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  • July 1916 "Beware of Sharks" When America Realized Sharks Bit
  • Post author
    Gregory Morris

July 1916 "Beware of Sharks" When America Realized Sharks Bit

July 1916
It seems like sharks are as popular as ever. They're in the movies. They're in the news. They even have their own week. They're everywhere! With all the success we've had selling our shark inspired wooden wall art, we, at Haven America wondered why? To help answer that question we went in search of America's fascination and fear of these popular aquatic predators.
Shark Jaw, Mak Shark, Shark Tooth, Shark Head
To begin, we thought it would be (insert pun adjective here) to examine America's history with sharks. No, not the history of the species that started about 450 million years ago during a period of time that looks like it belongs in a SyFy movie but instead a major flash forward to pre-prohibition era America. A time when most folks didn't think twice about "what's out there".

The beginning of America's shark fascination seems to have started with some infamous shark attacks that happened in New Jersey exactly a hundred years ago this month. "The country's fear and fascination with sharks has often been credited to a series of shark attacks in 1916 in New Jersey that saw four people killed and one injured during a two-week period. The attacks led to widespread panic over sharks and a wave of shark hunts,".

That led us to dive a little deeper into just what exactly happened during two frightening weeks in July 1916. Found a bit from a National Geographic article that details the horrific events.

"In the twilight of July 1, 1916, 25-year-old Charles Vansant died in a beachfront hotel in New Jersey. Several men had pulled his maimed body from the water. Five days later, bellhop Charles Bruder, 27, was killed during an afternoon swim along the Jersey Shore, beachgoers gathered around his remains in disbelief  The following week, 10-year-old Lester Stilwell was swimming in Matawan Creek (also in New Jersey) with his friends when he was eaten alive. Then ...the terrified boys ran down Main Street screaming that there was a shark in the water,". What's interesting here is that this would become the first, modern-day shark attack story in American history.

That had us thinking, "Well surely there had been other attacks, right?" Nowadays you hear about a least one shark attack each year. Not the case. According to the National Geographic article, there was a different sentiment towards sharks: they don't bite people.

Shark Wall Art

One of the lighter topics in this NG article is about a seemingly eccentric American millionaire, and athlete, named Hermann Oelrichs who felt like many: "Sharks Didn't Bite People". "He was so sure that in 1891," the article indicates, "Oelrichs offered $500 ($12,000 in today’s dollars) to anyone who could prove him wrong. He was so sure that once, when he hosted a party at his seaside home, he jumped in the water with a shark to settle a $250 bet with his guests, according to an 1891 Pittsburg Dispatch article. Some partygoers screamed and covered their eyes. Others called for help. But the fish swam away, possibly frightened by the splash. Oelrichs later repeated this stunt on his yacht." That was that. Like Oelrichs, the general public didn't realize what they were swimming around with until these 1916 attacks.

Anyway, what makes these shark attacks so relevant to the fascination and fear question we had was that they were the basis for the 1974 bestseller novel about a small east coast island town that's attacked by a killer great white shark. The following year, Hollywood got involved and made a film about the book with a young Steven Spielberg directing and kept the original title "Jaws." The movie was big summer blockbuster and kept everybody second-guessing themselves when it came to swimming at the beach just the way its inspiration had in real life.

For us, too, the fact that the "monster is real" is another reason why we feel everybody is still so shark-obsessed. They're out there. Just like a hidden undercurrent, they can get you. That fascinates people. Sharks are so mysterious and still so little is known about them.

Continuing on with this rough timeline of shark events that has captured American attention, most people will tell you that "Shark Week" only kept the fascination and fear of these multi-toothed fish up. We found another great 2012 article, this time from the online side of the Atlantic about the birth and rise of this fantastic shark programming on The Discovery Channel. One of the main sections in the article is about how some executive producers were grabbing drinks after work and discussing what would be something entertaining Discovery Channel could do. Gotta say, we do that here, too when we're concepting new pieces and talking about show booths. We totally get where they're coming from with that. We've learned major business meetings are best done over dinner!

Surfboard Towel Hook with Shark Bite
"It had been a decade since Steven Spielberg's Jaws gave moviegoers the collective creeps about open-water swimming, and the fledgling network (Discovery Channel) had noticed a spike in ratings whenever shark-related programming was aired... So the three amigos (the first executive producers of Sharkweek) got to work back at the studio, and in the late summer of 1988, Shark Week hit the airwaves...The first Shark Week opened on July 17, 1988, with Caged in Fear, a science-history special...Ratings that week surged to twice what the network usually garnered in primetime. Bunting (one of the Discovery Channel executive producers) told the State News he wished he could say he'd had some inkling at the time that he'd created a pop-culture titan—but frankly, he said, he was 'as surprised as anyone else' to see it take off so explosively. Its success spawned a sequel in 1989, and its ascent from there, remarkably, never faltered. 'Everybody was always fairly surprised that it kept working,' Runnette (another one of the Discovery Channel execs) says. 'It kind of taught us what it wanted to be, in a way.'"

After that, the rest of the shark craze is anything you can make of it. Whether it's the most recent attack in North Carolina involving an 11-year-old surfing to Sharknado 3 coming to SyFy July 31st, 2016, we thought it'd be (insert pun adjective here) to take a look back at it.

Going back to the executive producers of Shark Week and how it came to be. Honestly, that's kind of how it begins for us, too when we started doing shark pieces. At the time, we were doing all kinds of word signs, Southern-themed pieces, and just starting to wade into the beach and coastal. We went experimenting like the young Discovery Channel with what would be fun to make. Our Mako Shark was made in 2012 when our studio was a renovated barn in North Carolina.

It was just a simple Mako cut out of pine and engraved with gills. We featured it in a few different blues and from there we knew sharks were popular. So, we did a Great White and it took off, too. People also began asking us to customize the size. We issued a standard three sizes: 23", 36", and 48" long, only furthering shark love. In New Orleans 2014, I remember we made a length sheet for our shipping employees to reference because there were so many orders and people didn't know what size went to whom. Since then, we've created a Shark Trophy Head, Shark Bite Towel Hook, and the really unique piece which was our feature photo, Sharks Swim Below, all kinds of other pieces that really punctuate any shark lover's living quarters.

Not only do we believe the shark phenomenon is part of our success with these creatures, but also the handcrafted feel we put in them, like everything we do. You can't find these in big box stores and we think that people find something special in that. The teeth are sharp, the fins are smooth, and the edges are tight.

The only thing missing about our sharks, and sharks, in general, is "why can't we get some friggin' sharks with laser beams attached to their heads?"

If you enjoyed this post, check out our wonderful products and would be grateful if you’d help it spread by sharing it on Twitter and/or Facebook.

Thank you!
—Greyson Havens-Morris | Partner and Master Craftsman, Haven America

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  • Post author
    Gregory Morris

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