At the turn of the 20th century, there was a great cultural and societal shift. As the Victorian era ended in 1901, the Edwardian era of King Edward VII and Art Nouveau, ushered in a new era for women. Sharon Hope Weintraub, the author of ‘Bawdy Bisques & Naughty Novelties’ is quoted in a 2008 article saying, “I was fascinated by the wide variety of figurines and the creativity and workmanship that went into their manufacture. I was also intrigued with the way the bathing beauties reflected the loosening of moral, cultural, and sartorial restrictions on women between the 1890s and the 1920s.”
Art Nouveau was a reaction to the academic art of the 19th century. It took inspiration from natural forms and structures, particularly the curved lines of plants and flowers. This trend was reflected in the fashions of the time as well. Corsets were being discarded. In this atmosphere of Art Nouveau, where nature is celebrated, so too was the human form celebrated.
Social and political change also brought more freedom for women. WW1 saw more single women working as men were on the battlefield. Bicycles gave women a new level of transportation independence. In 1920, women won the right to vote.
Free moving clothing allowed for more athletic endeavors. Changing fashion also meant more relaxed dress of bathers in this period; less clothing that covered a woman’s shape also allowed for swimming. A new appreciation of the female form gave birth to the bathing beauty.
These little bisque pieces of art also represented the growing appreciation of vacationing by the sea. What began in the 1890’s as a naughty item, soon became souvenirs of fun times spent on the beach, or at countless other summer vacation sites. They were purchased by a new generation of adults who rejected the stiff rules and mores of Victorian etiquette. This period lasted until the 1930’s.
Bathing beauties are all bisque figures that have a bathing suit either painted on or are made of fabric. The fabric used was a light netting or lace that often has disappeared over the decades. That is why many bathing beauties are naked. However, these women wear bathing caps and matching ballet type bathing slippers, indicating they also once wore a fabric bathing suit.
The first example is a somewhat rare example. Galluba and Hoffman was a leading manufacturer of these ladies. These figures have a dome head and wear a mohair wig. It is very hard to find the wigs still intact. They are most likely to be reclining and have no base. The poses are more complex, with limbs extended away from the body. A makers mark may be incised on a part of the figure that was covered by the fabric suit. The example shown was most likely manufactured about 1915.
Most of the beauties in my collection have painted swim suits, and painted hair with a bathing cap and matching bathing shoes. The factory of Hertwig & Co., was one of the biggest manufacturers of bathing beauties of this type. They are the most common beauties to be found. Pink pre-colored bisque would be poured into a mold. Hertwig would use one basic mold to make different size ladies, with added or subtracted materials. So, these figures are found with wigs, and a multitude of different bathing suit colors and styles. Some have suits made of the rough “snow” material similar to snow babies. Arms were molded separately, and legs were often manipulated so that they could be sold in several different poses. Some bathers appear standing on a base, often with the name of the vacation spot printed on it. Most of these figures are part of the 5000 series mold mark, and were mostly made in the late 20’s into the early 30’s.
Some of the most difficult bathing beauties to find are ladies emerging from sea shells, or laying on top of a turtle. Most often, they ended up at the bottom of an aquarium, where they languished until the aquarium was thrown out or given away. Many of these are from the 1930’s and were cold painted. This means the paint was added after firing, and the paint easily wore off. Care should be taken when cleaning them. You may inadvertently wipe the paint off along with the dirt.
Other souvenirs incorporated the bathing beauty into a utilitarian souvenir for vacationers to buy. They are found as pin cushions, lamp bases, vases, match holders; or posing on top of candy boxes, pin dishes, powder and trinket boxes. The pictures shows a Bathing beauty created by atop a cushion that creates a porcelain powder box, with the Sitzendorf Porcelain Factory makers mark. Desirability is based on scarcity and quality of the piece. The quality of facial painting is very important. Like pin cushion dolls, the more limbs extended away from the body and the more complicated the pose; means that it required multiple separate molded parts. They are more likely to be broken and damaged.