Great-Grandmother’s Swimsuit in Vintage Fashion Articles & Photos

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to find ads and stories about vintage swimsuits, giving us another glimpse into our ancestors’ lives.

It’s HOT outside and it’s the perfect time to enjoy a day at the beach. One day as I was trying to stay cool at home with the air conditioning, I was scanning family photos and came across a 1920s-era photo of my great-grandfather and his sister-in-law at the beach. Looking at the old family photo reminded me of what I love about family history research: discovering the stories of ordinary people’s lives. Our ancestors’ lives were much more than a birth, marriage, and death date. They took part in all sorts of activities, including recreations like visiting the beach during the summer.

photo of Oscar Philibert and Lillie Chatham

Photo: Oscar Philibert and Lillie Chatham. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

So what type of swimsuits did your ancestors wear? Swimsuits, like all types of fashion, have evolved through the years to reflect the morals, laws, form, and textiles of the times. According to the article “Swim Wear History” by the Vintage Fashion Guild, the bathing suits of ancient Greece resembled the bikinis of today! As time progressed, modesty and segregation between the sexes called for swim attire that lacked function. As swimming and beach visits became more popular in the 19th century, beach wear evolved to the swimsuit fashions seen today. That article goes on to say that those early Victorian suits made of wool covered everything on the human form but they also adhered to wet bodies, defeating their original purpose: modesty. This lack of function for swimsuits can be seen in photos from the early 20th century as well.

Enter Last Name










Controversy has always followed the wearing of swimsuits. Older generations voiced their disapproval of the younger generation showing too much skin—and in some cases the law has stepped in to make sure the public is well-covered. One example of someone who tried to push the envelope in what bathing beauties wore was the Australian professional swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman (1886-1975), who was an advocate of women wearing one-piece swimsuits instead of the impractical dress and pantaloons ensembles of the time. She was even arrested for wearing one of her one-piece suits on a U.S. beach.

photo of Annette Kellermann

Photo: pictorial post card, “Miss Annette Kellermann, Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver of the World.” Credit: State Library of New South Wales; Flickr the Commons.

Swimsuit Fashions through the 20th Century

This 1916 newspaper ad offers a swimsuit that pretty much covers every part of the body except the arms and neck. In describing this more “modern” suit, the writer states “that the suit is not the same as a half dozen years ago—a simple thing good enough to swim in.” As we read more about this ensemble and all of its pieces and design, it’s funny to see how language and descriptions have changed. I’m not sure how many women today would want to wear a swimsuit described as “…striped as a porch awning.” Modern-day women may take offense at someone commenting on their fashion choice looking like something that should be hanging off someone’s porch.

swimsuit ad, Charlotte Observer newspaper advertisement 11 July 1916

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 11 July 1916, page 7

It’s easy to see the style differences from the 1916 suit featured above and this “scantier” 1923 swimsuit. Scantier certainly describes this vintage swimsuit, with its “shorter trunks, narrower shoulder hands, and no sleeves.” It’s easy to understand how this suit style would be much easier to swim in as the model, Miss Martin of the Ziegfeld Follies, is quoted as saying.

swimsuit ad, Miami District Daily News newspaper advertisement 3 January 1922

Miami District Daily News (Miami, Oklahoma), 3 January 1922, page 3

While we most associate today’s bikinis as revealing swimsuits, women did wear two-piece swimsuits decades before the bikini, like this ad from 1937 describing how “an overskirt of white jersey dotted in red matches the ‘bra’ top of the suit, and is worn over red jersey shorts.”

swimsuit ad, National Labor Tribune newspaper advertisement 10 April 1937

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 10 April 1937, page 8

As younger generations look at the vintage swimsuit fashions from yesterday, they probably find amusement at past efforts to cover up on the beach, and wonder why our ancestors wore so much material. It would seem that each generation disapproves of the younger generations and their fashions—and vice versa. That’s as true for 1922 as for the bikini-wearing women of 1960, as shown in this article reporting comments from newspaper readers about the wearing of bikinis. Notice that listed with each name is also the commentators’ street address—a potentially valuable genealogy clue.

