L Street Brownies: A Century-Old Boston Tradition

by Jessica Green

Update: As of October 21, 2013 there is video related to this post on our website.

As an intern at the Media Library and Archives of WGBH, I have come across many interesting index cards in the process of transcribing them into the Filemaker database for the Boston Local TV News Digital Library Project. Recently, a card about 250 feet of news footage filmed on January 4th and 8th, 1969 caught my eye:

“L St Brownies go into water and play around on winter beach.”

Winter beach? That must have been a rather unpleasant swim.

A little poking around on the Internet gave me some insight into who these L Street Brownies were and why they would have been swimming outside in the winter of 1969.

Bostonians (sometimes disguised as penguins) have been jumping into the Boston Harbor for over a hundred years as part of the annual "L Street Brownies New Year's Day Swim." It is in fact one of the great Beantown traditions, alongside running the Boston Marathon, singing “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway, or pahking ya cah in hahvahd yahd.

Swimming in near-freezing water is not only a Boston thing - there are “polar bear” swimming clubs all over the US, including the Jacksonport Polar Bear Club, who have been jumping into Lake Michigan since 1986 and the Long Beach Polar Bears, who have been jumping into the Atlantic since 1998. While there is some debate about which is the oldest club in the US, (The Coney Island Polar Bears of New York also claim the title), the L Street Brownies made their first documented dip in 1904, with women joining in the ‘fun’ in the 1980s. The name “L Street Brownies” is derived from the L Street beach where they swam and from the tan they would get from being out on the beach everyday.

Some take the icy dip for fun, some to raise money for charity, others find it to be healthful or sobering, and millions of sane people watch it from the comfort of their living room TVs.

Check out a video of the 2009 New Year’s Day Swim on NECN and and photos of the 2011 Swim on Boston.com.

Will you take the leap next New Year’s? I guarantee that a steaming hot bread-bowl of clam chowdah will never have tasted so good as after that swim.


  • "Brownies Take a Winter Swim." Mass Moments. Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, 2011. Web. 30 Aug. 2011. .
  • "Polar Bear Plunge. Wikipedia.
  • Jarosh, Sue. "Jacksonport Polar Bear Club." DoorBell.Net. Web. 30 Aug. 2011. .
  • ""L Street Brownies" to Swim Again New Year's Day." City of Boston.gov. The City of Boston, 29 Dec. 2009. Web. 30 Aug. 2011. .
  • The Long Beach Polar Bear Club. Web. 30 Aug. 2011. .