Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

by Jeff Wiltse


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Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America by Jeff Wiltse

Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807871270
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 05/01/2010
Edition description: 1
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 779,170
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jeff Wiltse is associate professor of history at the University of Montana.

Read an Excerpt

Contested Waters



Copyright © 2007 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-3100-7

Chapter One


The growing popularity of the public [swimming] baths quite justifies the experiment. They should be established in all parts of the city. An expenditure of public money for the promotion of personal cleanliness among the poorer classes is a most profitable sanitary investment.-Editorial, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (1888)

Philadelphia opened one of the earliest municipal pools in America on June 21, 1884, at the intersection of Twelfth and Wharton Streets. The "swimming bath," as it was commonly called, was so popular with the boys and young men of this immigrant, working-class neighborhood that they regularly waited an hour in line to enter. During the first few days, the crowd outside the pool often became unruly. The youths argued, fought, and tried to sneak ahead of one another in line. On the night of June 24, the usual ruckus escalated into a small riot. It started when the superintendent informed the expectant swimmers that they would not be admitted that evening because the pool was already filled to capacity. As the crowd grew incensed, the superintendent retreatedinside the building and bolted the door. According to a local newspaper, the fifty or so young men who had been turned away "concluded to override his authority by the superiority of their numbers." They tore the door from its hinges and knocked down the fence that surrounded the pool. The city had stationed a police detail at the pool in anticipation of disorderly behavior, but the four officers were no match for the angry crowd. They were "tossed about like little bits of driftwood in rough water." Police reinforcements eventually restored order "with a liberal application of their clubs," but not before the pool and the reputation of the bathers had been severely damaged. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin editorialized that "the good [the pool] has accomplished amongst the unwashed down-town youths has been more than counterbalanced by the harm a certain gang of roughs has seen fit in their ignorant and brutal natures to inflict." Commissioner of City Property William Dixey, whose department administered the pool, promised that "if such conduct is kept up," he would "close the house and keep it closed."

The small riot that accompanied the opening of the Twelfth and Wharton Bath captures in microcosm the contested early history of municipal pools in the United States. Municipal pools originated during the last third of the nineteenth century as public baths. They were quintessential Victorian reforms. Large northern cities located them within residential slums and intended them to promote cleanliness, refinement, and modesty among the urban poor. Public baths were necessary because the urban poor lacked bathing facilities in their homes, and middle-class northerners had come to see dirtiness as a sign of disease, immorality, and disorder. A physically unclean person, they believed, was an agent of pestilence and a likely criminal, loafer, and drunk. By promoting the "bathing habit" among the urban poor and instilling them with middle-class values, reformers and public officials assumed that municipal pools would help counteract the rising rates of disease, crime, and pauperism that accompanied urban growth during the midto late nineteenth century.

The "unwashed down-town youths" who plunged into the Twelfth and Wharton Bath, however, viewed municipal pools differently. They flocked to the pool and waited in long lines to enter not because they were eager to bathe or adopt middle-class values, but because they were excited to roughhouse in the water. Swimming had been a popular activity among working-class boys and young men throughout the nineteenth century. They swam in the lakes, rivers, and bays that surrounded most American cities and created a plebeian and masculine swimming culture that violated Victorian norms. They swam in the nude, they swore, they fought, and they evaded authority. Municipal pools brought working-class swimmers face-to-face with the cultural expectations of middle-class Americans and the social policies of civic leaders. Cities attempted to control what the "bathers" did in the pools through elaborate rules and poolside police officers. But, as the riot reveals, the boys and young men who controlled the natural waters around American cities were determined to control the artificial waters as well. They attempted to transplant their rowdy swimming culture to these new public spaces and transform municipal pools into public amusements. In the end, they did just that.

When working-class boys and young men plunged into the nation's first municipal pools, they brought with them a distinct swimming culture developed by earlier generations. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, plebeian boys commandeered urban lakes and rivers as their play domain. They stripped naked, splashed and shouted, and roughhoused in the water. Their behavior was sufficiently offensive to provoke a public response in several cities. In 1786 Boston passed an ordinance that prohibited swimming on the Sabbath. The law noted that it was "boys" in particular who were "prophan[ing]" [sic] the Lord's Day. New York City passed an ordinance in 1808 forbidding daytime swimming in the East River. As the wording of the law explained, swimmers were "extremely offensive to spectators." In 1820 J. G. Coffin sent a letter to Boston public officials complaining that the practices of local swimmers were "opposed to the decorum and purity of the social state." The raucous behavior of these youngsters, and especially their naked bodies, offended other citizens and led most Americans at the time to associate swimming with rebelliousness and indecency.