Enter Last Name










My favorite quote is from Mrs. Nemitz who says of bikinis:

“Don’t think I’m old fashioned, because I’m not. I just don’t care for bikinis, and the men that I have talked to don’t care for them either.”

Good thing she didn’t know about what happened when the modest bathing costumes of her mother’s generation became wet—talk about revealing!

Bare Views on Bikinis, Plain Dealer newspaper article 2 July 1960

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 2 July 1960, page 12

So what did your female ancestors wear for a swimsuit? Were they daring and tried to show more than was allowed, or did they keep all covered up? Did they enjoy just dipping their toes into the ocean or did they need swimwear that allowed them freedom as they swam? Fashion history can provide an interesting look at our ancestors’ lives, and looking at swimwear reminds us of how similar some of our attitudes are to our ancestors’ opinions.

Related Vintage Fashion Articles:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Halloween Fashion History: Costumes & Decorations of Yesteryear

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find Halloween inspirations from costumes and decorations of yesteryear.

They say that what once was old, is new again. That may be true in many cases but—judging from photos in historical newspapers—not with Halloween costumes.

To be truly original this year, think about going retro!

Spirit of Hallowe'en, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper photo 29 October 1922

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 29 October 1922, page 27

If the Halloween fashions that follow don’t unlock your creative spirit, search historical newspapers for your own costume inspirations. There are many, many illustrations of Halloween costumes and holiday decorations of yesteryear.

Search Tip: widen your Halloween search with these variant spellings: Hallow’een, Hallowe’en, Hallow E’en, All Hallow’s Eve, Holly Eve, and Holler Eve.

Early 20th Century Children’s Costumes

The youth of a century ago were often presented in flowing gowns and distinctive hats, some pointy, some ruffled, and some reminiscent of specific eras.

photo of children wearing Halloween costumes, Oregonian newspaper article 31 October 1915

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 31 October 1915, page 14

This youngster’s hat is certainly distinctive!

photo of a child wearing a Halloween costume, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 October 1917

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 October 1917, page 11

Just as we see today, trick-or-treaters back then imitated characters from popular films. Long before Disney’s “Ariel” or Star War’s “Yoda,” this little girl dressed as the rage of her day: “Sis Hopkins.” She was the pigeon-toed character from Posey County, Indiana, immortalized in Rose Melville’s play. (See advertisement at Wikipedia.)

photo of a child wearing a Halloween costume, Baltimore American newspaper article 2 November 1922

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 2 November 1922, page 16

In 1900, you could attend a matinee performance of the “pastoral comedy hit” for 25 cents in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—and when Sis Hopkins was first released as a film in 1919, admission was still the same price.

ticket ads for "Sis Hopkins," Patriot newspaper advertisement 2 January 1900 & Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 1 January 1919

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 2 January 1900, page 5 (left); Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 1 January 1919, page 12 (right)

Other Halloween costumes in the early 1900s reflected earlier times in America’s history. Notice how in 1920, Miss Lillian Gallway, a little Texan girl, was outfitted as a “soldierette” of Continental Days. As a genealogist, I would love to see trick-or-treaters knock on my door in outfits like hers.

photo of a child wearing a Halloween costume, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 25 January 1920

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 25 January 1920, page 3

Classic Women’s Halloween Fashion: Pumpkin Attire

Pumpkins have always been in vogue—even adorning the top of hats and capes. This 1912 image’s caption reads:

“A jack-o’-lantern hat of crepe paper is the latest novelty for wear by the young lady who will attend the Hallowe’en eve festivities. The hat is topped by an imitation jack-o’-lantern and a fan of the same material to match.”

photo of a woman wearing a Halloween costume, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 28 October 1912

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 28 October 1912, page 7

What a grand cape this woman wore in 1915! It was cut from orange-colored material and consisted of a long coat, skirt and pantalets edged with fur or marabou.

illustration of a woman wearing a Halloween costume, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 October 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1915, page 9

Early American Halloween Decorations & Activities

From goblins to witches, the costumes of yesteryear certainly have changed—and not only that, decorations and activities have varied as well. Here is a sampling to help you with this year’s Halloween party planning.

