Thursday, September 5, 2019

POW Escapes With Water Wings

by Anita Mae Draper

When I began my research on lifesavers and flotation devices, I had no idea that water wings existed in the early 1900's, nor that I would discover that a 1917 prisoner of war (POW) would use them in his great escape. According to the UK Imperial War Museum's online display, Swimeesy Water Buoys made of cotton, rubber and metal, were used by Lieutenant G. F. Knight of the Royal Flying Corps to float his food and clothes across the River Ems while escaping Strohen POW camp in Germany in September 1917. 

Swim bag in textile material and metal valve for inflation, before 1926. Source: Digital Museum

Manufactured by Dean's Rag Book Company of London, England, Dean's Swimeesy Buoys were crafted with a heavy cotton material and filled with "vegetable fibers" that may have been kapok. In the center where the wings meet, a metal valve unscrewed to allow inflation. The reverse of the Swimeesy Buoy displayed the manufacturer and instructions for proper use.

Swim bag in textile material and metal valve for inflation, before 1926. Source: Digital Museum

Reference to these water wings can be found in office specialty, dry good, bookseller and stationer catalogs such as the 1907 January issue of Bookseller & Stationer of Canada which contained this brief article on the Swimeesy Buoy:

Stationery & Office Products Catalogue, 1907. Source:

Soon, Lieutenant Knight's escape was being used by the manufacturer in its marketing campaign when retail showcards such as this one were used to promote the Swimeesy Buoys. Although Swimeesy Buoys were introduced to mimic the colorful wings of a butterfly, a plain white version was also available. 

Dean's Swimeesy Buoys, circa 1907. Dean's Rag Book Co.

Swimeesy Buoys appeared in all sorts of sales literature including The Chemist and Druggist which advertised companies and their merchandise. In the February 24, 1923 edition we find the following information, perhaps written by someone who was fed up with winter:

The Chemist and Druggist, February 24, 1923. Source:

In the following 1913 glass negative image, J.N. Callahan is shown displaying water wings marked as Coxey's Life Saver and Water Wings. 

J.N. Callahan with life saving device "Coxey's" Life Saver and Water Wings.", 1913. Source: Library of  Congress

Water wings are shown in this next photo of Claudia and Oliver Gardiner learning how to swim in Mary Lake, Ontario in July 1919. As there is no mention of size or manufacturer, we don't know if they are the Swimeesy or Coxey ones. 

Claudia and Oliver Gardiner learning how to swim in Mary Lake, Ontario in July 1919. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives

In 1931, a water wings design made from rubber appeared in Modern Mechanix and were then demonstrated on public beaches in Los Angeles, California. Twenty-five years later, Bernhard Markwitz of Germany invented and developed a swim aid for children after his three-year-old daughter almost drowned in a fish pond, however his final form of armbands didn't hit stores until 1964 when he marketed Swimming Wings. 

I never imagined water wings have been around so long, yet it's another example of how history continues to surprise me.


Anita Mae Draper lives on the Canadian prairies where she uses her experience and love of history to enhance her stories of yesteryear's romance with realism and faith. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks, Connie. Appreciate you stopping by. :)

  3. This is fascinating, Anita. I've never heard of water wings before.

    1. Vickie, my first encounter with water wings was when I babysat a family with a kiddie pool in the '70s. Perhaps if I had water wings as a kid I would've gotten over my fear of water and learned how to swim properly.
      Thanks for stopping by.