Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming
Pools in America, dives into the untold story behind taking a dip.
Q: How did you get the idea for this book? What inspired your research?
A: The idea literally came to me
in a dream over Thanksgiving weekend in 1996. I awoke early Saturday
morning in the midst of a dream in which I was writing about the
swimming pool I frequented as a child. I immediately wondered what the
history of swimming pools was more generally and presumed it must be
interesting and worth researching. The first person I mentioned the idea
tomy then girlfriend and now wifelaughed at me incredulously. I told
her to wait and see. When I soon discovered that no one had previously
written on the topic, I knew I was onto something.
Q: Are you a swimmer?
A: I never swam competitively, but
I spent countless summer days at the local pool during my childhood. I
vaguely understood even then, as I snuck glances at pretty girls and
chatted with friends and neighbors, that swimming pools were uniquely
intimate and sociable spaces. My most vivid memories from childhood are
of time spent at the pool: being thrown up in the air and into the water
by my father, showing off to impress girls, beating all comers at
pickleball, and trading baseball cards on the pool deck. In many ways I
grew up at the local swimming pool.
Q: Contested Waters focuses primarily on the northern United States. Why?
A: I quickly realized that the
research for this project would require me driving from city to city and
town to town searching for sources in local libraries and archives.
Limiting the project to the northern United States made this type of
on-the-road research more manageable. I also focused on the North
because I wanted to tell a coherent story rather than interpret regional
variations. As it turned out, what happened at swimming pools throughout
the North, whether in Chicago and St. Louis or Newton, Kansas and
Elizabeth, New Jersey, was all quite similar.
Q: When and where did the first municipal outdoor pool open? What was its purpose?
A: Philadelphia opened the first
outdoor municipal pool that I have identified in the United States on
June 24, 1883, at the corner of Twelfth and Wharton Streets. City
officials intended for the pool to function essentially as a large
public bathtub for working-class residents, who lacked bathing
facilities in their homes. The local boys and young men, however,
flocked to the pool in order to roughhouse and play in the water, just
as working-class boys had done for generations in the rivers around
Philadelphia. Four days after it opened, the swimmers waiting in line
outside the "bath" rioted when the superintendent told them that they
would not be admitted that evening. Enraged, the fifty young men tore
the bathhouse door from its hinges and knocked down the fence
surrounding the pool. Police officers eventually restored order "with a
liberal application of their clubs." This was an apt beginning to the
often contentious history of municipal pools in America.
Q: When and why did the rule of showering before entering a pool come into effect?
A: Since the earliest municipal
pools were intended to be public baths, the facilities did not contain
showers as the pool itself was the instrument of cleaning. Dirty bathers
plunged into the water and rubbed their skin clean. Cities first
installed showers at pools during the mid-to-late 1890s in response to
popular acceptance of the germ theory of disease transmission. Once it
became known that the source of diseases was invisible microbes that
could be transmitted through water, pools suddenly became obsolete and
downright dangerous as baths. Consequently cities added showers to the
changing rooms, so swimmers would be clean before entering the water,
and redefined pools as sport and fitness facilities. Some cities even
hired doctors to inspect swimmers as they exited the showers to ensure
they were thoroughly clean and did not show obvious signs of disease.
Q: According to Contested Waters, early pools were often segregated by class. How was this accomplished?
A: Public officials used two
primary means to encourage class segregation at municipal pools:
location and admission fees. Most often, cities located early pools
within thoroughly class-bound residential neighborhoods. Pools located
in residential slums attracted only poor and working-class swimmers.
Pools located within middle-class enclaves mostly drew swimmers from the
surrounding homes. In cases where early pools were centrally located,
public officials resorted to admission fees to separate rich swimmers
from poor. In some cases fees were used to exclude the working classes
entirely. In others, cities implemented graduated fee schedules that
separated the classes in their use of the same pool. In Brookline,
Massachusetts, for example, the town's poor swam when admission was
free, the middle class typically chose to swim when admission cost
fifteen cents, and the wealthy swam on the one night each week when
admission cost fifty cents.
Q: When and why did pools become segregated by race?
A: During the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, blacks and whites commonly swam together at
municipal pools in the North. By contrast pools were strictly segregated
along gender lines. Municipal pools throughout the North became racially
segregated during the 1920s and 1930s, during the same time that cities
permitted males and females to swim together. Gender integration was the
most direct cause of racial segregation at municipal pools in the North.
Most northern whites did not want black men to have the opportunity to
interact with white women at such visually and physically intimate
public spaces. A secondary cause of racial segregation was increasing
concerns among northern whites that blacks en masse were dirty and more
likely than whites to be infected by communicable diseases.
