This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Special Swimsuit Edition

07 July 2017


An attractive young woman
wearing a skin tight leotards
sits on a wooden barrel
and smiles for the camera.

Today hardly anyone would take notice
of such an image.
She's just modelling
the latest yoga attire
or thermal pajamas.
 
But this is a vintage postcard.
A postcard that likely dates from before 1914.

On the back was a stamped mark
of a French theatrical agent.
Raoul Pitau
Impresario
15, Rue de l'Echiquier. 15
PARIS
Telephone no. 271 60




The same stamp appeared on the back
of a French postcard
of a Saxophone Quartet
featured in my 2014 story entitled
Send in the Clowns!
It was while searching
for more examples that I found her.


The theatrical impresario was from Paris,
yet the postcard was printed by Hanna Studios, Ltd London.
And the photo was taken by
Mojonier
Los Angeles






Who was this woman?
 
Her name was

Miss Serene Nord,
The Diving Venus.





Dundee Evening Telegraph
10 May 1910
In May 1910 she made her first appearance in Europe at the Liverpool Empire. She was a native of San Francisco and takes about with her an enormous tank, in which she performs wonderful feats.



The Era
4 May 1910
London's theatrical trade magazine, The Era, reported that:

Serene Nord, one of the most perfectly shaped naiads that ever graced the water, makes what was formerly known as a tank performance into a really pretty show. Under a rustic bridge across the back of the Coliseum stage is fixed a huge mirror. Below is the water, and the performance of this graceful, beautiful girl is reflected for the benefit of the occupants of the stalls. The stagings is perfect, and the performance the prettiest that has been seen for many a year.

“Serene” we are given to understand, is a California girl, born on the coast, and took to the water from her childhood. She knots her luxurious fair hair before commencing her turn, and covers her head with a becoming bathing-cap. Dressed entirely in black, she dives in every conceivable way, and her backward somersault into the water and other even more difficult feats should be the talk of the town.





The fetching natural photo of Miss Nord was taken  by Los Angeles photographer A. Louis Mojonier (1869 - 1944). Born in Highland, IL, he kept a studio in Los Angeles from 1896 to 1929.  Recently I found on the internet another photo of Serene Nord, which has a romantic haze more typical of French photographers. She leans siren-like on a flowered pedestal, her long hair, luxurious indeed, flowing onto the faux rock. As she models the same black union suit, it's interesting to compare how two different photographers framed the beauty of the female form.




Source: Pinterest.com


By July 1910, Serene Nord had moved onto the British theatrical circuit, leaving London for other cities in England. In the review published by the Nottingham Evening Post, she was described as "a gracefully-proportioned artiste, who has acquired unusual skill at fancy diving and other aquatic accomplishments. Her dives are very gracefully performed, and include sitting, standing, backward somersault, hand-spring, and neck dives, concluding with a high dive. The turn is an interesting one."


Her act attracted enough attention around Britain
to inspire an article in the July-December 1910 edition
of  The Strand Magazine entitled:

Fancy Diving for Ladies
by Serene Nord
(Champion Lady Diver of the World).

The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910

A photo not unlike the one on my postcard, graces the first page of the article. The introduction described her as born in England but raised in Sweden, where she spent most of her early life taking daily dips in the sea. She attributed her good health, shapely figure, and glowing complexion to her mastery of swimming and especially diving.

After advocating for the healthful benefits of diving, Miss Nord continues on with a description of her many fancy dives, including the Hand-Spring, the Australian Splash, the German Dive, and the Swan Dive. You may read all about them in these excerpted pages, or just admire the photos.



The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910






The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910






The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910





The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910







The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910





The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910


The last photo to conclude Serene Nord's article shows her midway in a dive off a tower platform 65 feet high, her body stretched out almost horizontal as if in flight. The tank appears to be no more than 5-6 feet deep. But Serene had leapt from much higher. A list of Sports Records in the 1910 edition of Every Woman's Encyclopaedia has her name holding the women's record dive of 97 feet. The men's corresponding record, held by J. Well, was 151 feet.


Every Woman's Encyclopaedia
1910 Vol. 1, p 144



In this era, swimming was considered a sport, though not as competitive as in our modern times. Diving however, was more an exhibition, an aquatic circus act put on by expert athletes at amusement parks and summer fairs, not unlike trapeze artists, wire walkers, and acrobats. The high dive show was probably accompanied by music. Begin rising scale on clarinets. Grand pause. Drum roll, please! Cut off! Cue trumpet fanfare!



Greta Johansson (1895 – 1978)
1912 Olympic gold medalist
in 10m platform diving
Source: Wikipedia










Women did not compete in diving in the modern Olympic era until the 1912 Games in Stockholm when they had only the 10 meter platform. It was won by Greta Johansson (1895 – 1978), a Swedish diver and swimmer. She learned to swim and dive at Stockholm's municipal baths as both swimming and diving were required fitness skills in the Swedish school system.

After the 1912 Games she immigrated to the United States, where she married a fellow Swedish diver, Ernst Brandsten who also competed at the 1912 Stockholm Games. From 1915 to 1948 the couple worked at Stanford University establishing a swimming program in diving.

