolished the sand dunes. The city government saw the change in landscape as an opportunity to ban sand-sculpting along the boardwalk, a law that has yet to be rescinded.
It would appear that sand sculptors were earning money - as well as a reputation for dodginess - on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1901, A writer by the name of Emory James wrote a rather lengthy article published in "The Strand Magazine" about a Professor Eugen Bormel, who was creating sand sculpture on the German coast at the North Sea summer resort town of Nordeney. He assures the reader that the good professor should not be classified with "the cheapjacks of the sands, who, for a hatful of coins and his bread and butter, deigns to display his artistic skill before the multitude." (Apparently Professor Bormel was renowned for donating all of his hard-earned pennies to charity.) His preferred subject matter - mermaids and renditions of the Sphinx - are still some of the favorite subjects of modern-day sand sculptors. The writer observes that the larger sculptures drew the most interest - something that has certainly not changed - and also rather dryly notes that "hair and lace effects are two things which the unskilled should leave alone." Words to the wise.
After WWII, when Americans started taking beach vacations, family sand castle contests started popping up in beachside resort towns all along the east coast. But modern day sand sculpture really started in California in the early '70's with the teaming up of Gerry Kirk and Todd VanderPluym, collectively known as Sand Sculptors International (SSI). This team set the standard for the art form by organizing teams of sculptors to create incredibly huge and detailed replicas of famous castles and fantasy architecture.
Today every beachside resort town worth its salt hosts at least one sand castle contest - I try to keep a list of the largest ones updated on this site - and western Europe turns into a virtual sand box every summer with multiple huge projects employing hundreds of sand sculptors trying to outdo each other in hugeness and special effects. Big sand is big business these days and it all seems to be getting bigger still by the year.
Even so, the real magic of sand lies waiting to be discovered by the lone beachgoer who discovers all by herself that you can do really cool things with wet sand.