Why not set up a tub for apple bobbing, as these ladies enjoyed in 1903? The caption reads: “Diving for apples in a tub of water—one of the jolliest Halloween games.”

photo of women bobbing for apples on Halloween, Boston Journal newspaper article 18 October 1903

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 18 October 1903, section 2, page 1

Stencils are always popular, so try applying antique styles, such as these from 1911, to your windows.

Halloween stencils, Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 October 1911

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 October 1911, page 52

This article from 1916 presents ideas for Halloween plans. Pumpkin favors, black cats, chrysanthemum favors and noise makers “for the parade” only cost 10¢.

illustration of Halloween costumes and decorations, Plain Dealer newspaper article 15 October 1916

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 October 1916, page 11

Old Halloween Customs

Lastly, think about adopting the interpretive customs and activities of your ancestors.

Are you of Scottish ancestry? Did you know they used to burn nuts, thought to be charms, at Halloween? The method of this old custom is described in this newspaper article from 1855.

description of Halloween custom in Scotland, Daily Ohio Statesman newspaper article 4 November 1855

Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 4 November 1855, page 1

Perhaps you have Mexican ancestry. This article about “Old Mexico and Hallow ’Een” depicts a Halloween parade and reports that:

“People in the States can not form any adequate idea—save from personal observation—of what ‘Hallow Eve’ means to all classes of Mexicans. For three days and nights commencing on that night of mystery and spells, the entire population completely abandons itself to feasting and frolicking, rejoicing and making merry.”

Old Mexico and Hallow'een, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 25 October 1896

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 October 1896, page 25

And if you are truly of early American stock, perhaps you should greet this year’s little goblins and princesses as a Colonial Dame, as recommended in 1913 “for dainty maidens who have been invited to a Halloween party.”

The news article provides these suggestions:

“Any brocaded or flowered material may be used for the pannier, while plain pink or blue or lavender should be used for the underskirt. The hair should be dressed high with curls and powdered, and a long stick with ribbons may be carried to complete this charming effect.”

illustration of a woman wearing a Halloween costume, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 26 October 1913

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 26 October 1913, page 28

In lieu of hand-dipped candles, do consider a set of electric candles to adorn your ring lantern. They are a lot less flammable!

Have a good time exploring old newspapers for Halloween inspirations from history. I hope you and your family have a fun Halloween!

How to Date Old Photos of Our Ancestors with Early Fashion Trends

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers and historical books to show how illustrations of fashion trends in hats can help you date an undated family photograph in your collection.

One of my earlier GenealogyBank blog posts, “How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers,” showed how to date an old photograph by comparing the clothes worn by the people in the photo with clothing illustrations from vintage advertisements in historical newspapers.

One of the points I made in that article was that if you can find a newspaper advertisement that matches a hat found in an old photograph, use the newspaper to establish the time period that photo might have been taken. This is an important determination, as it can eliminate relatives not from that time period as possible candidates for the people in the photo.

In today’s blog article, I’m following up on this topic of how earlier fashion trends found in old newspapers can help you date an old, undated photograph by focusing on hats.

First Newspaper Photograph Published in 1880

Photographs published in newspapers can be used to study early fashion trends—but only after 1879.

That’s because it took until 1880 for the first photograph to be published in a newspaper. Prior to that time, you’ll have to rely on newspaper illustrations and other aids to date those troublesome shoeboxes of unidentified, undated family photos.

The Library of Congress’s illustrated Guide on Pictorial Journalism, which I recommend reading, explains:

“The first photograph published in an American newspaper—actually a photomechanical reproduction of a photograph—appeared in the Daily Graphic on March 4, 1880. Before that time it was common practice for American editors to enlist artists to sketch and report on news events, from steamboat explosions to the battles of the Civil War.”

