Contested Waters

Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

JEFF WILTSE
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807888988_wiltse
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  • Book Info
    Contested Waters
    Book Description:

    From nineteenth-century public baths to today's private backyard havens, swimming pools have long been a provocative symbol of American life. In this social and cultural history of swimming pools in the United States, Jeff Wiltse relates how, over the years, pools have served as asylums for the urban poor, leisure resorts for the masses, and private clubs for middle-class suburbanites. As sites of race riots, shrinking swimsuits, and conspicuous leisure, swimming pools reflect many of the tensions and transformations that have given rise to modern America.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0466-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. INTRODUCTION: “JUST DON’T TOUCH THE WATER”
    (pp. 1-7)

    In 1898 Boston’s mayor Josiah Quincy sent Daniel Kearns, secretary of the city’s bath commission, to study Philadelphia’s bathing pools. Philadelphia was the most prolific early builder of municipal pools, operating nine at the time. All but three were located in residential slums and, according to Kearns, attracted only “the lower classes or street gamins.” City officials had built the austere pools during the 1880s and early 1890s—before the germ theory of disease transmission was popularly accepted—and intended them to provide baths for working-class men and women, who used them on alternating days. The facilities lacked showers, because...

  5. CHAPTER 1 A “PECULIAR KIND” OF BATH: THE ORIGIN OF MUNICIPAL POOLS IN AMERICA
    (pp. 8-30)

    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...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “A MEANS OF PHYSICAL CULTURE”: THE REDEFINITION OF MUNICIPAL POOLS DURING THE 1890s
    (pp. 31-46)

    On July 9, 1895, a group of local residents presented a petition to the West Chicago Park Board “with upwards of ten thousand signatures attached” requesting an outdoor pool in Douglas Park. Given the previous history of municipal pools, this was a curious request. Douglas Park was situated in the midst of a growing streetcar suburb several miles west of downtown Chicago, not the type of neighborhood in which earlier pools in Boston, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee were located. Furthermore, the middle-class families that lived near the park and signed the petition had tubs in their homes. They clearly did not...

  7. CHAPTER 3 “A GOOD INVESTMENT IN HEALTH, CHARACTER, AND CITIZENSHIP”: MUNICIPAL SWIMMING POOLS IN THE PROGRESSIVE ERA
    (pp. 47-77)

    In January 1912 the Philadelphia Bureau of City Property assigned one of its inspectors to assess the condition of the city’s twenty swimming pools. The unnamed inspector visited the establishments 585 times over the next ten months. He found the pools in a dilapidated state. All the tanks “need[ed] to be strengthened by asphalt, cement or calcium silicates.” The plumbing at all the pools needed repair, and most of the bathhouse roofs were “worthless.” All but one needed extensive carpentry work “to put in condition the doors, windows, transoms, lockers and benches.” Finally, they all needed to be repainted. The...

  8. INTERLUDE: THE TRAUMATIC EARLY HISTORY OF FAIRGROUNDS PARK POOL
    (pp. 78-86)

    Before the Progressive Era ended, city officials in St. Louis further reconceived municipal swimming pools and reshuffled the social composition of swimmers. In 1913 the city opened an enormous circular swimming pool in Fairgrounds Park and promoted it as a leisure resort for almost all citizens. The city permitted both sexes to swim together, and the pool’s resortlike character attracted virtually all levels of St. Louis society and many adults. While working class and middle class, males and females, and children and adults now swam together in this gigantic pool, blacks and whites did not. City officials barred black Americans...

  9. CHAPTER 4 THE “SWIMMING POOL AGE”: 1920 TO 1940
    (pp. 87-120)

    On Labor Day 1934, tiny Avalon, Pennsylvania, held its first annual Water Carnival at the town’s municipal swimming pool. The pool, which opened earlier in the summer, was an ideal place to hold a community celebration. Many of the town’s 5,000 residents could fit in the large pool and the remainder could lounge along the broad concrete deck surrounding it. The Water Carnival included swim races and water stunts, but the main attraction was the “bathing beauty contest.” In the days before the event, local newspapermen visited the Avalon pool to take pictures of the contestants preparing for the contest....

  10. CHAPTER 5 “ONE FOR THE WHITE RACE AND THE OTHER FOR THE COLORED RACE”: THE ONSET OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION, 1920 TO 1940
    (pp. 121-153)

    When New York City opened its eleven WPA pools in 1936, the Department of Parks started an annual “Learn to Swim” campaign. A publicity poster for the campaign reflected the social integration that had occurred at the city’s pools. It indicated that the swim classes were available “for all ages” and showed a cartoonlike drawing of males and females standing next to one another in the background. The composition of the poster did suggest, however, at least one social division at the pools. All the swimmers clustered on the left side were white, while all those on the right side...

  11. CHAPTER 6 “MORE SENSITIVE THAN SCHOOLS”: THE STRUGGLE TO DESEGREGATE MUNICIPAL SWIMMING POOLS
    (pp. 154-180)

    On a hot summer day in 1952, seventeen-year-old Mamie Livingston and two younger sisters walked the ten blocks from their East Baltimore home to Clifton Park municipal swimming pool. The three had never plunged into the pool even though they grew up so very near to it. Mamie did not expect to enter that day either, but she hoped. A rather rude attendant turned the girls away “with scorn,” according to Mamie, but added that the city would soon build a pool nearby that they could use. Mamie eagerly waited out the summer and her senior year at Carver High...

  12. CHAPTER 7 “ALONE IN THE BACKYARD”: SWIMMING POOLS IN RECENT AMERICA
    (pp. 181-206)

    In 1961 New York City mayor Robert Wagner announced that the city intended to construct a swimming pool in the northernmost section of Central Park, just below 110th Street. Much like the Central Park pool John Mitchel proposed back in 1910, Wagner intended it to provide recreation for the disadvantaged “young people” who lived nearby.¹ Unlike Mitchel’s proposal, the public responded favorably to Wagner’s announcement. “Usually a ‘dissenter’ when encroachments are attempted in Central Park,” Irene Roth Gould wrote theNew York Times, “I am all for the building of the pool.” Gould’s support rested on her assumption that the...

  13. CONCLUSION THE PROMISE AND REALITY OF SWIMMING POOLS AS PUBLIC SPACES
    (pp. 207-214)

    While conducting the research for this project, I frequently visited the swimming pools I was studying, if they still existed. On one occasion, I spent an evening at Athletic Park Pool in Newton, Kansas—the same pool that Samuel Ridley attempted to desegregate back in the 1930s. In some ways, the scene in 2000 was much as it might have been during the swimming pool age. Hundreds were congregated at the pool. Children played in the water and waited in line for the diving board. Teens gathered around the concession stand and chased one another on the lawn. Some fathers...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 215-254)
  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 255-266)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 267-276)