Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

Article excerpt

BOOK REVIEW Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America Jeff Wiltse The University of North Carolina Press, 2007

In his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse surveys the history of an all-American pastime and the cultural and societal impacts that swimming pools have had on the United States. Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana, shows readers how the atmosphere of municipal swimming pools, from their inception, have reflected class divisions and heated racial tensions. Contested Waters takes readers through the complicated transformation of municipal pools from gender segregated public baths of the nineteenth century to the racially segregated and violent municipal pools of the 1950s, and finally ending with the current state of private and municipal pools. Wiltse effectively, and often captivatingly, informs readers of just how much social history is in our swimming pools.

Wiltse begins with a detailed look at life before municipal pools and how city officials recognized the need for them. Working class men, boys, and "street urchins" of the northern U.S. swam naked in the natural waters available to them, joking, fighting, and frolicking. Anti-swimming laws and waterside police officers failed to control the ruckus. City officials sought to alleviate the problem by building municipal pools. Located in the slums, the pools provided residents a place to clean themselves, and instill some of the moral beliefs and values that were, according to the middle class, sorely needed. In 1884, Philadelphia opened one of the first municipal pools, but the strict rules enforced by the middle class did little to hinder the rambunctious culture of the working class. Wiltse showed that similar battles for respectability were fought in other American cities, including New York City, Milwaukee, and Boston.

According to Wiltse, swimming pools in the late nineteenth century were divided along two lines. Middle-class America saw swimming with the urban poor working class distasteful. In any case, the disease-trodden slums in inner cities of the north kept interactions between the two classes at a minimum. River baths and pools were opened to help tackle the physical squalor of the urban poor. Wiltse observed that racial tensions were muted in comparison to the hostel class conflict that plagued pools in the 1900s. A second division pertained to gender. Even with the modest "bathing suits" covering most of a female's body, it was deemed inappropriate for males and females to swim together. Gender integration at public swimming pools would begin in 1913, with the opening of Fairgrounds Park Pool in St. Louis.

Wiltse noted the social class divisions of the Progressive Era continued to heavily influence municipal pools. However, a major change occurred when swimming became socially acceptable to middle-class Americans. Physical exercise was recognized as a healthy pastime and with the opening of Douglas Park Pool and Gymnasium in Chicago in 1895, the first public swimming pools in America to be used for sport and recreation were built. Simultaneously, the era saw swimming becoming increasingly acceptable among women. They would frequent beach baths and beachside resorts that were popular among the upper middle class.

With nearly two thousand municipal pools built between 1920 and 1940, the "Swimming Pool Age" hit America with force. Wiltse uses the Fairgrounds Park Pool in St. Louis to illustrate the growing popularity of municipal pools. Fairgrounds Park Pool was built in the style of beachside resorts, with room to lounge on sandy poolside beaches and enough swimming space for thousands at one time. Pools like this popped up across the United States. For the first time, males and females could swim together freely, and pools became a social center of leisure and play for youth as well as adults. Strict social class divisions began to ebb, and a sense of community was gained at the Fairground Park Pool. …

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