In this 1875 illustration from the Daily Graphic, note that New York Senator Francis Kernan’s image was derived from a photograph by Gardner, of Utica, New York.

illustration of New York Senator Francis Kernan, Daily Graphic newspaper article 23 February 1875

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 23 February 1875, page 4

Prior to 1880, we must be creative to find clothing illustrative of specific time periods.

I’d also like to stress that old photographs may not have depicted ancestors in everyday dress, as photographers were notorious for utilizing props, lighting, and fashion accessories to make black and white results more appealing. They soon learned that dark colors needed to contrast with light, or the results were one dark mess.

Advice for getting a good photographic result was common, as demonstrated in this 1882 article from the Kalamazoo Gazette that is full of recommendations on how to dress for a photographic session.

Dressing for a Photograph, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 26 May 1882

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 26 May 1882, page 2

The article advised: “The best materials for ladies to wear when about to sit for a photograph are such as will fold or drape nicely, like reps, winceys [plain or twill-woven cloth], poplins, satins and silks. Lavender, lilac, sky blue, purple and French blue take very light and are worse for a picture than pure white. Corn color and salmon are better.”

Later on, the article noted that ladies “with dark or brown hair should avoid contrasts in their costumes, as light substances photograph more quickly than dark, and ladies with light hair should dress in something lighter than those whose hair is dark or brown.”

Don’t necessarily believe that your early photographs are extremely old. Of course, it’s possible that a rare ambrotype from the 1850s or daguerreotype from the 1860s lies in your collection, but more likely you’re looking at later photographs.

Examples of Early Hat Fashion

So, given these considerations, is there much value in examining earlier newspapers for American fashion trends to help with your family photos identification?

Yes, but you might find it easier to target specific attire—such as hats.

These 1834 advertisements from the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics include simple illustrations: one of a buffalo, and the other of top hats. From these old newspaper ads, one gets the impression that our ancestors paraded around in attire made from animal products such as skins from buffalo, lynx, muskrat, seals and even swans.

Notice that gentlemen were purchasing beaver and satin hats, and that the youth of earlier days wore caps of sea otter, fur seal, leather and cloth. Boas, fur capes, and fur trimmings were available for the ladies.

ads for hats, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper advertisements 22 November 1834

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 22 November 1834, page 4

If you are interested in researching early hat fashions, search for articles in connection with religious and ethnic groups. Some describe their costumes in great detail.

This 1850 article from the Washington Reporter remarked on the collarless coats and broad-brimmed hats worn by the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Why the Quakers Wear Their Hats, Washington Reporter newspaper article 4 September 1850

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1850, page 1

This 1860 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer discussed Panama hats, made by South American Native Americans from the bombonaxa plant.

Panama Hats, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 16 October 1860

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 16 October 1860, page 2

Examples of Old Advertising Cards

Before I finish this article about dating family photos using period fashion clues, I’d like to mention that there is a most exciting option within GenealogyBank to examine clothing illustrations: advertising cards.

By exploring the Historical Book Collection you’ll find examples of advertising cards dating back to the 1700s. Many are works of art, and if you search by keywords such as “Hats,” “Hat Maker,” or “Hat Manufacturer,” you’ll learn that this industry was of greater importance than most realize.

Advertising card from 1790 for Sam Sturgis, hat maker

Advertising card from 1790

Although C. C. Porter’s Hat Manufacturing Company probably didn’t market to Native American Indians, this advertising card from around 1830 has a fine example of an Indian costume and headdress.

Advertising card from 1830 for C. C. Porter Hat Manufacturing Company

Advertising card from 1830

This next old advertising card shows a dog swimming in the water fetching a top hat—suggesting it must have blown from the head of the man behind him. Luckily, H. D. Tregear was known to manufacture waterproof hats!

