Plunging into Public Pools' Contentious Past The nation's first public pools were originally built to get rowdy, scantily clad youths out of rivers and lakes and away from the public eye. They eventually became hotbeds of social change. Historian Jeff Wiltse traces public pools' contentious history in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.
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Plunging into Public Pools' Contentious Past

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Plunging into Public Pools' Contentious Past

Plunging into Public Pools' Contentious Past

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(Soundbite of children playing in swimming pool)


Moving now to safer waters. This weekend, public pools opened in many parts of the country. It seems a good time to consider a new book by Jeff Wiltse called "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America."

NPR's Jacki Lyden chatted with the author this week. Here's their conversation.

JACKI LYDEN: Jeff Wiltse, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. JEFF WILTSE (Author, "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America"): Oh, it's my pleasure.

LYDEN: Your book takes us back to the very first municipal swimming pool in America, in Boston in 1868. It was called the Cabot Street bath, and until then people had swam in rivers. Why the change?

Mr. WILTSE: Well, the first thing you have to understand is that most of the swimmers who were plunging into urban lakes and urban rivers were young, working-class men who didn't necessarily share the same sensibilities as did the middle class in these cities. And so they plunged into the waters naked. They were rambunctious and splashing, and they generally violated the sensibilities of the city's middle classes.

And so one of the reasons to provide municipal pools was to try to attract some of these working-class boys, who were swimming in the nude in public, into an enclosed facility. But the primary purpose of these earliest pools was to provide a place for the poor and the working classes in cities to bathe.

And one of the most shocking things for, I think, contemporary readers is that these polls didn't have showers, and that dirty people plunged themselves into the water and scrubbed their bodies clean. And it was really the pool that was the instrument of cleaning.

LYDEN: It must have gotten pretty dirty.

Mr. WILTSE: Oh, yeah. Yeah. This was long before chlorine and - and I came across several instances in which cities would report changing the water once a week. And so you can imagine how dirty the water would become.

LYDEN: And people were divided by gender and class when they swim, right - not so much by race - by gender and class?

Mr. WILTSE: Oh, yeah. One of the - perhaps, surprising things that I found was that throughout the 19th century and really even through the first two decades of the 20th century, swimming at pools divided along class lines and along sex lines, but not along racial lines.

LYDEN: So describe how these pools came to be built around America, and what they'd look like?

Mr. WILTSE: Yeah. During the 1920s and 1930s, cities throughout the country built pools - many of them larger than football fields. For example, Fairgrounds Park in St. Louis. Shortly after it opened, there was a newspaper report that 25,000 people swam in it in one particular Saturday, and that another 25,000 people came as spectators to observe what was going on in the water.

LYDEN: Fairgrounds Park Pool in St. Louis was integrated by gender, right? Men and women did swim together there.

Mr. WILTSE: Yes. So Fairgrounds Park Pool is the first pool that I found that was gender-integrated in the northern United States, and it was also, not coincidentally, the first pool that was officially racially segregated in the northern United States. And it was built in 1913.

LYDEN: Did bathing costumes play a role here? After all, this is an intimate space. Men and women are wearing less than they would wear on the street, but they're still wearing an awful lot of yardage compared to what is worn today, but it was not unimportant what they wore.

Mr. WILTSE: Oh, absolutely. Most whites in the northern United States did not want black men interacting with white women at such visually and physically intimate public spaces as a swimming pool. And this became more pronounced during the 1920s and 1930s as the acceptable size of swimsuits shrank. And so this was really one of the primary reasons for racial segregation.

LYDEN: You talk about the sneaky ways that cities gradually and very thoroughly discriminate against black bathers and make it more and more difficult for them to use a public swimming pool. And some of these things almost defy elite(ph). There's one episode in which a child, a black child, is allowed to enter a pool only if he's put in a little rubber dinghy and rode around by a lifeguard so that his skin doesn't contaminate the water, many episodes of attacks on black Americans at swimming pools. What's going on here?

Mr. WILTSE: Well, there's a couple of things. In the southern tier of north states, in cities such as St. Louis and in Baltimore and also there was a case in Washington, D.C., swimming pools were officially segregated along racial lines. And so it was police and pool officials who would prevent black Americans from swimming in pools.

In more northern states, in cities such as Chicago and New York, the means used for achieving racial segregation was left to the white swimmers themselves. And so the white swimmers would quite literally beat them out of the water.

LYDEN: How did African-Americans challenge this status quo? This would become part of the great civil rights battle, just the way that lunchrooms and school buses and other public venues would become contested areas.

Mr. WILTSE: Absolutely. One was basic social protest, which is black swimmers going individually and trying to gain access to a pool that was off limits to them. The most successful way in which black communities challenged pool segregation was through legal challenges, as either a violation of state law or as a violation of the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause under the Constitution.

LYDEN: And Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice, becomes very important. He is, at that time, with the NAACP and he advises a lot of these ongoing lawsuits.

Mr. WILTSE: Yeah. Local black attorneys would seek out the advice of the national NAACP office. And in doing the research, I came across this wonderful, wonderful little note handwritten by Thurgood Marshall, and that there was a swimming pool desegregation case in St. Louis, which dealt with Fairgrounds Park Pool in particular. And a federal judge, a judge named Rubey Hulen in 1950 really began to articulate an argument that separate was not, in fact, equal by definition.

And when Thurgood Marshall read the - a debate that Rubey Hulen, the judge, had back and forth with the city prosecutor, he wrote: This is great. And recognized back in 1950 that the thinking of this judge would inevitably lead to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that he argued himself before the Supreme Court.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. After the pools were legally desegregated, did blacks and whites actually swim together? Maybe you could again use Fairgrounds Park in St. Louis as an example.

Mr. WILTSE: Unfortunately, what happened in the wake of desegregation is that white swimmers, by and large, abandoned pools that became accessible to black Americans. Prior to Fairgrounds Park Pool being desegregated in 1950, an average of 300,000 swims were taken in it each summer and all of these swims were by whites.

After Fairgrounds Park Pool was desegregated, the average attendance plummeted to under 20,000 swims per summer, and almost all of those swims were by black Americans. Fairgrounds Park Pool is a bit of an extreme example, but I found the same in cities across the northern United States in which whites generally abandon municipal pools that became accessible to black Americans.

LYDEN: Jeff Wiltse is the author of "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America." Thanks very much.

Mr. WILTSE: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: You can see historic photos of public pools at our Web site,

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