The reason I add this woman's background to my story is because of the parallels to what I was able to discover about Serene Nord's life.

* * *








The article in The Strand Magazine was quoted numerous times by American newspapers in the late summer of 1910. But references to Serene Nord's fancy diving theatrical act were found only in British newspapers and magazines. With one exception. The Vestkuste, a Swedish language newspaper published in San Francisco ran a report in September 1910 on Swedish-Americans in the news. One notable person was Miss Serene Nord.


San Francisco Vestkuste
01 September 1910




The diving Venus, aka Mrs. Siri Norin, is a Swedish high diver, who made a name for herself in America and is now on a visit to her native town Stokholm. In eight years, our beautiful compatriot traveled about in America and England and reaped gold and glory under the assumed name of Miss Serene Nord. A few months ago, she performed here in San Francisco. In 1902, the former Miss Steigler, then 14-year-old, was invited by Swedish swimmer Oscar Norin, who, during his visit to Stockholm, in the sports park jumped from a position of about 70 feet high, to accompany him to America to become a professional high diver. Miss Steigler, who began to jump at Köhler at 7 years of age, and at 13 years old became Sweden's youngest tower diver. In a month, Mrs. Norin leaves Stockholm again to go to Edinburgh and London, as well as Berlin, a Swedish newspaper announced.

* * *



One would expect the Swedish-American press to know the details on one of its own, a Swedish-American girls from California. If my Google assisted translation is correct, in 1910 Miss Serene Nord, was actually Mrs. Oscar Norin, the former Siri Steigler. Yet despite my best efforts I could not verify this relationship. I found only a few people with the surname Steigler living in California, and none were connected to a Siri Steigler. As far as I know, there is no record in the US, nor anywhere else in the vast archives of Ancestry.com, of someone named Siri Norin either. Likewise the name Serene Nord does not exist in the usual databases.

Undoubtedly Serene Nord was a stage name. Was she English or Swedish or American? The few newspaper references with brief biographical information are contradictory and vague at best. This may be a rare example of fake Swedish-American news.

So who was this Oscar Norin?

He was the
Champion High Diver of the World!
Record 120 ft. into
4 ft. of Water



Source: Stockholmskällan Archive

The Stockholm City Library provides a colorful poster of Oscar Norin performing his sensational fire dive for the Stockholm cycle club on Sunday 8 June at Stockholm's Idrottsparken. This was either in 1890 or 1902, but I believe it was likely 1902 which corresponds to the Vestkuste newspaper account. In the top corner are vignettes of Oscar and a woman, presumably his assistant, maybe his wife. She does look a bit like Serene but if I'm correct that this dates to 1902  Serene would only be age 14, surely too young to be a high diving star's wife, and the image looks like a much older woman.

In 1896 Oscar made his American tour, jumping off high platforms at various amusement parks and state fairs. His most thrilling stunt was a 100 ft. dive into a shallow tank of water after wrapping himself with tissue paper saturated with gasoline and setting it afire. If that wasn't death defying enough he then created a spectacular feat he called the Human Meteor. It began with him ascending in a tethered balloon high above a lake or river. Attached to his waist were a number of Roman candles which he ignited and then dove into the water below.

He seems to have left the US, or curtailed his performances, from 1897 to 1901, but in the 1900s his act was a popular sensation that toured the summer park circuit. On Sunday July 10, 1910 he appeared at the Riverside Bathing Beach in Indianapolis, “A Real Beach --- Does not have to be scrubbed”,  as a duo with his wife Helma. On that same week, Serene Nord was doing fancy dives in Nottingham, England.

Indianapolis Star
10 July 1910

In the following year 1911, Oscar and his two daughters, Olga and Agnes, and his brother, Hjalmay, formed a high diving act called the Four Diving Norins. The Pittsburgh Press ran a photo of them in October 1911 when they appeared at the Grand Theater. Besides their black union-suit costumes, they traveled with special scenery and a glass-sided water tank 12 ft. long, 5 ft. wide, and 8 ft. deep in which they displayed their aquatic feats.



Pittsburgh Press
15 October 1911



In 1912 the Four Diving Norins toured Britain. On June 24th, 1912 they were the headline act at the Glasgow Coliseum, flying into the tank for shows at 6:55 and 9:00..

The most Sensational Divers the World has ever Seen
The Four Diving Norins


Source: Nordstjernan.com




Portsmouth Evening News
16 July 1912


That same British summer, Serene Nord, the Diving Venus was plunging into the water at on the south coast. The Portsmouth Evening News reported on 16th of July, 1912 that

Miss Nord possesses a faultlessly modeled figure, which adds to the grace of her pose in her series of dives, made with such ease and expertness. They are difficult of performance, including as they do, hand springs, back flips, and double twists, but it is in the grace of pose, whether in mid-air or in preparing for a plunge that the diving Venus attains the greatest perfection. Most of the dives are mere frolics, but Miss Nord concludes her performance with a dive from high over the proscenium into 4ft 3in. of water.

