Blogs > Cliopatria > Lawrence Culver: Review of Jeff Wiltse's Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

Sep 5, 2007 10:02 pm

Lawrence Culver: Review of Jeff Wiltse's Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

Jeff Wiltse. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. xii + 276 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3100-7.

Reviewed for H-Environment by Lawrence Culver, Department of History, Utah State University

Until I read Jeff Wiltse's new book, I had never really thought about the fact that I have never taken a swim in a public swimming pool. During the seemingly endless, relentlessly hot and humid summers of my southern childhood, swimming pools were a regular refuge, at least after my mother had slathered me with sunscreen. I swam in the backyard pools of various friends, neighbors, and relatives, and also at hotels, country clubs, sports clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, and summer camps. I first learned to swim at my hometown's Jewish Community Center, even though my family was Presbyterian. But I never swam in a public or municipal pool--I'm not even sure if there were any to swim in anywhere near where I grew up.

The reasons for this˜why I, who came of age in what Wiltse terms "recent America," only ever swam in private pools--is explained by his new book, _Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America_. His book demonstrates that public pools˜even more than schools˜were flashpoints for some of the most virulent racial conflict and exclusion in the nation. At the same time, however, they offered opportunities for mixing and mingling, ogling and playing, relaxing and tanning, and an intimate sense of community now elusive in American culture. _Contested Waters_ uses swimming pools as a lens through which Wiltse examines race, gender, class, and popular culture in America.

The book follows a largely chronological framework, tracing the rise and fall of public swimming in America. The original reason for the construction of public pools was not recreation, but sanitation˜the poor had no bathing facilities, and as a result some, especially boys and young men, bathed in rivers and streams in cities. This display of naked working-class bodies upset the delicate sensibilities of the more affluent, particularly since some bathers clearly delighted in showing off as passenger ferries or pedestrians passed by.

City leaders garnered support for public pools constructed for bathing. When it became clear that bathers were in fact using pools for recreation, support from elite quarters evaporated. In Boston, for example, a mayoral proposal for a recreational public pool on Boston's Common produced alarmed opposition from those who envisioned scores of scantily-clad street urchins converging upon an elite public space. Attitudes, however, were changing elsewhere. The Progressive Era brought new attention to hygiene, but also to recreation as a source of physical, mental, and societal health, as well as a means of Americanizing immigrants. Here, however, while middle-class reformers embraced working-class recreation, they tried to remold it into a more refined and proper kind of play, not just boisterous roughhousing. Yet in this case the rowdy culture of the working class won out, and pools across the twentieth century would be home to a decidedly popular form of mass recreation.

This recreation, however, was still very much divided by one issue: gender. Public pools were strictly divided by sex, and many were still dominated by men and boys. This divide˜with males and females swimming on different days, with only modest swimwear allowed˜limited opportunities to get an eyeful of the opposite sex in bathing garb, let alone actual sexual contact. By the 1920s, however, this gender divide faded, and men and women began to swim together. Swimsuits shrank, and pool culture pioneered a far more frank attitude about sex and the body. Beauty contests became regular events at many public pools, and modesty was replaced by the open display of shapely or muscular bodies in revealing attire.

Yet the corollary of this new freedom among men and women was the immediate imposition of a new divide. While men and women could swim together, those of different races could not. Above all, the prospect of white women bathing with black men was unacceptable to many whites. Pools, which had been largely integrated, were rapidly segregated. In large cities such as New York, this was accomplished by placing public pools in neighborhoods that were clearly either white or black. In smaller cities, the outcome was often large, luxurious, resort-style pools for whites, complete with sandy beaches and areas for lounging, while African Americans were relegated to stingy little pools with few amenities. In small towns that could only afford one pool, the decision was simple--whites could use the pool, and blacks could not. This racial divide and unequal recreational access was upheld by local governments, police, and vicious white mobs that attacked any blacks brave enough to enter white recreational space. Public pools were as rigidly segregated, North and South, as any public space in America.

