Monday, 9 November 2009

Everyone was so much smaller in the old days

"With love to dear Gwenn
With love to dear Gwenn, originally uploaded by Trevira.

Of course they weren't all much smaller in the old days, but its surprising how often I'll hear that repeated. Madame, above, photographed in 1909, is a particularly good answer to that lazy generalisation.

And here's another:

now identified: Mercedes Gleitze, champion swimmer

When I first uploaded this picture on Flickr I had no idea who this woman was, and hadn't a hope of deciphering the pencilled autograph across it. She wears a 1920s knitted swimming costume, which turned out to be a bit of clue.

A Flickr contact, alan.98, succeeded in identifying her as Mercedes Gleitze - a well-known endurance swimmer in the 1920s and 1930s who was the first English woman to swim the English Channel in 1927. This incredible feat, completed in just over 15 hours on a bitterly cold day in October, was, within days, beaten by Dr. Dorothy Cochrane Logan. Unfortunately Dr. Logan's 13 hour crossing was soon revealed as a hoax, which led people to doubt Mercedes' own achievement.

Determined to prove her case, Mercedes insisted she would swim the Channel again. Meanwhile, the prestigious watch company Rolex saw this new attempt - and the guaranteed attendant glare of publicity - as a golden opportunity to promote their recently patented waterproof watch, the Rolex Oyster. Miss Gleitze agreed, and wore the watch hung round her neck with a ribbon for her 'Vindication Swim.'

Unfortunately, her attempt at the crossing failed in waters that were even colder than her previous successful swim and she was pulled from the sea almost unconscious after enduring it for nearly 10½ hours. However, she had proved her stamina and endurance, the Rolex Oyster survived and kept perfect time, and Miss Gleitze supplied a glowing testimonial and was featured in subsequent advertisements for the watch. You can read a much more comprehensive account of this story here.

Mercedes Gleitze had the kind of sturdy figure that must have been perfectly suited for this kind of swimming. Although she looks 'big' she was obviously incredibly fit, not to mention incredibly brave and resolute. A thoroughly modern woman in the 1920s, and a name to admire to this day.

I can't help but notice that although she was 'modern' in her pioneering activities, her personal style was actually quite old-fashioned. Her long hair proves that not every woman in the 1920s chopped their hair into a short bob - even though it would have been even more practical for her as a long-distance swimmer. Footage shows that she wore her hair in two plaits which were then coiled round over her ears - Princess Leia style! - which was a popular strategy to avoid actually cutting your hair whilst still approximating the neat, short, fashionable look of a bob.

Miss Gleitze went on to complete marathon swims across the world - including being the first person (not woman, person) to swim across the Straits of Gibraltar in 1928. As if there aren't enough reasons to admire her, she used the money earned from her swims to open the Mercedes Gleitze Home for the Homeless in Leicester in 1933.

The fantastic British Pathé has come up with the goods again! This film supposedly shows Mercedes Gleitze shortly after her failed Channel crossing, although she looks rather too perky to have just been pulled from the waves to me:


And here she is in action, setting off from Folkestone in 1926 on one of her failed attempts to cross the Channel:



fauxbrit13 said...

OMG! Incredible story! And thanks for dispelling the ole "they were smaller" myth! Intriguing!

xox ;)


Sarah said...

Mercedes was a real heroine of her time, wasn't she?

I'd never heard of her before, but its amazing the places these old photographs take you to!