Coney Island Polar Bear Club
Monday, December 31, 2018 by
The Museum’s Photograph Collection consists of more than 400,000 prints and negatives that document New York City and its inhabitants from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. Among the Museum’s recent accessions are three photographs of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. To learn more about the organization, I accompanied the club as a guest for a swim on a cold, rainy December afternoon.
The was founded in 1903 by physical culturist Bernarr Macfadden, who believed that a dip in icy water could boost one’s stamina and immune system. The club is believed to be the oldest continuous winter swimming association in the United States. Every Sunday from November through April, members swim in the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island.
Before and after the swim, club members gather at the New York Aquarium Education Hall. On the beach, members spread out in a circle and do jumping jacks or other exercises before heading into the frigid water. Many members sport official Coney Island Polar Bear Club hats, robes, sweatshirts, and patches. Once in the water, people form another circle, holding hands and yelling. Some choose to leave the water after the circle is formed; others stay for a swim.
Winter swimming poses risks, such as the possibility of cold water shock, or hypothermia. The club requires guests to sign a waiver and release agreement before participating in a swim. Proponents of cold water swimming assert that the activity enhances circulation, reduces stress, and releases endorphins. My anecdotal evidence supports these claims.
While membership is currently closed, the club encourages everybody to join in the annual Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day. The 115th New Year’s Day plunge will take place January 1, 2019, at 1:00 pm. There is no fee to participate, but donations and fundraising are encouraged. The club uses the event to raise money for charity. This time, money raised will support the Coney Island community, which is still recovering from the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Recipients include Learn more about the 2019 Coney Island Polar Bear Club New Year’s Day Plunge. , , , , and other neighborhood organizations.