Even as urban America was transformed during the nineteenth century by industrialization, large-scale immigration, and technological advances, this swimming culture passed-in remarkably similar form-from one generation of plebeian boys to the next. Natural-water swimmers later in the century were just as immodest, defiant, and boisterous as their predecessors. One boy in Milwaukee received much notoriety in 1878 because he "was in the habit of stripping upon the bank of the river and assuming the pose of Michael Angelo's Slave just as the little river steamer hove in sight with her load of women and children." Most swimmers and bathers did not flaunt their naked bodies like this fellow, but few went out of their way to hide themselves from the public gaze. Newspaper reports from the period also emphasized the "insulting language" that was common among the swimmers, noting in particular the verbal attacks they directed at those who happened to pass by.

The New York Times offered an elaborate description of working-class boys' nineteenth-century swimming culture in a 1900 feature article. On an early summer Saturday along the East River, "a dozen or more boys were diving and splashing around, having water fights and making no small commotion, when suddenly a tall police officer hove in sight." New York still prohibited daytime swimming within its city limits, but, as the Times commented, "the boys care about as much for the law as the seagull that ventures up from the bay to see what is going on." When the blue-clad officer ordered the naked boys out of the water, a fourteen-year-old redhead replied, "come an' git us, will yer, Mister Cop?" The swimmers then quickly disappeared underneath the pier. As the officer leaned over the edge to see where the boys had gone, "a mass of spray flew up and struck the guardian of the law squarely amidships, causing him to jump back so quickly that his helmet flew off into the water." Predictably, one of the boys plucked the helmet from the surface and disappeared back beneath the pier. Smarting from defeat, the officer turned and skulked off the pier. The Times recognized that the whole episode-the naked swimmers, the fighting and splashing, and then the confrontation with the officer-exemplified a transmitted culture among urban, working-class boys. It all occurred, the paper noted, "according to a prescribed custom that has been handed down from the time when there was not any ferry at all at Fulton Street."

A prolonged public debate that occurred in Milwaukee during the late 1850s clearly reveals the social and cultural tensions public swimming generated during the nineteenth century. As New York and Boston had done previously, Milwaukee passed an ordinance in 1856 that restricted public swimming and bathing. The law forbade any person from entering Lake Michigan or the Milwaukee River during the daytime or at a spot "within sight of any dwelling house, public walk, pier, or other place of business." Like many nineteenth-century statutes, the law was not strictly enforced. Residents who lived near the waterfront wrote several letters to the Milwaukee Sentinel charging that "men and boys ... bath[ed] in the race in broad day light" with impunity. In response, the newspaper spearheaded a campaign to get local authorities to vigorously enforce the statute. In a June 25, 1858, editorial, the paper reiterated its readers' complaints, proclaiming that "the ordinance which was designed to prevent bathing within the limits of the city in exposed places, is shamefully violated every day, and we have, as yet, heard of no case of punishment for the offence."

The paper objected to public swimming because the naked boys transgressed the Victorian public culture that middle-class Americans were constructing at the time. The Sentinel observed that, "In the evenings, particularly when so many ladies and gentlemen are out walking upon the bluffs, the shore is usually lined with naked boys, some of them big enough to be called men." By presenting their bodies "quite exposed to the public gaze," especially within view of "ladies and gentlemen," the swimmers were, according to the paper, "without any ... regard for decency." While nudity, profanity, and roughhousing were comfortable parts of male working-class culture at the time, they were antithetical to the Victorian conception of "decency," which emphasized modesty and self-restraint.

The Sentinel's complaint brought about the desired effect-local authorities began vigorously enforcing the anti-swimming law. One day after the editorial appeared, the municipal court was clogged with "lads" and "youngsters" caught swimming in the lake and river. Two days later twenty-six more "men and boys" were hauled before the judge and fined two dollars each for swimming within the city limits. The large number of offenders revealed just how prevalent natural-water swimming was and suggests that the city did not strictly enforce the law because doing so would have preoccupied the police and overwhelmed the courts.

