When Culture Kills: A History of Drowning in America

The fire spread quickly. Onlookers on the Astoria shore noticed “a solid mass of flames” lurching in the water toward North Brother Island. The few men aboard the pleasure cruiser jumped into the water and swam to safety. But most women, not knowing how to swim, remained aboard. They shielded the children and desperately hoped to be rescued before the fire spread. From eyewitness accounts the New York Times reported, “With sure death from fire behind, the women . . . waited until the flames were upon them, until they felt their flesh blister, before they took the alternative of the river. . . Babies …were dropped into the water by scores, and finally the women were forced over the rail and hundreds of them fell into the river.” Nearly all drowned.

Bodies washed ashore after the steamship, General Slocum, caught fire, 1904. Over 900 people did not know how to swim and drown. Photo likely by Gustav Scholer via en.wikipedia.org by Richard Arthur Norton.

Of the estimated 978 women and children aboard the excursion steamboat, the General Slocum, nearly all died. Most drowned just a few feet from shore in relatively shallow waters because they did not know how to swim. Fire fighters, police officers, and volunteers worked for days to free dead bodies lodged under the sunken ship. Mass burials took place as many of the bodies, so swollen from water immersion, could not be identified. The Times cautioned, “one of the lessons which the General Slocum horror should bring home to every woman and girl in New York City is the desirability of knowing how to swim.”

While catastrophes like the General Slocum commanded the most attention, thousands of accidental drowning deaths occurred in the US annually and most fatalities involved women and children. They simply did not know how to swim.

Why did so few women know how to swim in the early 20th century?

Some concluded that women were biologically inferior or incapable of swimming. One common cultural stereotype held that men were innately predisposed to athleticism and that swimming was a “masculine sport,” far too challenging for women. Others realized that drowning had less to do with biological deficiency than it did with culture. Few women had access to proper instruction or time in which to learn. Additionally, the heavy cumbersome bathing suit deterred many women from learning to swim at all; those brave enough to try were often immobilized in the water.

“Far Rockaway.” Photograph of Rockaway Beach, NY, 1900, by Charles E. Bolles. Library of Congress.

Women ventured to bath houses located along river banks and ocean beaches to cool themselves and allow their children, who played in the water. Women’s long, dark, heavy bathing suits permitted frolicking in the surf, but they made swimming–for those few women who knew how to swim–very difficult. If a wave knocked an unsuspecting woman off balance, she could easily have drowned. And often they did–sometimes while trying to save a child.

As newspapers lamented the needless deaths by drowning, municipalities began initiating “Learn to Swim” campaigns targeted to women. Postcards, posters, and newspaper articles encouraged and admonished women to learn to swim as a life-saving measure for themselves and–most importantly–for the nation’s children.

Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.

As cities began offering swimming instruction to women, individuals advocating for swimsuit reform–like Lucille Eaton Hill, Edwyn Sandys and Annette Kellerman–began finding audiences receptive. Thus advertising campaigns about public safety worked together with advertisements glamorizing swimming for women and began to dismantle the stereotype that swimming was a masculine sport unsuitable for women.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries middle-class propriety delineated appropriate interactions between the sexes in most social settings. Swimming pools were segregated by gender and race. Typically, pools allowed women access at separate times or days–if they permitted women access at all. Beaches didn’t have such rules. Public safety advertisements successfully persuaded the general public that men and women could (and should) swim together on public beaches because most believed that men could not only safeguard women but teach them basic elements of swimming.

So, while most sports segregated participants according to gender, the dangers posed by the surf allowed conservatives to condone mixed-gender swimming. Photographer G.C. Hovey captured a group of mixed swimmers frolicking after a distance swim in New York, August 1906.

Mixed-gender swim group in New York, August, 1906. By G. C. Hovey, Mid Manhattan Picture Collection, Library of Congress.

The early 20th century “Learn to Swim” campaign was successful: It wasn’t long before women begin outdistancing men in open water marathon swimming. But the campaign may have had unintentional effects and generated beliefs about race and swimming. The photograph “In the Swim” illustrates clearly the homogenous racial composition of the group. Thus these early “Learn to Swim” campaigns that targeted women may have inadvertently (or purposefully) reinforced another cultural stereotype: that swimming was a “white” activity. Today, sadly, death by drowning is capturing headlines again. This time, however, the victims are predominantly nonwhites: 70 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim and are three times more likely to drown than other children. Are our cultural stereotypes killing us?

5 Replies to “When Culture Kills: A History of Drowning in America”

  1. This is a great blog! There’s a website called shorpy.com that has many pictures of some of the bathing suits that women in the early 1900s would wear. No wonder so many women drowned! Keep up the good work, it’s fascinating.

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