Women’s bathing suit controversy, 1916

Springfield women’s rights activist Harriett Reid made fun of the Springfield Park Board’s 1916 directive that women’s swimsuits at the new Bunn Park Beach include skirts.

The park board had voted 5-1 to impose the restriction, which was sponsored by board member Dave Watson, although the board discarded a Watson idea that women also be require to wear stockings with their skirted suits.

“I am against this proposition of women and big girls … taking part in the bathing who are not sufficiently clothed to bring the place within decent bounds,” Watson said in debate.

His proposal may have been prompted by “one of the frequent fair bathers (who) had equipped herself with a pair of tights for a bathing suit,” the Illinois State Register reported in its July 13, 1916, edition.

Reid responded a day later in an opinion article that also appeared in the Register. She wrote, in full:

In reading the decision of the park board concerning the Bunn park women bathers’ costumes, I thought of the most significant placard carried in the woman suffrage parade in Chicago, viz: “Give the woman a man’s chance.”

Why can’t men be sportsmen enough to give women a man’s chance to learn anything? What would men think of trying to swim “booted, hatted and spurred,” and being asked to dress in such fashion because women sat on the bank and made remarks?

It is a physiological fact that the fair sex has legs. (Note: Two of them.) The advent of the bicycle demonstrated this fact to the public. The bloomer costume wounded the sensibilities of many people, but it is now adopted as the proper attire for gymnasium work. Women riding astride caused great comment at first because it also demonstrated that woman was a biped. The public made another outcry, begging that the lower limbs be entirely concealed with flowing draperies so that women would have to resume the side-saddle fashion, which was first introduced by a crippled English queen whose infirmity caused her to ride in that cramped and uncomfortable position. Many people still consider a woman immodest unless she wears skirts to the ground and moves like a churn on castors.

It is to be regretted that the park board, being men, cannot appreciate the handicap of skirts for bathers. Had the board been anxious to be just in this matter of deciding the proper costume, they would have tried out the project, put on skirts, and experienced for themselves the deep and abiding pleasure of water-logged skirts interfering with every movement of the lower limbs and occasionally coming up over the head like a wet sack.

The bathing beach is presumably maintained for swimming purposes, and to this end women should be encouraged to dress for swimming. If, however, attention is paid to the ribald remarks of some spectators, it should be borne in mind that the men also come in for their share of comment by women; and in order not to discriminate against women, the park board should also order the men to wear skirts. The men who dive should be requested to pin their skirts securely to their tights and not linger on the diving board. Somebody might say something! And even if they didn’t say something they might THINK something!

The Bunn Park Beach, which opened in 1916, covered part of the shoreline of the six-acre Bunn Lake. A concessionaire operated the beach for the park district.  A rented suit and towel and checking privileges were 25 cents at first, but the price was reduced to 15 cents after a protest by labor unions in 1919. Swimming was free for people who owned their own suits and didn’t need to check their possessions with the concessionaire.

In a controversy more serious than the bathing suit ban, local African-Americans filed suit against the park board after three black men – Charles Fred White, Louis Dickerson and A. Morris Williams – were stopped from swimming at Bunn Beach on July 27, 1916.

The three first tried to rent swimsuits and were refused. When they then entered the water wearing their own suits, the beach was abruptly shut down, the Register reported:

Members of the park board yesterday stated that the purpose of closing the beach at Bunn park Thursday afternoon was to treat the water chemically to purify it, in compliance with the recommendation of the state board of health made some time ago.

They denied that the board had acted in any way that might be regarded as discriminatory against colored citizens who wanted to take a swim in the pool at the park.

In a two-year legal fight, a series of courts ruled that the lawsuit was filed wrongly and the injunction was denied. It is not clear whether Bunn Beach was ever desegregated.

City health authorities ordered the beach closed in July 1928, after determining it was impossible to purify the water in the lake (contamination was a regular problem throughout the beach’s existence). By then also, people had an alternative – Memorial Pool at Ninth Street and Converse Avenue, which opened in June 1928.

Bunn Beach, however, was popular with bathers while it was open; it recorded more than 25,000 paid admissions, for instance, in 1925 (no counts were ever made of people who wore their own suits and paid nothing to swim).

Dave Watson’s skirt edict may never have been ever enforced. The park board itself suspended the rule for 1916 to give all female swimmers time to acquire skirted suits, and there are no signs of the controversy in 1917 or 1918 newspaper files.

And in July 1919, the Register happily reported that:

While the girls of New York, Washington and Atlantic City find themselves compelled to swim in suits prescribed for them by their various “city fathers,” Springfield girls can swim, unhampered by long skirts and stockings.

schs-logo-2And Bunn beach thrives merrily – the central spot of recreative interest in the city – during these hot days.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

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