Jun 10, 2024 - History

Utah: a rare place that was not scandalized by early swimwear

A newspaper headline reads: "ARE NO BLUSHES OUT AT SALTAIR: One Place Where Women Are Free."

Salt Lake Tribune, June 2, 1905. Image via Utah Digital Newspapers, the University of Utah

In a state now known for modesty hang-ups, the Great Salt Lake's swimming culture in the early 1900s was less pearl-clutching than a lot of coastal cities.

  • This is Old News, our weekly strut across the sands of time.

The big picture: Hand-wringing about swimwear was already underway by the late 1800s on the East Coast, where rich New Yorkers developed a beach culture at Newport, Rhode Island.

Yes, but: In Utah, bathing suits were still considered so clunky that even swimsuit ads acknowledged that no one looks good at the beach.

  • Even young girls, normally policed, were gently encouraged to get over their shyness to enjoy swimming.
  • The Saltair installed dressing rooms under a pier in 1891 to allow swimmers to hop directly into the lake rather than forcing them to "parade along the shore" — not because they were indecent, but because their embarrassment was understandable.
A bathing suit ad from a 1904 newspaper.
A bathing suit ad in the Salt Lake Herald-Republican, July 7, 1904

Meanwhile, feeling unabashed in a swimsuit was generally celebrated as harmless youthful fun.

  • On the beach, states one 1905 story, "mock modesty that hampers in real life and real modesty that is seldom seen in the company of the mock kind, are discarded. There a woman dons a costume that would shock her into spasms any place else."
  • A decade later, another Utah writer noted: "What a dull old world this would be if everyone were modest, discreet and loyal to that conformity which is called good taste."

Catch up quick: Salt Lake had a solid beach scene for a long time, with the Saltair Resort bringing entertainers to town, frequent parties on the shore and local trains departing more than once an hour to the GSL.

Zoom out: On the coasts, modesty concerns escalated through the early 20th century, picking up steam in the late teens and early 20s.

The bottom line: A few fuddy-duddies tried to introduce similar rules in Utah in 1920, but legislators killed the proposal, deeming it "a trivial matter."

Previously in Old News

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