Amusements and Thrills Health and Living

The Bowery Boys New York City swimsuit edition, 1880-1920

 The notion of organized ‘ocean bathing’ — actually going into the water for health, relaxation and enjoyment — was really a 19th century invention, first popularized in the United States during the 1830s at the Marine Pavilion on the Rockaway Peninsula.

Bathing beauty: Diver Maggie Ward prepares for a jump into the waters of Coney Island, in the summer of 1888

For propriety’s sake, people would enter a bathing hut hitched to a horse and ride the container as it was backed into the water, exiting from the hut in their full-body swimming apparel only when safely immersed in the water. No risk of seeing wet fabric clinging seductively to the human form!

Fifty years later, bathers would dare walk to the beach sans horse-drawn hut. But their beach apparel still matched the modesty of their regular wear.

Here are a few examples of garments — for sunbathing, swimming or just relaxing — worn at some of New York’s most popular beaches of the late 19th-early 20th century.

Why needs a bikini? Daring ladies risk the surf in regular wear on the Rockaway beachfront, 1897 (Courtesy Life Magazine)

Serving up shenanigans in the waters of Brighton Beach, 1886
Three female athletes, readying for a ocean swimming match out at Coney Island, await the competition with a few oddly fully clothed men, 1887 (Life Magazine)
Classing it up a little with the ‘sand crowds’ along the Midland Beach boardwalk in Staten Island, no date, but probably between 1900-1910. (New York Public Library)
The dapper sea threads adorning the trendy beachgoers at Long Beach, 1882. Okay, this is technically in Nassau County, not New York City proper, but how could I not give these styles a showcase? (New York Public Library)
Check out little Minnie Pearl and her fine hatted friends at Rockaway, date unknown. (New York Public Library)
Frolicking in the sand in Far Rockaway, 1897. In the distance is a Hot Baths pavilion. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
A dynamic duo hitting the beach of Far Rockaway, 1896. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Another image of Far Rockaway, 1897. featuring a whole array of bathing-suit options. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bathers in black luxuriate in a swimming hole in Pelham Bay, 1903 (New York Public Library)
And finally, I’m not quite sure this avant garde look ever made it onto the beach. But if you want to look like you’re floating over the beach without legs, why not try these camouflage beach leggings, advertised in Harper’s Magazine in September 1919? (New York Public Library)
Basking in the surf at Midland Beach, 1898 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

7 replies on “The Bowery Boys New York City swimsuit edition, 1880-1920”

I love these and I’ve never seen them. I perused some a few years ago at the Brooklyn Historical Society…live that bldg and library! These are great, too . To me the worst thing about these “swimming costumes” are the stockings women had to wear. Then of course the bathing suits I’ve read about were wool. Imagine being at the sandy beach in a wet woolen swimming costume with stockings on? Yet, they wore them and lived it! It was daring to show any amount of a female leg, even in stockings. These are terrific!

a few years ago down in cape may we saw a group of amish girls wading in the surf in their long dresses. also muslim women in the public pools in jersey city, fully garbed in the water, minding their kids. their girl wearing tights with their suits. a little glimpse of the past and present collide.

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