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Wednesday, April 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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King Collection: Making a splash in bygone era

The American women who swam in this summer’s Olympics wore suits that look ultra modest in our string-bikini world. Black and sleek, the suits are built for function, not to show off form.

Yet 100 years ago, the Olympians would have been arrested had they ventured into lake, river or pool in their modest Speedos.

In these King Collection photos at Loon Lake, Wash., in 1914, in the hot of summer, the King sisters and friends wade into the water in full street clothes, skirts hiked up to the knees. Were they cooling off after a long ride from Spokane in pre-air-conditioning days? Or were they taking one last dip before a trip home?

Likely, their bathing suits weren’t much lighter. Women of the time, according to various fashion histories, wore wool swimming costumes with long sleeves and skirts that swept the top of the knees. And they wore black hose.

In 1907, Annette Kellerman, a distance swimmer from Australia turned American diving-tank performer, was arrested on a beach in Boston for wearing a bathing costume that showed her arms, legs and neck.

In 1912, women swam for the first time in the Olympics, held in Stockholm. Maybe the loosening began with that, because by 1919, when Iowa King Cowan posed next to her husband at Liberty Lake, she wore a suit nearly as “revealing” as Kellerman’s 10 years before.

Iowa – married to a well-known Spokane lawyer, active in First Presbyterian Church – would not have pushed the limits of fashion, especially in bathing costumes.

So things had changed – fairly dramatically – at the beach for women in just a decade.

These historic photos remind us that Inland Northwest lakes have welcomed swimmers of all eras, no matter what they wore. And maybe the lakes conspired to cool off a dress-wearing woman of the early 1900s, hat and all, who might have “accidentally” slipped on a rock or stumbled from a log on the hottest summer day, while dreaming of a time, far off, when women might someday swim free of wool, hose and society’s expectations.

Might someday swim for gold in the Olympic games, in bathing costumes black and sleek.

The Spokesman-Review’s King Collection is an archive of photos and memorabilia from the King family that prospered in Spokane in the early 20th century. Staff writer Rebecca Nappi can be reached at or (509) 459-5496.

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