Wiltse details the long struggle by African Americans to gain access to public pools. This is at once the most exhilarating and profoundly sad portion of his book. After World War II, pool segregation, whether de facto or de jure, slowly began to crumble. More pools were constructed in black neighborhoods during the 1960s, both through civil rights activism and by city governments alarmed by urban unrest during that decade. Then, however, as the nation was buffeted by economic problems in the 1970s, public funding for pools dwindled. Fears that pools attracted gangs and violent crime tarnished their image further.

The result of all this was that while swimming opportunities faded for the poor, they expanded exponentially for the middle class, as whites achieved re-segregation through privatization. Increasing prosperity and falling construction prices led to a surge of backyard pool construction in the 1950s and 1960s, as a new suburban culture, revolving around family recreation in the backyard, increasingly supplanted public recreation. Many former municipal pools were leased to private clubs, which could still practice racial discrimination far more easily than public facilities. One sad consolation for blacks who tried to gain access to such clubs was that at least their petitions and court cases forced supposedly "nice" suburban whites to admit what they really were˜old-fashioned bigots. The result, particularly in one case, was telling. An affluent black family denied access to a suburban pool simply built one in their own backyard. American race relations changed profoundly across the twentieth century, but few whites or blacks ever swam across the racial divide. The popularity of public swimming faltered, and the result, according to Wiltse, is a sadly reduced public culture.

Wiltse admits that his book is not truly a social history of pools in the entire United States. His impressive array of archival sources˜records from local governments and park and recreation commissions, court cases, and numerous local newspapers, among others--derives mainly from one region, not the nation as a whole. Due to the travel and time constraints of dissertation-writing, his book is primarily a history of pools in the northeastern United States, with occasional ventures west to St. Louis and Chicago, and south to Baltimore and Washington. Yet the South and West are not truly examined by his book, and that leads to deficiencies more significant than a somewhat misleading title. While segregation abounded in the North˜and this book certainly documents that northern whites were no less racist than southern whites, at least where swimming was concerned˜the lack of information on southern cities leaves us with limited knowledge of how public swimming differed in cities under official Jim Crow segregation. Did they provide any pools for blacks, or were all municipal pools white only? For that matter, what about Florida˜a state built on recreation and fun in the sun where swimming pools abounded?

The book's limited geography also leaves out the West˜perhaps a more glaring omission. We know that African Americans were excluded, but what about Americans of other racial or ethnic backgrounds? Did Asian Americans face discrimination in San Francisco or Seattle, or Mexican Americans in Los Angeles or San Antonio? A northeastern focus also omits the Sunbelt˜the very region in which private backyard pools transformed the landscape, and helped trigger a massive demographic migration that is still underway. To talk about the history of swimming pools in America without incorporating such Sunbelt cities as Los Angeles and Phoenix as key examples is problematic indeed.

It also seems likely that integration was not the sole reason for the decline in public swimming. Air conditioning could be a large factor as well. Before its spread, public pools, like air-conditioned movie theaters, were a refuge from summer heat. Television has likewise monopolized leisure time since the 1950s, and with video games and the Internet some parents now fret that their children never venture outside at all. Another factor is the growing awareness of skin cancer, and the fact that childhood sunburns are one of the most common risk factors for the disease.

As a social history, _Contested Waters_ also does not consider the significant environmental effects of the mass popularization of backyard pools. They required vast amounts of water to fill and maintain. Chlorine and other pool chemicals entered local streams, rivers, and soils. The sheer volume of evaporating swimming pool water in arid cities such as Phoenix even altered the local climate, increasing air humidity.

These criticisms, however, do not outweigh the significant virtues of a well-written and deeply researched book, complemented by evocative photographs. Its omissions also open new avenues of research for other historians. _Contested Waters_ is an important contribution to American cultural, social, and urban history, and the histories of race and recreation in America. Looking at Americans at play, as Wiltse does, can teach us much about ourselves, both edifying and unsettling. It also just might inspire some readers to take the plunge and dive in for a swim.

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