Public swimmers in Milwaukee resisted this assault on their favorite "summer sport." Over the next several years, they wrote numerous letters to the Sentinel defending what they claimed was their right to swim when, where, and how they pleased. One letter signed simply "boys" complained about the crackdown and asked rhetorically where they should swim if not in the Milwaukee River or Lake Michigan. Not letting this opportunity pass without lecturing the "boys," the Sentinel instructed them to swim at the dam, which, being a considerable distance outside the city, was acceptable for day swimming. The paper then reminded the youngsters why they were such a nuisance: "Boys are not always young Apollos or Cupids when their breeches are off, and taste for the fine arts has not yet been sufficiently cultivated-even if the boys were each an Adonis-to permit so much statuary running loose under the eyes of the public." A few days later, "Some More Boys" responded that if not allowed to swim, they may as well "put on frocks and give up being boys." For them, swimming was an essential part of male adolescence.

Bathing in the Milwaukee River was as important to some of the city's working-class men as swimming was to its boys. A quartet of Irish immigrants expressed their opposition to the swimming ordinance in a letter to the Sentinel written for them by their employer. These common laborers viewed the law and the controversy over it very much in class terms. The ordinance, they claimed, was an attempt by "the aristocracy ... to oppress the poor men." Broad indictments aside, their complaint reveals how the law unfairly burdened the poor. They described how each evening they finished their labor "wearied and dirtied by the toil of the day, needing a refreshing plunge." If denied access to the river, they had no other place to bathe. Unlike the "ladies and gentlemen" who favored the law, they did not have baths in their homes nor could they afford the cost of admission to a private bathhouse. The four laborers reasoned that it was unjust for the city to deprive them of their only means of bathing in order to protect the sensibilities of citizens wealthy enough to bathe in private.

The Irish immigrants identified a central paradox of Victorian culture. During the mid- to late nineteenth century, preachers, domestic advice manuals, and popular magazines disseminated this system of values that emphasized piety, self-restraint, modesty, and cleanliness. These values reflected the material and social circumstances of the middle class. They could, quite literally, afford to live according to these prescriptions. Americans who lived under different material circumstances could not. Modesty was not possible for a family of six living in a two-room tenement. Similarly, as the Irish laborers pointed out, "respectable" (meaning private) bathing was not practical for families who lived in homes without running water and were too poor to frequent private bathhouses. The Irish laborers were as committed to personal cleanliness as any of their middle-class critics, perhaps more so. They made daily trips to the Milwaukee River despite the possibility of a significant fine and argued publicly in defense of their "natural right" to bathe. Because of their material circumstances, however, they violated middle-class directives of privacy and decency.

Anti-swimming ordinances, such as those in Boston, New York, and Milwaukee, were a common public response to natural-water swimming and bathing during the nineteenth century. If vigorously enforced, they had the potential to curb these activities. A minimum two-dollar fine was a costly penalty. The ordinances, however, did not have that effect. Cities only sporadically enforced the laws, and most swimmers and bathers did not let the threat of arrest deter them. The four Irish laborers declared at the end of their letter that they would continue bathing at the Spring Street Bridge regardless of the law and advised fellow citizens "who didn't like their persons" not to look at them. Other swimmers and bathers expressed similar defiance every time they plunged naked into a river or lake. Throughout the nineteenth century, urban waters provided working-class males with public spaces to recreate and bathe, to articulate class-specific values and sensibilities, and to contest the prevailing cultural order.


Excerpted from Contested Waters by JEFF WILTSE Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Introduction: "Just Don't Touch the Water"

Chapter 1. A "Peculiar Kind" of Bath: The Origin of Municipal Pools in America

Chapter 2. "A Means of Physical Culture": The Redefinition of Municipal Pools during the 1890s

Chapter 3. "A Good Investment in Health, Character, and Citizenship": Municipal Swimming Pools in the Progressive Era

Interlude: The Traumatic Early History of Fairgrounds Park Pool

Chapter 4. The "Swimming Pool Age": 1920 to 1940

Chapter 5. "One for the White Race and the Other for the Colored Race": The Onset of Racial Discrimination, 1920 to 1940

Chapter 6. "More Sensitive Than Schools": The Struggle to Desegregate Municipal Swimming Pools

Chapter 7. "Alone in the Backyard": Swimming Pools in Recent America

Conclusion: The Promise and Reality of Swimming Pools as Public Spaces




What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

I had always stared at those intriguing pictures of America's gigantic municipal pools of bygone eras, always curious as to who spent their days wading and plunging in those vast waters. Now I read with fascination, in Contested Waters, how the swimming pools of America were the quintessential backdrop of race, gender, and class relations for more than a century of our history. This book makes me long to have experienced afternoons in those historic swimming holes.—Diana Nyad

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