***





Sheffield Evening Telegraph
22 July 1912








The following week July 22nd, 1912, the Four Diving Norins made a splash at the Empire Theatre, Sheffield. The Evening Telegraph ran a photo of Olga Norin, cropped from the quartet photo used in Pittsburgh. Oscar's daughter was described as

 The Sensation of the Century.

“The Perfect Woman.”
A combination of
beauty, grace, and daring.
The Champion Diver and
Fancy Swimmer
of the World.



* * *






Preston Herald
18 January 1913


As the new year began in January 1913, Serene Nord, the diving Venus, featured as the star attraction at another Empire Theatre in Preston, Lancashire. Her act now included two other diving girls. The Preston Herald review reported
An immense glass tank is fixed on the stage in a pretty and appropriate scene, representing a pool in the hills. By mirrors and strongly reflected lights, the surface of this tank is seen as plainly from the stalls as from the balcony, and owing to the transparent wall of glass, every evolution of the diving girls, whilst in the water, is plainly seen. They go through some pretty and sensational work, culminating in a high dive from the level of the fly rail. In addition, the girls are in themselves most attractive, Serene Nord being claimed to be “the perfect woman.”




Which woman exhibited the most perfect diving form? Who looked better in black woolen union suits? Who could hold their breath the longest underwater/? The rivalry between these Swedish diving divas must have fierce behind the scenes.

Oscar Norin had considerable experience as a circus thrill performer. Yet Serene Nord had performed not only in Britain but also in Berlin and presumably Paris and other European cities. No doubt both artistes had Swedish fan clubs too. By June of 1913, Serene Nord had left the frigid waters of Preston and taken her glass tank to Durban, South Africa. The climate must have agreed with her, as the diving Venus never returned to the British theatrical circuit again. Regrettably her real name and true family heritage must remain a mystery. For now anyway.

Oscar Norin and his troupe continued on through the first part of the Great War, performing their high dive act in British variety shows. It seems the war department did not ration water. After 1916 they disappear from the amusement listings in British and American newspapers. Probably the cost of transporting their equipment became too high to sustain the act.

Perhaps they retired to a quiet and dry life in Sweden.

* * *

The Era
21 June 1913


High dive aquatic acts require
nerves of steel and exceptional athletic fitness.
Today we acknowledge the accomplishments
of both men and women
in swimming and diving.
But once upon a time, there were female pioneers like
Serene Nord, and Olga and Agnes Norin,
who demonstrated night after night
that women could possess
courage and physical strength
at high dives 
the equal of any man.

And look pretty good while doing it too.









This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Remember – Always look before you leap!

http://sepiasaturday.blogspot.com/2017/07/sepia-saturday-375-8-july-2017.html





10 comments:

Deb Gould said...

I wish I had an enormous tank in which I could perform amazing, wonderful feats...Great post, Mike!

Kristin said...

Amazing diver. Had to go check my dive and see that my legs were NOT TOGETHER! Glad I wasn't performing.

ScotSue said...

As ever, an amusing and informative post. I do enjoy the journalistic descriptions " the diving Venus" and the "perfectly shaped naiad". I always find old adverts fascinating such as the one for " smart bathing gowns". Priceless!

La Nightingail said...

Can you imagine the outcry of women everywhere today if they were described as the gals were in those articles of yesteryear! Rather over the top, but that was popular journalism in the day. Funny - even though those old bathing suits covered everything up, their tight-fitting sleekness likely only fueled a man's imagination. :)

Wendy said...

Just when I thought the story of Serene Nord was coming to an end, you revved your blogging engine and kept going. What a story! I kept waiting for the Diving Venus to whip out a clarinet or three-valve trombone, but no, just a tank. I can't imagine traveling with a tank big enough to handle some of those dives. "Serene Nord" - what a great name.

Jo Featherston said...

Amazing feats performed by those lovely lady divers, and their neck to ankle costumes certainly showed off their hourglass figures to perfection. Another fascinating post, as always.

Barbara Rogers said...

You're the sleuth who can't be stopped. What a fun trail of divers with thanks...and for entertainment as well as daring to do hard dives. I'm glad diving is taught along with swimming classes. But the winter that I took a diving class was pretty much a waste of time...I don't think I kept doing back dives or jack knives, or even trying the high boards into my 20s. Just a plain old swan I am.

Lorraine Phelan said...

This article made my toes curl. I find it difficult enough to stand on the edge of a cliff let alone contemplate diving from a great height. A fascinating post as usual. It would be good to know what happened to them all in the end.

Tattered and Lost said...

As always you inform me of things outside my boring realm. And to think there was fake Swedish-American diving news! So ahead of their time.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...


Fascinating. I guess my dives would have fallen into the category of the "acme of ugliness."They apparently put on
a great show with those tanks. I can't imagine the difficulty of traveling with all that gear. It seems pretty obvious that men enjoyed the opportunity to admire the women in their skin tight suits.....sort of the wet t-shirt displays of the day. What a lot of great research.

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