1910s Bathing Suit

Carole Mullen


Catalog Number: 1987.051.33

This modest woolen swimsuit would have been considered quite modern — even daring — for women of the 1910s. Unlike heavy bathing costumes a decade or so earlier with puffed-sleeve dresses, bloomers and long black stockings, it fit the body and allowed for actual swimming.

In Victorian times, most women took dips in the water rather than swimming or diving. Women visiting the ocean jumped through waves while holding onto a rope attached to a buoy. But a growing trend toward athleticism in the early 20th century made more practical swimwear for women necessary.

Form-fitting swimsuits for women were initially controversial. In 1907, swimmer Annette Kellerman from Australia visited the United States as an “underwater ballerina,” a version of synchronized swimming involving diving into glass tanks. She was arrested on a Boston beach for indecent exposure because her swimsuit showed her arms, legs and neck.

Kellerman adapted her suit with long sleeves, long legs and a collar. It became known as “the Annette Kellerman,” and, despite opposition from some groups, it became quite popular. One-piece swimming tights became accepted swimsuit attire for women, and radually the long sleeves and legs were shortened.

By the 1912 Olympics, women were swimming competitively, wearing swimsuits with short sleeves and legs ending at mid-thigh. Twenty-seven women from eight countries (though none from the United States) participated in two events, the 100-meter freestyle and 4X100 freestyle relay.

In the United States, the term “swim suit” was first coined in 1915 by Jantzen Knitting Mills, a former California sweater manufacturer. Wool was the preferred fabric because it was opaque in water. Although many women still wore long matching stockings with swimsuits, legs were no longer completely hidden. Stocking lengths varied from almost touching the swimsuit to knee-high or shorter — depending on the discretion or daring of the individual. Jantzen also developed a popular unisex swimsuit similar to this one.

This full-length charcoal grey swimsuit by Gantner & Mattern of San Francisco featured buttons at the shoulders, and it ended in boy-leg drawers covered by a tunic. Sets of black, gray and white stripes accentuated the chest and hem.

The swimsuit was donated by the Quincy Hale family of La Crosse. Hale was a prominent La Crosse lawyer and community leader. It’s likely his wife, Helen, once wore this suit, marking the progress of women while gracing a La Crosse beach with the latest in swimwear fashion.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on January 13, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

Dr. Edward Evans' WWI Uniform

Sophie Olson and Peggy Derrick

This uniform belonged to Dr. Edward Evans, former chief of staff at St. Francis Hospital and one of the most prominent surgeons in the Midwest during his time.

He wore it exactly 100 years ago, in 1918. Evans, who was originally from Canada, moved to La Crosse in 1888 to work at Marine Hospital, La Crosse’s first hospital, established and operated by the Franciscan Sisters. He quickly rose to prominence in the medical community and became chief of staff at the newly named St. Francis Hospital.

When World War I broke out, Evans served as the U.S. base hospital surgeon in La Crosse during the first years of the war. In 1918, he offered his medical expertise to the Army but was refused by the regular army medical corps because he was older than 55. He then offered his service to the Red Cross and was enlisted to go to Europe.

A La Crosse Tribune article from May 1918, headlined “Fightin’est Family Has Been Discovered in Wisconsin Town,” states: “Dr. Edward Evans is the father of the ‘fightin’est family’ in La Crosse. The surgeon, who has a wide reputation, has three children in the war. Sometime this month he will go to Europe himself to work for the cause of democracy, sacrificing his practice which is netting him a large income, for a position which carries no salary with it.”

It turns out that not only did Evans serve in the war, but so did three of his children. His eldest son, James, served on the Western Front driving ambulances for the Red Cross until he was wounded in action. His daughter, Mary, also went to France as part of a medical unit. Evans’ other son, Arthur, would go on to serve in the Italian Army as an ambulance driver.

According to his obituary, Evans served overseas for six months. He was the captain of a French operating team behind Chateau Thierry during the Allied counter offensive. From the three black bars on the sleeves of his uniform, we can tell he achieved the rank of captain. We also know that Evans acquired this uniform while he was serving in France, as it has an inside label that reads “Macdougal & Co. Rue Auber Paris.” Both the wool jacket and its striped lining are high quality and in excellent condition, leading us to believe that Evans paid for this himself and appreciated its fine tailoring.

Among the many civic roles Evans held in La Crosse was his service as director of the Young Women’s Christian Association. The local chapter of the YWCA was founded in 1903, and was housed in the top two floors of the Coren Building at 420 Main St. In 1905, the organization moved to the Mons Anderson house on Cass Street (today the Le Chateau restaurant), but by 1919 the YWCA had moved back to the Coren Building.

Today the building houses a street-level business, The Wedding Tree, and the top floor is a beautifully restored event venue, The Court Above Main. The hardwood floor still shows the markings of the basketball court from the days when it was a gymnasium. You can also see the door to Evans’ office, which still has his name stenciled on it, incorporated into the front of the small serving bar.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on January 6, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.