Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America
By Jeff Wiltse
University of North Carolina Press, 275 pp.

The swimming you’re enjoying this summer is probably in a backyard pool, at a private club or at an ocean resort. Long ago, though, you’d almost surely have been at a public pool. Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters recounts the slow draining, literal and figurative, of a once-thriving social space and an important navigational site for race, class and especially sex in America.

The first public pools appeared shortly after the Civil War. They were intended for the unwashed masses, literally. During the Industrial Revolution, big cities took on thousands of immigrant laborers who often lived in tenements without adequate (or any) plumbing. Early city pools functioned as a social service: giant bathtubs for a multicultural male proletariat. The few women who swamit was discouraged in the Victorian agedid so separately from men.

But it didn’t wash. Boys, not men, took over many pools, turning them into play areas. Many municipal governments saw this appropriation as an opportunity: Pools could keep gamins off the street and give them something salutary to do with their time. Also, they might stay out of urban rivers, which were increasingly dangerous and toxic. During the Progressive Era, which emphasized moral reform and civic health, pools were reconceived as places to build male physical and moral fitness through “directed play.”

The sea change came in the Roaring Twenties after women’s suffrage. Both genders swam together for the first time (“to promote family and community sociability,” according to Wiltse), and municipal pools transformed into resorts. In yet another social reconstruction, artificial sand beaches, tiered decks and concession stands surrounded lavish, curvy, chlorinated pools bigger than football fields. Throngs of people came for summer sun and fun, bringing with them the loosening mores of the Jazz Age: skimpier bathing suits, poolside beauty contests, flirting and ogling. And there was more leisure time as the American work week shortened for a growing affluent class.

During the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs included constructing countless new pools, Wiltse writes, “to provide leisure and recreation for millions of Americans who desperately needed relief from the heat and hard times.” But as in any national economic crisis, Wiltse notes, xenophobia emerged, and soon Jim Crow came to the waters: “The lines of social division shifted from class and gender to race.”

You’ll be depressed by the rest of Contested Waters, which diligently tracks the grim decades of segregation, violence and Civil Rights-era litigation that led to the end of public pool life as we once knew it. Rather than integrate, many cities closed their pools. White flight triggered a suburban boom in private swimming clubs and exclusive backyard pools. Public pools tried but never completely refilled. New York City sought to appease its mutinous poor in the 1960s, but as Wiltse writes, in an effort to prevent mob violence and “cool down angry and frustrated urban blacks,” it built tiny pools with scant recreational space deep in the slums, effectively quarantining kids. (This strategy was probably just as racist as segregation.) Most of these pools became havens for drugs and crime, and fell into dereliction.

Wiltse hopes that “our children will be more successful at realizing swimming pools’ full promise as public spaces.” But there’s little reason to think this will happen soon. Our Age of Technology is also an Age of Isolation. American social life is now largely, and paradoxically, conducted in private. Television and now the Internet have enabled us to live virtually rather than physically, severing our bodies from our minds and spirits. Instead of plunging into the community pool, we stare at the screen, where we achieve the ultimate segregation: We see in that glassy surface, like Narcissus, only ourselves.