Q: You mention that in the early twentieth century, it took ten yards of material to make a woman's swimsuit. By 1940, it took only one yard of material to make a suit. What accounts for the shrinkage of the American swimsuit?
A: In part the shrinking size of
swimsuits reflected the more general cultural liberalization of the era,
especially during the 1920s. More particularly, the acceptable size of
swimsuits shrank between 1920 and 1940 for three main reasons. Young
women contributed to the downsizing by persistently wearing swimsuits
that pushed the boundaries of public decency. At first immodest swimmers
were ejected from pools and sometimes even fined. But, as one public
official explained, skimpy swimsuits must be "the trend of the times,"
and who was he to defy "popular demand for such bathing suits." Second,
swimsuit manufacturers spurred the market for skimpy swimsuits during
this period through advertising campaigns.
Jantzen, for example, started marketing its mass-produced swimsuits as
fashion garments, encouraging women in particular to buy a new suit each
year rather than wear "last year's style." For this strategy to work,
the company had to create new styles each season. Sometimes it
introduced new colors or added a frill, but most often it trimmed the
suit down so that it covered less of the body.
Finally, Hollywood movies influenced swimsuit trends and cultural
attitudes about proper dress. The swimsuits actresses wore onscreen
inspired considerable imitation. Movies also helped refashion cultural
attitudes about proper dress by exposing millions of Americans to
swimsuits that challenged existing standards. Having already been
revealed onscreen, skimpy and tight-fitting styles seemed more
conventional when they appeared at the local pool.
Q: When did bathing beauty pageants come into vogue?
A: Bathing beauty contests were
first staged at municipal swimming pools in the late 1920s. Typically a
dozen or so teenage girls paraded before a mixed-gender crowd of ogling
spectators wearing skimpy, tight-fitting swimsuits. The sanctioning of
these community events indicates that by the late 1920s public
objectification of women's bodies had become socially acceptable in
America. The beauty contests also hint at a fundamental change in the
meaning of public decency. By the 1920s public decency had come to mean
exhibiting an attractive, even eye-catching, appearance rather than
protecting one's modesty. This cultural shift was conspicuously apparent
at the nation's swimming pools.
Q: What was the most surprising discovery to emerge from your research?
A: When I started the project I
did not realize how popular municipal swimming pools were between 1920
and 1950. Each year tens of millions of Americans swam in municipal
pools. Many of the pools were enormous, some larger than football
fields. San Francisco's Fleischhacker Pool, for example, was 1,000 feet
long and 150 feet wide. There is a picture in the book showing a
lifeguard patrolling the pool in a rowboat. Fairgrounds Park Pool in St.
Louis was a circular pool 400 feet in diameter. According to newspaper
reports, 50,000 people visited it one Saturday shortly after it
openedÑ25,000 to swim and 25,000 more to watch. In many cities and towns
the pools were vital social and cultural institutions that served as
centers of community life during the summer.
Q: What accounts for the popularity of backyard residential pools beginning in the 1950s?
A: There are several explanations
for the backyard-pool boom during the postwar period. Rising
middle-class salaries, a less expensive pool construction technique
called the Gunite method, and the proliferation of suburban homes with
large backyards all created the material conditions necessary for many
American families to install residential pools. Furthermore, backyard
pools appealed to suburbanites because they promised to strengthen
family relationships by providing an at-home space for the whole family
to recreate; they advertised success and upward mobility; and they
enabled owners to control their social environment. In short,
middle-class Americans installed residential pools during the postwar
period for the very same reasons they moved out to the suburbs in the
Q: You note that municipal pools are in danger of disappearing. Why?
A: Two recent trends indicate that
municipal pools may be in danger of extinction. For one, cities are
building relatively few new pools and closing many older pools. The
slowdown in new pool construction dates back to the 1950s and was, in
part, a response to racial desegregation. When black Americans gained
equal access to municipal pools, white swimmers generally abandoned them
for private pools, and cities downgraded the public importance of
swimming pools. Next, during the fiscal crises of the 1970s, cities put
off costly repairs and maintenance on pools, and they consequently
crumbled into disrepair. This was followed by several waves of pool
closures during the 1980s and 1990s. The money exists to maintain
existing municipal pools and build new ones, but contemporary Americans
do not value public recreation as much as previous generationsnow most
prefer and can afford private and domestic forms of recreation.
At the same time that many cities are closing existing pools, suburban
communities are generally choosing to build water theme parks rather
than traditional pools. These facilities offer more direct entertainment
for childrenÑwho, according to some commentators, find traditional pools
boringand reduce liability because of the decreased risk of drowning.
Whereas public swimming pools were vital social and cultural
institutions during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, they are now marginal
in American life.