Harrisburg exhibit profiles 'modern woman' of early 20th century

July 27, 2009

A postcard exhibit available to the public through Sept. 8 in Penn State Harrisburg’s library offers a glimpse at the “modern” American woman of the early 20th century through photos of “bathing beauties.”

The first two decades of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of a vibrant women’s movement and the birth of feminism.

The determination of the new American woman, punctuated by the campaign for the right to vote, saw female activists and their male allies preaching a new day for women as suffocating Victorian era mores were challenged in nearly every venue, including fashion.

The exhibit on the first floor of the library adjacent to the reference desk is available to the public from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For information, phone (717) 948-6056.

In the early 20th century, Americans had more leisure time for travel and tourism. Visits to beaches and spas became popular. This, in turn, influenced interest in swimming as a sport.

The bathing beauties, as featured on the postcards, were the group of young women photographed by Mack Sennett from 1910 to 1920. A famed silent film director best-known as the innovator of slapstick in movies, Sennett’s postcards captured the transition of American female swimwear and the changing social and cultural attitudes about the female body.

Until the early 1900s, women’s bathing suits typically covered all exposed areas of skin and usually consisted of a full-length blouse and full-length pants. However, with their roles changing in society, their swimwear changed as well. The new designs allowed women more freedom of movement, making them more conducive for athletics.

Two of Sennett’s bathing beauties, Gloria Swanson and Phyllis Haver, went on to have successful film careers in Hollywood. The bathing suit-clad women in the postcards were considered scantily dressed and the images risque because the amount of skin publicly revealed went against conventional social mores.

  • IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated November 18, 2010