Arts and Leisure

Flashback Photos: Tourists Visit Provincetown, 1940

Edwin Rosskam took these photos of Provincetown, Mass., in August 1940. Rosskam, with his wife Louise, chronicled American life during the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration.

Provincetown tourists, 1940. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Provincetown tourists, 1940. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The caption on the photo above reads, “Tourists fresh off the boat from Boston. With only two hours in town, they buy seashells, dinners, trinkets, and rides on the sightseeing bus.”

Provincetown musicians. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Provincetown musicians. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“Local talent makes music on a Sunday afternoon under soldiers’ monument,” wrote Rosskam. Provincetown had been a whaling and fishing center in the 19th century, and by the 1890s it attracted writers, artists and tourists.

Provincetown tourists. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Provincetown tourists. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The Portland Gale in 1898 wrecked much of Provincetown’s fishing industry, and the town then grew more dependent on tourism. Here, Rosskam photographed tourists on the street.

Provincetown art class. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Provincetown art class. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“Provincetown’s reputation as an art center provides ample income for several art schools,” wrote Rosskam. “Outdoor classes are likely to pop up anywhere.” The Cape Cod School of Art, the first outdoor school of art in the United States, was founded in Provincetown in 1898 by Charles Webster Hawthorne.

Provincetown shacks. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Shacks. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Shacks used by fishermen and members of the lifesaving service were converted in the early 20th century to homes for tourists, artists and writers. Henry David Thoreau described antebellum shacks, used for the lifesaving service and as refuges for shipwrecked sailors in Provincetown and Truro.

Provincetown Shacks

The lifesaving shacks were then replaced in the 1920s by the  Dune Shacks of Peaked Hill. The shacks had no electricity or running water. But they did have such guests as Jack Kerouace. e. cummingsNorman MailerJackson Pollack and, most famously, Eugene O’Neill. They are now on the  National Register of Historic Places.

Truro touris house. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Truro tourist house. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Rosskam captured these tourists at home in a Truro tourist house.


This story last updated in 2022. 

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