Following the Lead of the Diving Girl

The Diving Girl was born in Portland, Ore., in 1920. In my pursuit of her ghost, I find myself eyeballing three contentious Canada geese on a floating swim dock in the Willamette River.

On this overcast June afternoon, cottony clouds of varying thickness hang overhead, the sun and splashes of blue visible in the gaps between puffs. The promise of summer is palpable, though the season itself hasn’t yet arrived. The water is fine, nearly 70 degrees — warmer, in fact, than the air. Perched on the dock, goggles at the ready, my friend Fran and I wait for a big enough hole in the clouds to allow for the ritual of a sun-warmed leap into the water.

From this dock, just under the Hawthorne Bridge, you can observe the downtown skyline, prettily framed across the river. You can see the Marquam Bridge to the south, cars and bikes and people racing across. And, of course, you have this calm, silvery span of water, disturbed only by the occasional tourist boat or stand-up paddleboarder — or Canada goose, squinting suspiciously at you before it settles back down to snooze. This is the beauty of a swimmable urban waterway.

The Willamette River, which winds north nearly 190 miles from Eugene to Portland and into the Columbia River, has long been a hub of human activity. In recent decades, frequent sewage overflows made the water unswimmable, but the completion of a $1.4 billion public works project in 2010 changed all that. Every July since then, the nonprofit Human Access Project hosts “The Big Float” — a giant people-powered flotilla and beach party to encourage Portlanders to reclaim the river for swimming and other aquatic recreation.

I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a book about swimming. This river, it turns out, is also a landmark in swimming history — it’s the place where the modern American swimsuit had its big breakthrough, in the early 20th century. The Diving Girl surfaces again and again in the history of swimming, as an international cultural symbol and muse; she even makes a cameo in my own family’s history.

But, really, I’m getting ahead of myself. Rule No. 1 of summertime immersion? Get in the water. With that in mind, I take a running leap off the dock.

Let’s go back a little over a century ago, to a little operation called the Portland Knitting Company. Owned by a pair of brothers from Missouri named John and Roy Zehntbauer and their partner, a Danish immigrant named Carl Jantzen, the small retail shop had a few hand-knitting machines and did most of its trade in woolen items like sweaters and socks. The first day’s receipt, in 1910, was 35 cents for a pair of gloves.

The men were members of the city’s rowing club; one day in 1913, a fellow club member placed a special order for a woolen suit that he could wear while sculling during cool mornings on the Willamette River. Jantzen used a sweater-cuff machine to make the one-piece garment, so it would stretch. A lighter weight version eventually became the prototype for the first bathing suits offered in the company catalog.

At the time, men’s bathing suits were required to cover the entire chest; the groin area also had to be covered with a piece of fabric — O.K., it was a skirt — for modesty. Topless men were banned from places now synonymous with sunbathing, like Atlantic City. The reason? Well, the city proclaimed, it didn’t want “gorillas on our beaches.”

Jantzen figured out how to make a superior wool unitard with a rib-stitch that retained its shape and allowed a snugger fit than all the other swimsuits out there. (Imagine swimming while dragging eight pounds of wet wool — that was the existing competition.) The founders wore the new suits in the river; knit in green and yellow stripes, the suits were called “froggers” and soon everybody wanted one. In 1918, the company rebranded itself as Jantzen Knitting Mills. A black-and-white photo from the era shows men, women and children picnicking along the Willamette, all wearing Jantzen swimsuits.

Along came the Diving Girl logo. In her early years, she appeared on the cover of the catalog, wearing long socks and a red and white wool cap. (Remember the company’s origins as a woolens mill.) In 1922, Jantzen printed up 10,000 Red Diving Girl stickers and sent them to retailers to put in their shop windows as advertisements.

It worked pretty well, but not in the way they intended: People started putting them on their cars. The Jantzen girl windshield decals became a massive sensation. Within five years, 5 million Diving Girls could be seen on cars all over the United States. (They were eventually banned in Massachusetts in the interest of public safety.)

She was even made into a hood ornament, so that by the late 1920s and 30s, the Diving Girl was crisscrossing the country, spreading the gospel of swimming to every corner of America. There were free swimming seminars, as part of a national “Learn to Swim Week” campaign.

In 1923, Jantzen’s slogan came to epitomize a cultural revolution: “The suit that changed bathing to swimming.”

In her worldwide travels, the Diving Girl even made it to Hong Kong. My parents met in 1968, in a swimming pool there. For one hot moment, they were the cliché incarnate. He was the lifeguard; she, the big-eyed beauty with long dark hair and a mean sidestroke. In photos of them on the beach early in their courtship, she is wearing Jantzen.

