Contested Waters

Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America is that rare book that answers questions so interesting and so important that one is surprised they have not been asked before. Most readers, one suspects, have never wondered how public swimming pools came to be, or how their functions have changed over time, and yet the tale that Wiltse has pulled together makes so much senseand fits so well with what Americans already know about their own historythat it seems like a well-known story. In this way, Contested Waters is somewhat like another book published the same year, Howard Chudacoff’s Children at Play: An American History, which shows parallels between broad social trends and the ways adults did and did not supervise their children’s play.

Since at least 1830, when the British writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) used the term in his novel Paul Clifford, lower-class and working-class people have been frequently referred to by the more privileged as “the great unwashed,” and for a simple reason: Poor people, especially those living in crowded conditions in large cities, had no easy means to bathe. Tenement apartments were crowded and basic and lacked both hot water and the space for a shower or tub. One of the first revelations in Contested Waters is that the earliest public swimming pools could be more accurately described as “large community bath tubs,” designed to address Victorian concerns with cleanliness and public health. As urban areas became increasingly crowded and, with increasing industrialization and immigration, more divided along class lines, the bathing habits of the lower classes came to seem more troublesome to those in power, particularly to the middle class. Wiltse describes large groups of poor men and boysmany of them naked and unrulyswimming and bathing along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Philadelphia and Lake Michigan in Milwaukee and Chicago, or in the Charles River in Boston or the Hudson in New York City. (He has focused his research on Northern cities, in part to avoid having to deal with regional variations in manners and mores.) Although for many people these waters offered the best hope of bathing, the waters were fouled with sewage and were too cold for at least part of the year. More important to some middle-class scolds, the sight of frolicking naked boys was offensive to them as they partook of their own Sunday strolls along the waterfronts. Further, the crowded inner cities of most major cities were filthy, and disease was rampant.

During the 1850’s and 1860’s, cities including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia opened public baths. Boston was first, with “river baths” and a “beach bath,” wooden structures submerged in the Charles River or in the Atlantic Ocean. In this first chapter, Wiltse shows the rewards of solid research: He presents statistical information highlighting the population trends in major cities, the number of public baths taken by Bostonians during the summer of 1866, and the percentage of bathers in Philadelphia in 1891 who were boys. The greater pleasure, however, comes from quotations Wiltse has dug up from newspapers and government documents. He reports, for example, that according to the Boston Joint Special Committee on Public Bathing Houses, the city hoped that providing baths would be, for the poor, not only a means to cleanliness and health but also “an inducement to self-respect and refinement, and consequent elevation in the scale of society.” Every number, every quotation, is documented, adding up to ninety-five endnotes in the first chapter, which runs twenty-two pages.

By the end of the nineteenth century, indoor swimming pools had largely replaced bathing areas outside. Municipal swimming pools were built in locations that served mostly lower-class and working-class residents, assuring that the pools would generally be segregated by class. Although there were no rules segregating the pools by sex, women tended to have different work schedules than men and swam at different times. During the same years, middle-class and upper-class people began to...

(The entire section is 1699 words.)