Thursday, June 20, 2013

Public swimming--a brief history

By Kathleen L. Maher

As summer arrives and the kids begin vacation, many of us look forward to trips to the beach or pool. But public swimming hasn't always been the ritual we enjoy today. The history of public bathing has been controversial at times and dangerous at others.

Ancient Rome had public bath houses. Finland and Asia had saunas. Native Americans had sweat lodges. Japan had communal baths.  In Judaism and Islam a spiritual significance was attached to ritual cleansing, and communities often provided common pools in which to do so. Medieval Europe offered them--places where people could go to cleanse their bodies, exercise, and socialize--though the church frowned upon public bathing due to the vices often associated. Then in the Renaissance, the thought of Black Plague effectively ended communal baths as people began to believe their own dirt protected them from the disease.

The first public swimming pool in America opened in Massachusetts in 1887. As cities became overcrowded and enlightenment about sanitation and disease accompanied the progressive movement, public bath houses for the working class sprang up for the purpose of offering the unwashed masses a place to cleanse. Until municipal baths opened, rowdy young men would bathe openly in rivers and lakes, making a public spectacle for Victorian eyes, so the general thought was to provide privacy and promote decency and relegate them indoors.

 Bathers in Northern cities seemed to mingle according to race, but not gender or social status. Women bathed on alternate days from men in these public pools. For wealthy and upper middle class suburbanites, country clubs and private societies offered a more exclusive and recreational pool experience.

In the early 20th century, leisure time opened up for the laborer. As weekends and "holidays"--the non-religious version of holy days--were given, amusement parks and public beaches became popular. Coney Island and Jones Beach in New York became sensations. Sunbathing, sand and shore entered the public psyche.

Around the same time as people began to flock to the beach, public pools rose in popularity. Fairgrounds Park pool in St. Louis offered a sandy bottom and drew thousands of bathers every season. These pools gradually became co-ed, and as men and women bathed together a new wave of racism arose, white men prohibiting other races to mingle with white women. Fairgrounds Park pool erupted in a race riot when the first black swimmers were admitted.

But the Polio scare of the '30's and '40's would soon empty the pools and beaches. When FDR came down with the crippling disease after a weekend away at a lake house in New Brunswick, the public drew an instant association with swimming and the summer scourge.  Since Polio is resistant to soaps and chemicals of low pH, its spread became epidemic. But it was soon discovered that chlorine rendered the disease inactive. Old methods of pool sanitation involved frequently changing out the water and filters. Chlorine had been heavily produced during WWI, and its use in pools began in the 40's and became standard by the 1960's. Jonas Salk's vaccine brought swimmers back within a season or two as the beach beckoned and confidence rose again over fear.

Beach going is big business today. According to a study done in 2008 by James R. Houston, Ph.D., director of Research and Development, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "It's estimated that U.S. beaches contribute more than $320 billion annually to the national economy -- more than 25 times what national parks bring in." The movie Jaws in the 1970's played on two big fears associated with swimming: the financial implications of closing a beach during a popular holiday season, and the primal fear of what may lurk in the deep.

As summer sings it siren song and beckons you to the waters, think about how this simple pleasure has been both enjoyed and forbidden in the past, and thank the Lord for the freedom and safety to take the plunge.

For discussion: Tell us about your favorite swimming hole. Does your family go to the beach every summer, or do you own a lake cottage? Do you pack up the kids and head to the public pool? Do you have a favorite memory involving swimming? Share with us!


  1. Fun post, Kathy. And just think how the swimsuit has changed! I grew up living on lakes so swimming is something I've always taken for granted. As a matter of fact, I'm taking a young lady swimming today if we have time.

  2. How interesting to hear how bathing/swimming kept stopping when an outbreak of sickness occurred because they thought that was the cause. Yes the swimsuit has definitely changed over the years also, and NOT for the better! No offense to anyone, but I really don't need or want to see barely clothed women swimming. :)
    We were blessed to have a pool at this house when we bought it and the kids have spent their whole summers in it since.
    Susan P

  3. Kathy, what a fascinating history! Here in Florida, we take swimming for granted, and many of us have our own pools. And of course our beaches are the backgone of our economy.

  4. To be honest, we rarely go swimming, and part of the reason why is associated with the two ladies' comments above - swimsuits. We have two boys, and in wanting them to remain pure minded, it would hardly be fair to put them in a position of being surrounded by barely clothed women and expect them to avert their eyes! So, it's a pretty rare thing to go to a beach or a public pool. We used to have friends with pools, and that was really nice, but they got rid of theirs.

  5. When my children were growing up, every year, as soon as school was out for the summer, we would head for the beach--Myrtle Beach, SC. Sometimes we camped and sometimes we stayed in a motel. Each year the children took turns brings a friend. Great times!!

  6. Interesting post, Kathleen! I always wondered about the connection between swimming and polio. Ann Tatlock's book "I'll Watch the Moon," takes place during the polio outbreak in the US.

  7. I used to swim a lot and do laps until my shoulders gave up. Now I kick swim with a paddle board at my HOA clubhouse pool. We love to go to the Carlsbad Tamarack beach and walk along the walkway and also to Oceanside Harbor and Pier and walk along. We drive along the 101 coast highway and love to look at the ocean and enjoy the views. sharon, CA