My mother says that almost all the imported swimwear in Hong Kong back then was made by Jantzen. She remembers wistfully that one of her three sisters, my aunt Rosena, had “the cutest floral one-piece by Jantzen.” In my own childhood, I remember the little Diving Girl as a fixture on the bathing suits worn by the ladies at the pool, and the glamour that came with it.

Everyone from Duke Kahanamoku to Elvis and Princess Diana wore Jantzen. In its heyday, Jantzen had more than a dozen design studios around the world. In the late 1950s, it produced the International Set, a collection of 17 suits from those studios. They were jet age suits for the new jet age and the planes that were taking people to exotic places. The Hong Kong studio produced the Shek-O, with a black-and-white woodcut print and a bell-shaped skirt inspired by a Chinese lantern. There were even designs by Hubert de Givenchy, created in his Paris salon especially for the company.

There were monuments. A series of 20-foot-tall, fiberglass-and-steel Diving Girl statues were mounted in strategic locations around the country; some even traveled internationally. In 1965, one was put up above a swimwear shop in Daytona Beach, Fla., called Stamie’s Smart Beach Wear. It became an icon.

One could say the same for the swimsuit, in cities and pools and beaches everywhere. Though ostensibly a functional garment, the bathing suit has long been so much more, particularly as it pertains to female bodies. Jantzen proved it could be both functional and fashionable, and helped turn swimming into an appealing — and acceptable — sport for women.

Eventually, other companies took up the mantle. Speedo is now the world’s best-selling swim brand. China makes 70 percent of all swimsuits. Jantzen itself was bought by a multinational manufacturing giant, Perry Ellis International, and then sold to a private company in 2019. Last year, Stamie’s in Daytona Beach finally closed, after more than five decades on the boardwalk, and the Diving Girl statue was taken down and shipped to Washington State for storage.

Culturally and geographically speaking, you can’t get farther away in America from Portland, than Daytona Beach, home to NASCAR’s Daytona 500, endless water parks, and spring-breakers racing dune buggies on its 23 miles of hard-packed beach. They’re even in opposite corners of the country. But Jantzen is a bridge. When the Red Diving Girl was taken down, Daytona Beach residents protested. “Please let her be where she belongs,” they said. “A Florida visit isn’t complete without her.” “Save a piece of my history and my youth.” City leaders rallied together, a rarity; the city’s newspaper received a deluge of nostalgic letters and pictures, with a “Bring Back the Jantzen Girl” campaign; social media exploded: #JantzenGirlDaytonaBeach. Originally from somewhere else, the Diving Girl had come to represent something intensely local.

And so, last winter, the not-so-little Diving Girl took one last cross-country road trip. It took six days on a truck to get the 20-foot behemoth back home to Daytona. She was restored and feted with fireworks at a New Year’s Eve bash, and reinstalled above a plaza at the One Daytona entertainment complex.

Over the years, hems rose and fell with the fashions, both on the Diving Girl and on us. But over that same period, swimming moved from an activity that prioritized public bathing and hygiene to one that represented the pinnacle of sport and leisure, and took off as one of the most popular recreational pastimes anywhere. It’s a story of American pluck, entrepreneurship and cultural migration — all collapsed into one little red logo, and worthy of being blown up into a giant fiberglass store-top mannequin.

So, to honor the travels of the Diving Girl, I returned to her birthplace, in the crisp waters of the Willamette River. It was a baptism of sorts. On that afternoon, I swam between the bridges, and dodged the geese. Running right through the city of Portland, the recently renewed Willamette water was an escape in plain sight. I couldn’t help but laugh when a little boy and his mother stopped at the top of the walking path to stare at me swimming with the birds. I waved, and Fran snapped a photo before jumping in herself. Neither of us wore Jantzen. But it’s not a stretch to say that this freewheeling spirit of swimming is part of the legacy — here, there, and everywhere — that the Diving Girl left in her wake.

The Hawthorne Boat Dock is one of the easiest public access points for swimming along the Willamette River. Stand-up paddleboarders, dragon boaters and rowers also tie up here, but the crowd is generally friendly. Swimming and wading are permitted in the river, but there are no lifeguards on duty. The Human Access Project recommends several other good Portland beaches on its website, and also offers a useful safety primer on swimming in this urban waterway.

Bonnie Tsui is a frequent contributor to Travel. Her next book, “Why We Swim,” will be published next spring by Algonquin Books.

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