We rely on our local government to pass ordinances that keep the public safe, which often includes moral safeguarding. As far back as 1853, a resolution to a city ordinance originally written in 1843, prohibited “bathing” “except within the enclosure or walls of a regular and decently constructed Bathing House.” Meaning swimmers were no longer allowed to openly skinny dip in the ocean. Any white person caught in the nude would be fined and a person of color would receive “twenty-five stripes on the bare back.”
This didn’t stop people from swimming in the buff, however. In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt visited St. Augustine and it is said that he and his entourage stripped down and jumped in to enjoy a romp in the water. In 1907, an editorial in the St. Augustine newspaper spoke of lack of decent and modest swim fashions from Jamestown and Rockaway Beach, NY which were monitored by the law, praying that Floridian women remained conservative in their beachwear.
Though both male and female bathing suit contests became all the rage for July 4th celebrations in the Roaring ‘20s, in 1919 people argued over how ladies should dress. The City Treasurer favored one-piece bathing suits and recommended ladies cover up from the bathing house to the water. In another article “reformers” argued that girls must wear their stockings while at the beach “because the sight of the feminine leg exposed inflames the masculine mind to a passion of lecherous frenzy.” Opponents argued back “How do they know that? Do you ever feel that way?”
Fast forward several decades to the 1990s, when another interest in public nudity in St. Johns County became a national conversation after the show “A Current Affair” aired out some dirty laundry, or lack of it. The St. Johns County Commissioners worked to prohibit public nudity, and how much “body” could be shown in public, in response to the opening of a new restaurant that featured nude dancers as entertainment. Though Café Erotica, or Café 207, Inc., went through all the proper legal channels to open their business, they felt targeted due to the nature of their business. There were plenty of people against the opening of the restaurant including clergymen and the school board who felt the business opened too close to an elementary school (1500 feet), which was due to open the following fall. Concerned citizens worried that the 24-hour restaurant, with the “scantily-clad” waitresses and fully nude dancers, would cause safety and moral issues especially so close to children, and in the community in general.
The First Amendment rights of Café Erotica were hotly debated. The Café Erotica owners took out full page ads in The St. Augustine Record laying out the rules they expected their patrons to follow, and how they were a respectable business. They also called out the County Commissioners directly for violating their rights as business owners. Even one of their dancers filed a suit against the county for violating her right to privacy and freedom of expression.
Eventually, the citizens of St. Augustine complained that the case received too much media attention. The topic was discussed by celebrities such as Larry King, Rush Limbaugh, and even used as fodder for Jay Leno’s opening monologues on “The Tonight Show”. The County Commissioners used this spotlight to bolster their point. However, it wasn’t the nudity issue that everyone was talking about. It was the excessive length of the definitions they used to describe the allowable portions of the human body to be displayed. Rather than use Webster’s or Mosby’s Medical and Nursing Dictionary, the County Commissioners created their own definitions which included a 69-word definition for breast and an over 300-word definition to define the “cleavage of the nates” and “fleshy protuberances”, aka., the buttocks. One of the commissioner’s even went on Sally Jesse Raphael’s talk show with two female models wearing bathing suits to literally point out what was and wasn’t appropriate.
The ordinance passed in 1992 and is still in effect under St. Johns County Ordinances, subject Nudity: Ord. 1992-12 – Prohibited in certain public places. Over the years Café Erotica was also prohibited to serve alcoholic beverages along with having nude dancers and fought with the county over signage for the business.
After thirteen years, Café Erotica quietly closed its doors in 2005. It was so abrupt the employees didn’t know until they tried to go to work and couldn’t get in. The owners had the fixtures removed and shipped off without telling their employees. According to Jim Sutton from the St. Augustine Record, “Café Erotica won subsequent First Amendment skirmishes with the county over billboards and other signage, but the great nate debate was the highlight.”
Written by Nicole Diehm
Bradley, Kim. “School Board wants to be on list against allowing nude café.” St. Augustine Record 3/5/1992.
“City Treasurer in favor of one-piece garments: Says ladies should wear ‘em but suggests cloaks be used on the beach. St. Augustine Evening Record, 7/28/1919, p. 4.
Code of Ordinance – St. Johns County, Nudity: Ord. 1992-12 – Prohibited in certain public places. (https://stjohnsclerk.com/minrec/OrdinanceBooks/1992/ORD1992-12.pdf) accessed 6/16/2022.
From Staff. “Clergy to discuss Café Erotica” St. Augustine Record, 3/2/1992.
Grogan, Mike. “Commissioner, Café Erotica debate nates on national TV forum.” St. Augustine Record, 4/24/1992.
“In 1905 ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt was here: Popular president enjoyed surf bathing, St. Augustine Food and friendliness of people.” [St. Augustine Record (?)], dated 3/19/1961.
Krywko, Patsy. “Nates spread fame.” St. Augustine Record, 3/31/92.
Krywko, Patsy. “PZA: Café Erotica lawsuit full of errors.” St. Augustine Record, 3/20/1992.
“Naughty bathing suits.” St. Augustine Evening Record, 8/26/1919, p. 2.
Paid Advertisement “A letter to the public from Café Erotica.” St. Augustine Record 3/12/1992.
Paid Advertisement “To county commissioners from Café erotica Advisement and Warning. The proposed ordinance should be delayed and re-drafted for the following reasons.” St. Augustine Record March 18, 1992.
Pratt, Adrian. “Appeals court overturns decision on hearing case of dancer at Café Erotica.” St. Augustine Record, 7/25/1992.
Sound Off. “Most callers believe nude café getting too much publicity.” St. Augustine Record, 3/10/1992.
Sutton, Jim. “Scourge of State Road 207 goes quietly away!” St. Augustine Record, 9/21/2005.
“The bathing suit issue.” St. Augustine Record, 5/2/1907, editorial page.
“Valuable prizes to be given July 4th. Rebekahs, who are arranging glorious holiday at Usina’s North Beach, Announce Plans.” St. Augustine Record, 6/30/1923, p. 8.
“What others say: Our fame spreads far and near.” St. Augustine Record, 4/3/1992