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Swimsuits of Yesteryear

Humans have been swimming for milennia — even a 10,000-year-old cave painting in Egypt shows nude swimmers. Then Victorian sensitivities in the 19th century made skinny-dipping not just unfashionable, but downright immoral, and both sexes, especially women, started wearing bulky beach attire.

Women wore gowns from shoulder to knees, along with trousers with leggings down to the ankles. Beach shoes were also a must. The men were fully covered, too, although their suits were more form-fitting. In America, by the 1920s, men wore T-shirts and shorts at the beach, but women remained mostly covered.

The Madison Historical Society has several examples of beachwear from the early 1900s, after the bathing suit we were all born with became a no-no on the shore. The suits in our collection are post-Victorian and still not very form-flattering. But fashion marched on so much that Puck Magazine’s cover for July 4, 1914, featured a fully covered, but form-fitted model in a flag-motif bathing suit. It’s not quite on par with a suit that might appear in a “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue,” but it was still pretty daring for its era.

We have a nice colorized photo of two women sitting on a Madison pier in the 1920s wearing modest swimsuits that mimic the striped outfit in Puck. Our collection also includes a blue nautical-themed outfit with short leggings and white stripes along the collar and cuffs. The full outfit includes a matching pair of blue lace-up beach shoes with rubberized soles — an early version, you might say, of the flip-flops ubiquitous at the beach nowadays.

Earlier in the 19th century, bathing and swimming were still thought to be very unhygienic, and, of course those pesky mosquitoes and sand flies were everywhere. Who would want to go to the beach? Yet, after the Civil War, when life became more hectic and cities grew hot and crowded, leisurely outings to the beach didn’t sound all that bad.

Once developers learned to drain the worst bug-breeding swamps and marshes, beach culture blossomed here, especially after railroads and trolleys came to Madison. Then, in 1913, the newly created CT State Park Commission assigned Yale-educated civil engineer Albert M. Turner to look for suitable beachfront land, which was rapidly selling to commercial developers. Turner traversed the entire 254-mile Connecticut coast and recommended three locations for state parks: Bluff Point in Groton, Sherwood Island in Westport, and Hammonasset Beach here in Madison.

In 1919 Turner fought for our park, saying, “The shoreline State Park must have breathing space for the multitudes, and the shore must be preserved essentially un-tarnished.” Hammonasset Beach State Park opened in July 1920, and Madison became a beach destination. Now, more than a million people visit the park annually.

In our collection, the society has some great postcards showing town beaches and early Hammonasset scenes. One is a 1932 view of the crowd at the Main Pavilion. The beach is full, but everyone in the foreground is fully dressed in street clothes; you won’t see that anymore. But then again, you won’t see today’s skimpy bathing suits at the beach in these postcards, either.

Bob Gundersen, trustee of the MHS, serves as collections chair and staff photographer. See more images of the Society’s artifacts at