Learning to swim in 1916

Learning to swim in 1916

Helen Dow

Can you imagine not knowing how to swim by the time you graduated from college? Helen Dow couldn’t swim. But her finance Dr. William J. Hale wanted her to learn. Reading my grandparents’ letters to each other has been enlightening.
It is hard for us to realize that swimming was not something that a lot of people knew how to do in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Helen Dow had never learned how to swim. But Billy Hale encouraged her. He was older and experienced in so many ways. He hunted and fished and swam. He also played golf and loved his chess games. He read extensively. And they sometimes read books together. Helen was more sedentary. Her preferred occupations included sewing and painting and reading. All of these she mentions in her letters more than riding or walking or boating. She does mention walking in the garden. And of course, the garden which is still there occupied many acres. It backed up on the adjoining 40 acres of apple orchards.

Helen wanted to please her fiancé because she was a very agreeable person. And she adored him. Swimming simply had not come into her life up to now. She had some catching up to do. It must have taken quite a leap of faith to get into a pond or river or lake and be taught to swim as an adult. Especially as swimming pools were almost non-existent learning to swim in deep water might have been extremely scary and rather daring. Was Helen daring?? Or was she merely accommodating the wishes of the man who loved her so much. When she was near him she felt she could do anything. He is right there with her in the photo I have of them. He was handsome and worldly and accomplished. He absolutely adored her. He wanted her to enjoy the things he loved. He wanted her to participate. And she was game, she learned to swim at the age of 22. She had guts and grit. She came of good stock. Both her Mother and Father made their mark on the world. Helen’s life was cut short, but she left heirs who would make her proud if she could see them today. From one baby daughter, she had three grandchildren, 7 great-grandchildren and 17 great great grandchildren.

Billy Hale had an agenda. He wanted Helen to learn to swim. She loved him. She wanted to please him. She was brave but she was also a woman who was born in the 1800s. She was from a Victorian time when women were protected and supposed to be the weaker sex. Of course, we know that her mother Grace A Dow was a very strong woman. She taught her daughters to educate themselves. Her daughters both graduated from college. That was radical at the time. Helen graduated in 1916 from the University of Michigan. This was extraordinary. I am the product of that family dynamic. I never finished college back when I was going to school because I married at 19 years old. So I went back later and graduated when I was 56 years old.

Helen Dow worked on learning to swim for her intended whom she often called her “lover”, her fiancé Billy Hale. She wrote to him about learning to swim. Their letters were such fun to read. But when I found a photo of her practicing swimming in a lake with Billy standing in the water next to her, it was like a gift. They were on a well-chaperoned trip to the lake with friends. And Helen’s mother picked a chaperone for her daughter. Billy Hale said when referring to the chaperone, “It could not be better for us.” So she must have picked someone sympathetic to the couple.

In planning the trip to the Lake he wrote to her about dates during the following week. It is clear he was excited she was coming. He tried to be patient though and wrote “However the water can wait for the mermaid” giving her the illusion of time to decide. When the truth is they were both in a hurry to be together.

My grandfather was very gregarious and had a large number of friends of every age, both men and women, older and younger. He wanted to be with Helen, but he went about his work at the university on time and on schedule. He constantly ran into friends in every sort of situation. He mentions seeing people he knew “at the station”, or on the street, or at a meeting, or on the train, in a hotel, and at the different cities where he went for various events. He seems to have been active all the time, never in one place for long. But anchored to Ann Arbor because of his professorship, he always returned shortly to prepare for and teach his classes.

Billys’ signature showing his great love for her

But when signing his letters Billy showed his passion and longing and great love for Helen. Above is a sample which reads: So here’s just heeps of kisses 0 0 0 0 0 0 embraces without number and all the love I have – just for Helen darling, Lovingly and longingly your Billy.

Copyright©. 2021 Bonnie B. Matheson

4 thoughts on “Learning to swim in 1916

  1. My mother never learned to swim and never learned to drive. At the time my father passed away, she had never written a check or paid a bill! What a different world!

  2. She was a daring girl. Her life though short, she seems to have abandoned herself to live fully. Thanks for sharing

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