Diving into a research maze


Miss Sarah Bernhardt, as the Ocean Empress, circa 1880. Image from the Library of Congress


This is a story about how a writer can waste an entire day excited by an image, to come up empty handed. I come across the above image, of a pretty woman seated beside a man dressed in a diving suit, about twice a month. This is probably because the photograph conforms to the ‘Steampunk’ genre and aesthetic – contrasting a Victorian beauty with the ‘high tech’ of the diving suit. Then I stumbled across the photograph below, of the same woman wearing a dive suit!


Miss Sarah Bernhardt, as the Ocean Empress, in Diving Gear, circa 1880.              Image from the Library of Congress.

Well, I was excited. Maybe the young woman was an adventurer, like lady aviators, exploring under the horizon instead of above it. The only problem was the image of the young woman had been shared so many times, that I couldn’t follow it back to the original posting. Then I tried searching for ‘Victorian era woman diver’. Alas, I was both lucky and unlucky. It turns out this is the actress, Sarah Bernhardt, dressed as the Ocean Empress. So I discovered the original images in the Library of Congress, but no evidence of a lady diving adventurer.


Mrs Mitchell, one of England’s first female deep sea divers, before beginning her workday inspecting ships’ hulls at the Tilbury Docks. (From “Ein seltener Frauenberuf,” Die Welt der Frau, no. 47 [1908]: 752.)

As far as I can tell, the earliest mention of female divers was around 1908, just missing the Victorian era. I do think the picture of Mrs Mitchell is more than awesome, however. Look at that confident smile! She had to be physically strong to even walk in that suit! If any of you know of earlier instances, please feel free to correct me.

In my Steampunk Work-in-Progress (yes, I know, you are all waiting for me to actually finish it), my protagonist actually does don a diving suit. The ‘modern’ diving suit was invented in the 1700s.  The British engineer, Augustus Siebe, developed the standard diving dress in the 1830s, the metal and glass helmet fitted to a full length watertight canvas diving suit, with tubes attached. The first commercially successful closed-circuit scuba tank was designed and built by the English diving engineer, Henry Fleuss, in 1878, while working for Siebe Gorman (founded and run by Augustus Gorman). His self-contained breathing apparatus consisted of a rubber mask connected to a breathing bag, with the oxygen supplied from a copper tank and carbon dioxide scrubbed by rope yarn soaked in caustic potash; the system’s functional duration was about three hours. This means that in 1871 – the era of my setting – it would not be too outrageous that she might have used a prototype of the scuba tank.

After all, it’s MY story. *grins* The fact it might not work as planned only adds to the suspense.



Filed under Feminism, Historical Personage, History, Sarah Bernhardt, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, The Writing Life, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Diving into a research maze

  1. I would dare to suggest that the two photos (Lady with diver, woman as diver) use the exact same suit, and may well have been shot in the same studio on the same day. Additionally, something tells me that it is a prop-costume, not a full diving set.
    I shall further venture that it is not Sarah Bernhardt. An image search of that name reveals a distinctly different-looking woman with a more ‘feminine’ jaw-line, different nose, lips, eyebrows … everything, really.
    Additionally, those two photos DO NOT show up when searching ‘Sara Bernhardt”
    More to this: Sarah’s Wikipedia entry does not mention a show called ‘Ocean Empress’.
    IN FACT ALL REFERENCES TO ‘OCEAN EMPRESS’ point solely to these two photos. There are no others.
    My hypothesis is that this is in fact an urban myth – the entrenched idea that these two photos (there no others) are of Sara Bernhardt dressed for a fictitious show called ‘Ocean Empress’.
    Almost ALL instances of these photos are on photo-sharing sites, and almost all of them carry the exact same text. This is why, in a Google Image search, they appear as the top two returns. People never question it; they flick them on and on …
    Who was that woman in actual fact, and why did she dress so?
    This does mean that the Smithsonian has mistakenly identified them, but this has happened before. Case in point: the lost photo of Phineas Gage.

    Finally, there is room in this for Ged Maybury to be wildly wrong.

    • I did actually find the original images in the Library of Congress website … after a LONG hunt by following the image from Pinterest to about fifty sites. Then I finally did the Google search, and felt like an idiot for not doing that first!
      I suspect you might be right about the images being misfiled, as Bernhardt would have been approximately 36 in 1880 and this woman looks much younger.
      I did find this images also listed as the Ocean Express … like Chinese Whispers, the message changed as it was copied over and over again.

  2. Ah. Then I am not alone. (And VERY good point re Bernhardt’s age!)

    Now, I did not get this from anywhere except my intuition – that popped up as I gazed at the images. Curious things are intuitionses.

    So – how does one go about telling the Library of Congress that they’re wrong? (Not the Smithsonian as I first said.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s