Episode 90: Ancestral Swimwear and a Passion for Pictures

All this hot humid weather has me thinking about how our ancestors coped in the heat. Long dresses and undergarments in light weight cotton seemed like a sweltering combination. One of my podcast guests loves dressing in period attire. She claims that the outfit is cool, but I’m not convinced.  

Hot summer weather makes me think about swimming.  But what did our ancestors wear and when. Of course it varied by generation with each successive generation of the twentieth century wearing less fabric than their mothers.  It’s a generation gap of sorts.

Those itsy, bitsy, tweeny weenie bikini’s in the song would have shocked our ancestors.  In Sanditon, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel now featured in a mini-series on PBS, the female characters don full swimming costumes and enter the sea via a horse drawn changing pavilion.  This made me think about swimsuits in general including one given to me by a friend. It was  a khaki colored jersey maillot from the 1920s.  An outrageous outfit too but It was a long way from the head to toe coverage of the 1817 era.  

For generations women’s bathing costumes had caps, bloomer type coverings and stockings. There were lace up beach shoes as well.  In the early twentieth century those bloomer costumes covered women to the knee and multiple layers of stockings took over from there. They were so heavy when wet that some women drowned. Ropes from shore to a pole in the water encouraged women to wade while holding on.  Of course, their menfolk frolicked in the water. 

 While most women didn’t go swimming there were a few daring women who did.  Eliza Bennet  and Agnes Beckwith wore outfits inspired by dress reformer Amelia Bloomer  Bennet swam the Hudson River in 1877 and Beckwith swam from London Bridge to Greenwich in 1875.  It wasn’t until the 1890s that their “Princess” suits became more popular. They were scandalous resembling form-fitting lingerie. By the early twentieth century, a female swimmer  Annette Kellerman of Australia, appeared in silent films in 1910 and 1911. 

It isn’t common to see pictures of nineteenth century women in bathing costumes.  I haven’t actually seen an photograph of a woman dressed for the water before 1900 but I haven’t spent a lot of time looking either.  Do you have images of your female ancestors in bathing outfits?  I’d love to see them.  You can share them on my Photo Detective Facebook Page. 

How I Became the Photo Detective

I’ve always loved history. When I was a kid, one of our neighbors took me to a library and showed me the reference department. He explained how to find information. Can you say hooked! From that moment on, I’ve loved the smell of books and the fun in hunting new information.  Today we have libraries at our fingertips. Think of a question and Google probably has an answer. But not everything is online and published.  There is a lot of photo history that’s been lost. From photographer archives to details about backdrops, there are clues in pictures that might not be readily available. 

Way back when my first professional job was split in two. I spent half the day assisting patrons with historical/family research and the other half of the day working with family photos. The two never merged until I decided that could be combined.  So I began to experiment with the ways that a photograph could lead to — or confirm — a family’s history. For instance, a wedding photo can tell you who attended the event and where the couple was married. A woman’s hat can identify her ethnic origins.

Now, decades later, I’ve proven (again and again!) that photographs and family history go together like bread and butter. They’re a natural match and one that’s often overlooked in the search for census records, vital statistics and other types of standard genealogical sources.

I’m honored that you’ve given me an opportunity to look at your photos and work with you to solve your family photo mysteries.  Every photo is different. Sure, there are babies, weddings, and even post mortem pictures, but each and every one of them is unique. It’s how all the clues add up in the images that makes them different.  

When I first meet someone who isn’t a genealogist, they want to know about the memorable, i.e. famous photos, I’ve worked on. Sure, I’ve looked at more supposed Abraham Lincoln’s and Jesse James than I can count on fingers and toes, but my work isn’t about famous folk. Your ancestral photographs are fascinating. Yet it’s not something everyone understands. Not all family photographs are valued. It’s a hard fact to accept.  To me no photo is ordinary. Each and every one is a story to tell.  Some of the clues are in the picture and others can be found in documents, but the magic happens when you add it all together. 

As the Photo Detective each day brings new pictures, new discoveries, and a brand new story.  

Related Episodes:

Episode 72: Wearing the Past: A Modern Woman’s Fascination with Period Dress


About Maureen Taylor:

Maureen is a frequent keynote speaker on photo identification, photograph preservation, and family history at historical and genealogical societies, museums, conferences, libraries, and other organizations across the U.S., London and Canada.  She’s the author of several books and hundreds of articles and her television appearances include The View and The Today Show (where she researched and presented a complete family tree for host Meredith Vieira).  She’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, The Boston Globe, Martha Stewart Living, Germany’s top newspaper Der Spiegel, American Spirit, and The New York Times. Maureen was recently a spokesperson and photograph expert for MyHeritage.com, an internationally known family history website and also writes guidebooks, scholarly articles and online columns for such media as Smithsonian.com. Learn more at Maureentaylor.com

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