Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Early Life Saver Fashion Part 1

by Anita Mae Draper

Shipwreck Victims of the Stranded SS Nord, 1913. Public Domain, Courtesy of UofW Freshwater and Marine Image Bank

Although every available person was used to rescue people from grounded or sinking ships, such as the SS Nord which lies off the Tasmanian coastline, the only requirement was a readiness and ability to help. But as open water bathing, better known as swimming, became a common recreational sport, sea-front communities realized they needed more than volunteer life savers and swimming lessons to keep inexperienced swimmers from drowning in the sea, especially where a high surf was involved.

Around 1896, the problem was solved with the modern day lifeguard, someone who was paid for keeping an eye on the bathers and rescuing those who required assistance.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the U.S. Life-Saving Service (now the U.S. Coast Guard) trained in rescue preparedness to meet the demands of hapless swimmers, as well as aid people from boat wrecks and shore-line emergencies. 

Life-Saving Service crew in their surfboat with the beach cart and equipment. Undated U.S. Coast Guard photo. Public Domain

Lifesavers were mostly teams of uniformed men with padded life vests and surfboats, such as the lifesaving crew of Nantucket's Muskeget.

Lifesavers Pulling in a Boat, c 1900s. Public domain Wikimedia

By the 1920's, Lifesaver teams were still in action although their long pants and jackets were giving way to shorts and tops for quicker and safer movement of limbs in the water. Gone were the days when lifesavers battled exhaustion from cumbersome clothing that attempted to drag them down as well as the person they were trying to save.

Life Savers, Pablo Beach, Fla, 1919-1929. LOC Public Domain

Meanwhile, individual life guards patrolling the beaches were keeping up with trendy swimming fashion earlier than the lifesaving teams. Ever present was their life belt to which a rescue rope could be applied, leaving their hands free to swim to their target. The other end of the rope was attached to a reel where they, or the victim, could be reeled back to shore. 

A Life Saver on the Lookout, Between 1880 and 1906. LOC Public Domain

Over in Hawaii, Red Cross lifesavers were wearing sensible swimsuits by May 1920, and surfed to those in need with their trusty surfboards as part of their job. 

Red Cross life-savers at Waikiki, Honolulu, Hawaii. Left to right: John D. Kaukiko; Duke Kahanamoku, champion; Com. W.E. Longfellow, ARC of Washington D.C.; David Kahanamoku, life guard. May 18, 1920. LOC Public Domain

My next post (July 5th) will feature female life savers, their training, and how fashion changed during the early 1900's to accommodate the freedom of sport and exercise for all. 

Please share with us if you've had a positive experience with a life guard.


Anita Mae Draper writes historical romance in the Land of Living Skies where her love of research and genealogy yield fascinating truths that layer her stories with unique and personal details. Her faith is reflected in stories of forgiveness and redemption as her characters search for love and home. Readers can enrich their reading experience by checking out Anita's Pinterest boards for visual references of her stories, and more, at the links on her website at

Anita Mae Draper's published stories appear in Barbour Publishing, WhiteFire Publishing, and Guideposts Books