One of the things I do as a reference librarian of visual materials is keep a folder full of interesting images I come across in my work. Our collections are full of opportunities for serendipitous discovery, and I keep my eyes open for compelling images like this 1923 photo from the National Photo Company Collection.
The strong composition, the focused expressions, the clothing styles, the perfectly poised ladies and their unwavering swords, with the tip of one just touching the waist of the opponent at right – all of it makes me want to stop and study the image. It appears they are using foils, rather than épées, another common fencing sword. The background is full of interesting items as well!
According to the caption, these two ladies are members of the “Geo. Wash fencing team” and the photo dates to Dec. 11, 1923, nearly one hundred years ago. From what I’ve read, the caption likely refers to the George Washington University Women’s Fencing Club. Another photo in the collection shows the entire club and presumably their coach:
A quick search for other fencing images revealed this bout between two young ladies on the Western High School fencing team, using the same practice space two years later in 1925. (The background is similar, though not identical, and is clearly the same room.)
While fencing had been a sport of interest to ladies for many decades, it was right in the same time period as these photos that it gained new stature in the global athletic scene. The 1924 Olympic Games saw the debut of women’s fencing in the form of individual foil, where matches included two women facing off, much as we see above.