SPAP Report No. MSM-F.2

Jantzen’s Diving Girl logo shown above courtesy of Jantzen Inc. This is their first Diving Girl created in 1920.
She went through several style changes over the following decades and remains today known throughout the world.

Once upon a time, but not so very long ago, amongst the US American people, “swimming” was called “bathing”, and the customary costumes for it differed considerably from those of today. It’s easy to understand the appeal of skinny-dipping as a welcome contrast to wet wool coveralls!

The following article and photos are by Julia Hunter, Registrar of the Maine State Museum. They appeared in Broadside Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 1996, page 1. Broadside is published quarterly by Friends of the Maine State Museum, 83 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0083. Telephones (207) 287-2304, TTY 287-6740. SPAP thanks FMSM for allowing republication here, and Julia for loaning the original photos for clarity – better seeing is easier believing.

Come on in!

The water’s great!

The earliest bathing suit in the Hamblen-Morrison family donation, this women’s outfit consists of a navy blue dress over separate bloomers. Decorated with rows of white piping, the fabric is cotton, the style pre-1920, and it could have been made at home.

Diving into summer fun in a bathing suit is a long-time tradition in this country. By the 1850s, “sea bathing” was touted as healthful activity, and soon areas such as Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Newport Beach, Rhode Island, with good beaches and easy access for city dwellers, began to cater to the summer trade.

In the early twentieth century, swimming was immensely popular, with both men’s and women’s swimming clubs using indoor pools in the cities, and middle class day-trippers and wealthy “summer people” flocking to seaside sites, including Maine’s Bar Harbor. Many people discovered the joys of inland lakes. New York City’s Gertrude Ederle’s accomplishments, capped by swimming the English Channel in what was record time for either man or woman in 1926, boosted swimming in a manner similar to Joan Benoit Samuelson’s more recent effect on long-distance running or Cindy Blodgett’s on schoolgirl basketball.

The men’s navy blue swimming trunks feature a drawstring waist and are made of cotton and wool. The black full-body men’s cotton bathing suit in the center belonged to Fred Hamblen, and his grandson remembers him wearing it chiefly after heavy physical labor, to go and cool off in the pond. The boys’ trunks at right are made primarily of wool, with some cotton in the lining and a synthetic fiber, such as were becoming more the norm for swim wear even in the 1930s; the trunks are very well made and feature a subtle striping in the knit of the wool and a “watch pocket”, which closed with a button (now missing). The donor wore them during his boyhood in the 1940s.

When Fred Hamblen, an actuary for Union Mutual in Portland, designed and built his family’s cottage in 1927, the United States’ love affair with sports was at a peak. Judging by the styles and fabrics of the garments, the Hamblen family brought the bathing suits they already had to the cottage on the south shore of Panther Pond in Raymond. Over the years, new suits were purchased and worn, and old suits were used for “dress up” by two succeeding generations of the family. They were part of the summer fun, things always kept the same at the cottage. It was 1995 before anybody thought that the suits might be something special. At that point, Hamblen’s grandson’s wife, Florence Morrison of New Gloucester, was carrying out an internship in museum registration methods under the direction of the Maine State Museum’s then-Registrar and Curator of Textiles, Allyson Humphrey. As they worked together, Morrison realized that those bathing suits might be appropriate additions to the Museum’s collections. Thus the Morrisons came to donate nine bathing suits, all of which were worn at Panther Pond and pre-date World War II.

This commercially produced one-piece bathing suit has a brown (or faded black) cotton body decorated at the neck, arms, and bottom of the tunic area with striped red and black wool. Each leg ends in a reinforced black wool band. Each shoulder strap has three dark brown functioning buttons. The Jantzen company made a similar suit in the 1915 to 1920 era, but it buttoned differently. This general type of “California Style” suit was still advertised in women’s, girls’, and boys’ versions in the 1927 Norman Roberts & Co. catalog.

Two-piece men’s suit, made of black or dark blue cotton, dates to the 1920s.

At least three of the women’s suits were made by Jantzen Incorporated, which is headquartered in Portland, Oregon. Jantzen’s archives are presided over by retired employee Arthur McArthur, who is generously providing information about the suits in our collection. According to McArthur, the “diving girl” shown in close-up above with this report’s title and embroidered on the left hip of each of the three women’s suits below, was the hottest trade emblem of the 1920s; wearing a suit with her on it was equivalent to wearing the right brand of running shoe in the 1980s. Her design changed over time, but in various forms she was used between 1924 and the early 1950s. The form featured here, complete with cap and socks, is an early one from the 1920s and helps in determining the age of the suit. The other two suits, from the 1930s, have a different style diving girl.

Three wool Jantzen women’s swimsuits have significant differences between them that indicate the probable order of manufacture and purchase. The suit on the left is dark red; based on the form of the diving girl logo and the lack of any extra bust support, it can be dated to the early 1930s. On the right, the black or dark blue suit features the earliest form of the diving girl (enlarged above), as well as a button on the left shoulder strap, both of which date it to 1925-1930. In the center, the mustard-colored suit is the newest, probably dating to the mid 1930s, featuring tie straps that were part of its “Shouldair” styling, along with the innovations of shaping seam and darts at the bust.

Research into the exact ages of the suits and the activities of the companies manufacturing them continues as part of the early preparations for a proposed exhibit of the accouterments of outdoor leisure activities in Maine.