Bathing Beauties and Beach Bodies 1900s Style

bathers on the beach


Here are some interesting photographs of bathing beauties and beach goers at some popular resorts throughout the United States, including Atlantic City, at the beginning of the 20th century. Looking at the way their bathing suits covered almost every inch of their bodies, both male and female, we can really see how much standards of decency and modesty have changed.


The first in the series is a panoramic shot showing beach goers at Atlantic City in 1908. It’s also interesting to see how much fatter we have gotten. Almost no one on the beach would be considered obese today.

They were also incredibly overdressed and dandified. I get the fact that standards of modesty at the time meant that your bathing suit was not allowed to show much skin. But going to the beach in a suit and tie, that’s a bit much even for the 1900s, isn’t it?

But apparently not. Here is a photo of beach goers in Venice Beach California.

Venice CaliforniaIf I didn’t know better I would have thought that this was a picture of an accountant’s convention.

Besides the quaint bathing suits, it is interesting to notice just how few women there are on the beach. Good girls just did not go to the beach, no matter how much they covered up.


When women did go to the beach they tended to do a lot of people watching. In this photograph a group of women have literally installed themselves in a viewing gallery to watch the beachgoers:

People Watching on the Beach

The intense focus of the women in the stands is interesting in itself. If we zoom in on them we can pick up some interesting clues about the life of women in the early 1900s:



Notice how all the women are basically wearing the same outfits – long skirts, long sleeve shirts and hair done up in a bun. No one is wearing glasses. There are no visible minorities. They are observers, not participators – watching the beach goers below having fun on the beach. Now let us look at what they are watching. Zooming in to the right hand of the picture we can get a better look at the people on the beach. If you weer hoping to see some scantily clad beach bodies, you are going to be disappointed.


Girls on the BeachThe girls on the beach are a bit more adventurous than the women in the viewing stands. At least they are in the midst of the action. Some are actually talking to young men. The scandal! But they too are all wearing basically the same uniform. Long sleeves, long skirts and hair done up in buns. They seem undisturbed by the women watching them from the viewing stands. I noticed that the women in the stands seem to be older than the ones on the beach and I wonder if they are actually the mothers or aunts of the girls on the beach, keeping an eye on them as chaperones, to make sure that none of girls do anything to compromise their honour.

In any case, this type of extreme modesty at the beach was not restricted to Atlantic city. Here are some beauties showing off their beach bodies at Rye Beach, New Hampshire:


Beathing Beauties


Even when women did put on what could pass as a bathing suit and ventured into the water, they were covered almost completely. Notice the snazzy hats in this picture:


beach wearNo one seems to be actually swimming. Probably out of fear that if they got their clothes wet, they might become see through or cling to their bodies and lust would get the better of their Victorian era sensibilities.


It wasn’t all seriousness and oppressive modesty, however. Here is a picture of a group of men and women having fun in the water at Atlantic City. Notice however how few women there are at the beach compared to men.


Atlantic City Beach Party


And we can’t forget this scandalous bathing beauty from 1900:

Beathing Beauty

A Boer Commando Unit 1899-1902

Boer Soldiers

A Unit of Boer Commandos Posing for the Camera. Boer War – 1899-1902


During the Boer War (also called the South African War) the British Empire faced off against a rag tag group of farmers and cattle drivers – the fiercely independent Boers of the Orange Free State and Transvaal Republic. Defying an attempt by the British to annex their territory to the Cape Colony (now South Africa), the Boers fought an epic war against the British.


Despite being hopelessly outmatched in numbers of troops and weaponry, the Boer militias resisted the British invasion for several years, engaging in a murderous guerrilla war against the larger British forces. Boers were known for their fierce independence and self reliance, as well as for being crack shots.


Here a unit of Boer citizen volunteers pose for the camera. The fellow on the right has a thousand yard stare and you can tell that he well acquainted with the horrors of war.

Sarah Bernhardt

Picture of Actress Sarah Bernhardt, 1865

Picture of French Actress Sarah Bernhardt, 1865


This is a photograph of an exotic looking Sarah Bernhardt, taken when she was about 21 years old. Bernhardt was one of the first world wide celebrities, and enjoyed tremendous  success as a stage actress during the late 1800s and even into the early 20th century. Her acting credits included appearances in early silent films.

Born of Jewish French parents, Bernhardt hid her origins and ethnicity through an elaborate system of lies and obscurations.  A tireless self promoter, she became famous and rich in Europe and America, and enjoyed a long and successful career from her early twenties to her death at age 78.

Apart from her own talents as an actress and self promotion, Bernhardt played an interesting role in the lives of very many artists, writers and important personages, both as a lover and a muse. Her love life reads as a who’s who of the intelligentsia, social climbers and old money.

When she was 20 years old, Bernhardt had an affair with a Belgian nobleman, by whom she had her only child. Later she became the lover of various artists such as Gustave Dore, Georges Clairin, writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, and various actors. Bernhardt had an affair with the future British King Edward VII,  when he was still the Prince of Wales. She also had some high profile lesbian relationships including with Ida Rubenstein, Anna de Noailles and she lived openly with the painter Louise Abbema and Eleonora Duse.

A muse to her friends and lovers, Bernhardt was the subject of many paintings by Louise Abbema. She was friends with Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust.

As an interesting side note, Bernhardt is also responsible for giving the world both the word and the hat style known as a Fedora. The word and the hat it describes come from an 1882 play called Fédora, in which Bernhardt played the title role of a hat wearing Princess Fédora Romanoff. The idea of a woman wearing a man’s style hat caused a bit of a sensation at the time and led to women rebelliously wearing fedoras in public as a sign of female emancipation.



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