A day at the beach 100 years ago

It’s mid-July. To escape the steamy, humid, sticky heat thousands of Americans make a pilgrimage to beaches and pools each weekend.

Dorothea and Maryal Knox in the surf at Rye, NY, ca.1900. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University.

Today, you could slip into your suit of choice, slather on the sunscreen and enjoy the waves. If you were a woman living a hundred years ago, it wouldn’t have been quite that simple.

First, bathing suits weren’t widely manufactured like they are today. Most women typically sewed their own swimsuits. Popular magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar reported on the latest swimwear fashions and published fashionable patterns.

Page from Newcomb Endicott & Co. spring catalog, circa 1902. Courtesy of Peggy, Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions.

Bathing suits at the time resembled all-encompassing body suits more than bikinis. At the turn of the century, seven to ten yards were required to make one woman’s bathing suit, depending on the type of fabric chosen and the style. Wool and flannel were recommended as the best choices as they were thought to insulate the body against cold.

The photo of the Knox sisters shows a highly popular swimsuit style which included dark wool tights,  pantaloons, swimming shoes or boots, a sailor-style blouse with balloon sleeves, sash, and full over-skirt. Since the suits were made from such heavy, water-absorbing fabrics, the long voluminous skirts often became tangled around women’s legs in the water. Each week, newspaper headlines described a series of deaths from drowning.

5 Replies to “A day at the beach 100 years ago”

  1. Even in the early 1940s women’s bathing suits were still likely to be made of wool. They took days to dry. At summer camp in Maine, where we had an obligatory swim before breakfast, we had to scramble into them while they were still damp, stiff, and cold. I’m sure mine stayed damp all summer.

  2. Very, true, Barbara and thanks for the comment! I dislike when I have to pull on a damp suit made of nylon. I can’t even imagine slipping into damp one made of wool. It’s very interesting. As early as the 1910s, “Kellerman” suits–the first practical suits for women’s swimming–were made of tight-fitting silk and some swimsuit companies, like Spaulding, that targeted athletes not the general public, used lighter weight fabrics. But, you’re absolutely right: most recreational swimsuits were made of tightly knitted wool through the 1940s. Jantzen swimwear (about whom there will be many subsequent posts) revolutionized swimwear for women but even their form-fitting short suits were still knitted from wool. I have some wonderful patterns for knitted swimsuits from the 1930s and 1940s I’ll dig up. If you have any photos of your swimsuits from the 1940s, I would love to see them!

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