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Hidden Histories: The First O'Neill Surf Shop at Ocean Beach

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Welcome to Curbed's ongoing series titled Hidden History, where Curbed Contributor Alex Bevk highlights a Bay Area location with a secret past. Maybe it’s no longer there, maybe it’s been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in SF history - even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open, or you can leave a comment after the jump.

A few weeks ago the state named the site of the original O'Neill Surf Shop in Santa Cruz, which opened near Cowell Beach in 1959, a California Point of Historical Interest. Even though Jack O’Neill and the O’Neill brand have become synonymous with Santa Cruz over the years, the first O’Neill Surf Shop actually opened in San Francisco seven years earlier. It was here that the surf innovator first created his prototype for the wetsuit, going on to change the surfing world forever.

After settling in San Francisco in the 1940s, Jack O’Neill became one of a small group of men who were diehard enough to body surf the frigid waters at Ocean Beach. Their initial attempts to stay warm included shoving flexible PVC into their swim trunks. When a friend suggested that neoprene rubber would work as an insulator against the cold, O’Neill turned it into a reality and the modern-day wetsuit was born. The first models were pieces of neoprene sewed together into vests, now on display at the O’Neill flagship store in downtown Santa Cruz.

Jack O'Neill in an early wetsuit model [Photo: O'Neill archives via SFPL]

In 1952, Jack O’Neill opened his first surf shop at Ocean Beach, selling the neoprene vests, balsa surfboards he shaped, and accessories like paraffin wax. The shop at 3518 Wawona Street in the family’s garage (now the site of an apartment building) was not only the first O’Neill surf shop, but one of the first such businesses in all of California. In fact, Jack O’Neill trademarked the term "surf shop" in 1962, still has the original business license for that SF shop, and could legally sue every place that has called itself a surf shop since (but apparently he’s never enforced it because he’s too nice of a guy).

O'Neill SF Surf Shop ad from 1950s [Photo: O'Neill archives, used with permission]

In 1960 the Surf Shop relocated out of the family home to 2686 Great Highway, in the back of the Hitchrack Bar lot, and more and more people began surfing in Northern California with the help of the new full-body and long-sleeved neoprene wetsuits. The Western Neighborhoods Project has some great stories from guys who went to the surf shop as kids. By 1959 the O’Neill family had relocated to Santa Cruz, eventually expanding the company to multiple stores down there. The SF shop stayed open until 1966 when an apartment building was constructed in its place. Jack O’Neill continued to innovate the sport, creating new types of boards and wetsuit technology (like inventing the first board leash). The company is now one of the largest surf companies in the world, and still family run, as Jack’s son Pat has been the company's CEO and president for 25 years.

Many thanks to the O’Neill company for supplying and permission to use photographs from the company archives.

· O’Neill 60 Year Anniversary [O’Neill]
· Site of original O'Neill Surf Shop designated Point of Historical Interest [Mercury News]
· Jack O'Neill, 89, a surfing legend who endures [SF Gate]
· Jack O'Neill's First Surf Shop [Western Neighborhoods Project]
· Surfing A-Z: Jack O’Neill [Surfline]

Ocean Beach

1000 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA 94121