Advertising card from 1830 for H. D. Tregear  hat maker

Advertising card from 1830

You might think waterproofing apparel items was a new invention, but out of curiosity I searched the historical newspaper archives and found reports of waterproof hats as early as 1765. Apparently there was a European waterproof hat called a Nivernois that became popular. (I’ll leave it to you to research how this feature was achieved.)

notice about waterproof hats, Georgia Gazette newspaper article 21 February 1765

Georgia Gazette (Savannah, Georgia), 21 February 1765, page 2

Notice in the following advertising card, from Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works) in 1837, a sampling of lady’s bonnets and the clothing of those wandering on the lawn in the illustration. If those bonnets were made of straw, it’s not likely many have survived—making these illustrations of great historical importance.

Advertising card from 1837 for Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works)

Advertising card from 1837

Here is an advertising card from John W. D. Hall of Taunton, which shows greater detail of top hats than found in the first example above.

Advertising card from 1840 for John W. D. Hall hat maker

Advertising card from 1840

This fashion trend remained popular with men for decades, as seen in this 16 May 1861 photograph of President Abraham Lincoln seated next to a table, upon which he’s placed his prominent top hat.

photo of American President Abraham Lincoln seated at a small table

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-15178. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3a17427/

Hats off to any of you who can find an ancestor’s photo with a top hat!

As these illustrations, photograph and advertising cards have shown, pictures from old newspapers can show you what clothing people from a certain time period were wearing—and just might provide the clue you’ve long been looking for to date certain undocumented family photographs in your collection.

How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how the fashion pages in old newspapers can help you date family photographs based on the clothes your ancestors are wearing, especially ladies’ hats.

If you’re having difficulty dating family photographs, you could invest in a clothing reference to help you figure out the time period based on the clothes your ancestors are wearing. Another option: you can browse the thousands of old fashion advertisements and style pages in GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives.

I recommend the latter, as there is no larger archive for vintage fashion ads and style images available online.

vintage photo and illustration of ladies' hats c. 1898

Vintage photo and illustration of ladies’ hats c. 1898

Take, for example, the undated photo on the left, which was located in the William Edward Burghardt Du Bois Collection of the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photograph Collection.

The identity of the African American woman featured in the old picture is unknown, but her hat is consistent with Victorian-era fashion. Not only are there elegant embellishments (feathers), but the bodice and high collar are reminiscent of the Victorian time period. The head positioning (looking to the side) indicates she wanted her hat to be a central theme of the photograph.

I wanted to determine if the estimated date range of 1899-1900 was accurate.

Was the photographer identified? No, but if he/she were, then one could use newspaper advertisements and obituaries to learn the work location, and life and work spans of the artist.

Was the medium (gelatin silver print) used at this time? Yes, and the size of the print is consistent with known examples.

Were there newspaper advertisements that supported this clothing style? Yes, with the closest fashion advertisement match located in the Kansas City Star on 16 January 1898.

This doesn’t indicate that the woman in the photograph resided in Kansas City—just that she wore a fashion trend common in the United States at the end of the 19th century.

Taking all these factors into account, it does give credence to the 1899-1900 estimate, or perhaps a wider range, say 1898-1901, since fashion trends spread from east to west, and often took time to appear in outlying regions.

Search Tip: Keywords to Find Fashion Advertisements

What keywords should you search for to find fashion advertisements in newspapers? To find fashion ads and style pages in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives, try search keywords such as “Dame Fashion,” “Latest Fashion” or “Millinery.”

illustration of lady's hat, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper 27 May 1892

Illustration of lady’s hat, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 May 1892

Some time periods, such as the Civil War, are more distinctive than others, but early fashion advertisements were not as visual (simple drawings, or merely descriptions).

photograph of Miss Chapman

Photograph of Miss Chapman

Once you have narrowed an old family picture to a specific date range, construct a collage of fashion images from newspapers, and cross-reference with photos that have known dates.

Establish the “earliest” possible date your ancestor’s photograph could have been taken, based on the earliest date when the fashion was first advertised in newspapers.

And don’t forget to browse your ancestor’s hometown newspaper, taking note of fashion editors and which stores were advertising. You may find an exact match to a family photograph.

If you’ve been able to date a family photograph using this method with fashion ads in GenealogyBank, please share it with us in the comments!