Caught Our Eyes: En garde!

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.

Geo. Wash. fencing team. Photo by National Photo Company, 1923 December 11. //

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:

Geo. Wash. fencing team, 12/11/23. Photo by National Photo Company, 1923 December 11. //

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.)

Western high school fencing team, 5/14/25. Photo by National Photo Company, 1925 May 14. //

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.

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  1. Rachel
    October 13, 2022 at 12:26 pm

    It looks like in the first photograph the woman on the left is using a foil with an Italian style grip and the woman on the right is using a sabre. In the second photo most have sabres but a few in the back might have epees, and in the third photo they both have sabers.

  2. Jean Weigel
    October 13, 2022 at 2:13 pm

    What in the world is hanging above the door ?

    Thanks for posting the photos and info.

    • Kristi Finefield
      October 13, 2022 at 3:19 pm

      It’s a little hard to see without zooming in on the larger digital file, but it appears there is a set of horns mounted on the wall from an animal, and hanging on it is a fencing mask at top and a quilted protective piece of clothing for the torso to be worn when fencing. Thanks for reading – and looking closely!

  3. Carl Fleischhauer
    October 17, 2022 at 8:38 pm

    Fun to see — and I hope you will forgive a pedantic musing on how the lighting was accomplished with not-so-sensitive-to-light glass plates in the mid-1920s. In the two “en garde” photographs, the highlights and cast shadows indicate that lamps of some kind were employed. The shadows and the bright spot on the door suggest that a light was aligned more or less with the camera, perhaps a little above. We may be seeing a reflection of the light in the glass of the framed set of pictures in image 10069. (Not clear to me what is reflected in the glass in 13659.) Meanwhile, the shadows in the group shot indicate that (most of) the illumination comes from the left. The bright highlights on the three individuals on the right side make me think that at least one light source in this photograph was daylight, with window curtains mostly drawn, leaving a single shaft of light crossing the floor and striking the trio.

  4. Tatsiyoung
    October 18, 2022 at 7:50 am

    Hello dear, I appreciate and congratulations to you keep up with the good work okay thanks.

    November 21, 2022 at 2:45 pm

    Interesting to know fencing had been a sport of interest to ladies for so long. Nice to see the 1924 Olympic Games picture with the debut of women’s fencing in the form of individual foil, where matches included two women facing off.

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