New Hampshire Slanguage: Beach Wagon

1960s Boston newspaper advertising for rebuilding of “Beach Wagon” vehicles.

I was looking at some 1960-ish photographs today, a few showing my family’s pale yellow beach wagon parked in the driveway. BEACH WAGON was the local (New England) term for what most people then called a “Station Wagon” (or a “Woody” if you lived in California). It was the stalwart and utilitarian motorized family vehicle of the 1960s larger-sized family (there were 5 kids and 2 adults in mine).

This early wagon on the beach was called a beach wagon or a “Bathing Machine.” Photograph property of J.W. Brown.

You don’t hear the term “Beach Wagon” used much these days, except when referring to small utility wagons used to transport vacation items from your vehicle (or house) to the lake or ocean water’s edge. The “Beach Wagon” has gone the way of the buggy whip because people now own  SUVs, cruisers, or caravans.

Back in the 1960s when you squeezed enough people into the backseat of a beach wagon, they were perfectly secure. They wouldn’t be able to move until extricated with the parental version of the jaws of life (a firm yank of one kid’s arm).

1862 six seat beach wagon (would have been horse drawn). Sketch from Internet Archive, source from the 1870s.

I’m sure you are wondering where the term “beach wagon” originated.  It actually was in use at least by 1862 when a beach wagon was the name for a style of horse-drawn open-air carriage.  When vehicles became motorized, a few of the early ones also had the name “Beach Wagon.”  Around the same time a device called a “beach wagon” was used to rescue passengers from stranded ships off the coast of New England, and it was also the name given to a covered wagon type of hut on wheels where people at the beach could change their clothes before and after bathing (see photograph)

A station wagon styled car, called a “Beach Wagon” in New England.

By the 1950s and 60s the term was used mainly in New England to describe a station wagon-style automobile, often with wood as part of its upper veneer, outside or inside. With five children and a dog, the station wagon was a perfect choice.

Video — Wagonmasters – The Quintessential Image of The American Dream


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8 Responses to New Hampshire Slanguage: Beach Wagon

  1. Amy says:

    Wow, I’ve lived in New England since 1970 and never once heard that term for what we always called a station wagon (growing up in suburban NYC). I thought I had learned all the New England slang—package store (or packie), wicked, bubbler, frappe, hoodsie, grinder, fridge, jimmies, rotary, tonic, etc—but never beach wagon!

    • Janice Brown says:

      Beach wagon was uniquely New England, and specific to the 1950s 60s. My family called ours (we had two different ones during that time in yellow and green) a “Beach Wagon” and never a station wagon. Thanks for reading Amy. What surprised me is that the term has been around since the 1860s just describing different kinds of “vehicles” but all pretty specific to New Hampshire and New England.

  2. Marty Cornelissen says:

    I grew up in Dorchester, MA in the 1950’s-60’s, a section of Boston and my parents had a beach wagon, they had a couple. The first one was blue. It was totaled while going over an old wood deck bridge in the rain, my father coupln’t stop sliding on the wet wood. About as slippery as driving on ice when wet. The second one that I particularly liked was a 1965 Dodge Polaris. Big V8 and built like a tank. There were 7 of us, my parents and 5 boys. It had three bench seats. Front, center in one in the back facing to the rear. My favorite seat. We had to fight for that one, I won most of time, being the oldest. Use to travel from downtown Boston, where my father worked, my mother would pick him up on Friday afternoon and my father would make bee-line to Alton Bay and try to beat the Friday nite traffic out of the city. Sitting in the rear seat was a great way to travel as a kid.

  3. gachap says:

    I have a clear memory of road testing a 1940 Chevrolet Beach Wagon (of course I was only a passenger) and my mother nixed the purchase because it was “too noisy”. Beach wagons were what my family called them as far back as I can remember (1937 forward). Since we kept the 1940 Chevrolet 2 door sedan that was purchased instead until late 1948 and it was pretty well worn out by that time, one wonders how the beach wagon would have withstood the elements for all those years (we had no garage). That particular model is very desirable and rare for Chevrolet collectors today.

    • Janice Brown says:

      First, thank you for reading and replying! 🙂 The “Beach Wagon” goes back into the 18860s possibly earlier and I am honestly surprised that no one has created a web site devoted to them. I was just a twinkle in my parent’s eyes when you were riding around in the 1940 beach wagon, but I was lucky enough to enjoy a few in the 1950s and 60s 🙂 I have never heard a bad word about them.

  4. John says:

    For more about Beachwagons, Janice, you could have purchased my book “Beachwagons in Chatham”, a very limited edition paper bound book on the subject of those wonderful vehicles that flourished on Cape Cod and in my town of Chatham during the 40s and 50s. It would be a pleasure to be in touch with you on the subject as I am contemplating an updated version of this book. . If you look at my website you will see that one of my books for children centers around a Beach wagon in Chatham.

  5. Leo Sullivan says:

    My grandfather hailing from Providence, RI used to tell me that my father “sure likes those beach wagons.” This was circa 1960s-70s I didn’t know this term, but pretty easy to figure out Grandpa’s meaning, my dad bought a string of station wagons when I was young. I’m now 68 years, never once heard anyone from New England or anywhere else say beach wagon.

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