by Valerie Seiber
Wool, it’s a fabric we often associate with sweaters, mittens and socks on these cold, wintry January days. But have you ever considered wool an ideal fabric for swimwear? Yes, swimwear! At the turn of the 20th century, wool was a popular fabric choice for bathing costumes. Nineteenth century bathing suits left everything to the imagination since the wearer was covered from neck to foot, modesty being the primary factor in design. In fact, I can’t imagine women did much more than wade into the water with such heavy suits weighing them down. The Smithsonian has compiled a fascinating and informative blog post on the history of swimwear that can be accessed using the following link.
But back to wool bathing suits, The Hershey Story recently acquired one such costume. Imagine a bright summer day in the roaring 1920s. You and a group of friends are taking the trolley to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a Saturday afternoon of pleasantries – a stroll through the Hershey Zoo and then a picnic and a refreshing dip in the beautiful Hershey Park swimming pool. But alas, you don’t own a proper swimsuit. Not a bother! You can rent a bathing suit at the bathhouse! Yes, I said rent a swimsuit. The women’s suit pictured here is made of black wool and has a decorative red “HP” on the side of the modesty panel, which covers the shorts underneath. Men’s suits of this period also had a modesty panel but had larger armholes for athletic swimming. This suit was made by the Gantner and Mattern Company of San Francisco, California.
“It [the pool] was an oblong-shaped thing, and the old ice house was still at the one end of it, and they used the roof of that for the diving platform. Then they had a chute… kind of like a roller coaster with one big dip in it. You had a wooden sled which you come down on that and up over the dip and down into the water, skimming across the water.” – Levere Spohn (Hershey Community Archives, 89OH53)
The Hershey Park swimming pool opened in 1912 and became so popular that it was renovated and expanded in 1929. The pool was just one of the amenities attracting visitors to the growing amusement park in Chocolatetown. Thrill rides such as the Wild Cat rollercoaster and the Mill Chute were enjoyed by guests; while boating on Spring Creek and the carousel provided milder amusements. Visitors could even take in a baseball game at the athletic field. Local bands and national acts like Gorden Kibbler’s Orchestra played at the ballroom while couples danced the night away.
As times changed so did the park. The pool was closed after the 1971 summer season and only the lighthouse (see postcard at right) remains today. The ballroom was demolished in 1977. Part of a curator’s responsibilities is to collect and preserve artifacts associated with these bygone places and events, so I was delighted to acquire a Hershey Park swimsuit for the museum’s permanent collection. The swimsuit is now officially retired and is no longer available for rent.