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My Great Grandma, the 1920s Bathing Beauty

Updated: May 26, 2023

In 1926, Galveston, Texas hosted the first International Pageant of Pulchritude. The Galveston Bathing Girl Revue had been an event since 1920, but this was the first year it hosted women of international origins with one contestant being from Mexico and one from Canada. Eventually, this pageant grew to host more international contestants and eventually became what is now known as the Miss Universe Pageant. It was reported around 160,000 people came to see the bathing beauties.

Galveston in the 1920s was a popular resort destination and was given the nickname "The Free State of Galveston" due to the attractions from gambling, bootlegging and other vice businesses. It's not surprising that it hosted "the leg show on the sea wall" as allegedly criticized by Galveston Bishop C.E. Byrne. While it's common for us now to see photos of women from that time wearing this kind of swimwear, it was not the attire for most "respectable" women. Typically, swimwear was more like clothing with a tank top and swim bottoms. In fact, in some regions public dress codes were so strict that women would be asked to cover up or disbanded if their attire did not comply with the mandated standards.

One of the bathing beauties in the 1926 Pageant of Pulchritude happened to be my Great Grandmother, Freddie Mae Henkel. The article clipping above is her from the top photo (second from right) and was a follow up piece from 1956. It states that actress Joan Blondell was one of her competitors in the 1926 pageant.

From what I am told, Freddie had an interesting life. She was born in Galveston in 1906 and was the child of two Scandinavian immigrants. Her mother abandoned her and the family during Freddie's childhood, apparently to work in a saloon somewhere across Texas (an interesting story within itself). Most likely as a result from the lack of a maternal figure, Freddie was brought up by nuns. I personally wonder if her interests in the pageantry was rooted from rebellion of her conservative upbringing. Or perhaps the apple didn't fall far from the tree and she had a bit of a wild side like her mother apparently did (that would not be unusual knowing the women in my family).

Freddie passed away due to complications from diabetes in 1978. My Mother tells me she remembers her Grandmother as being a kind woman (and was known for making really good spaghetti). I grew up with the lovely portrait of her pictured above gracing the walls of our home.

While the Pageant of Pulchritude exists now as the Miss Universe Pageant, the pageants of which it originated lives on in spirit with an annual festival called the "Galveston Island Beach Revue" put on by the Galveston History Foundation. The festival honors the yesteryear of Galveston with live music, a classic car show and an updated version of the bathing girl revue in which the contestants are judged by the uniqueness and style of their vintage/vintage inspired bathing suits.

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