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Contested Waters

A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

Jeff Wiltse

Publication Year: 2007

From nineteenth-century public baths to today's private backyard havens, swimming pools have 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 the tensions and transformations that have given rise to modern America.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

I never would have begun this book had it not been for Jacqueline Jones, my adviser at Brandeis University. I still remember sitting in her office, timidly describing an idea to research the history of swimming pools that I had literally dreamed up over a Thanksgiving weekend in Hershey, Pennsylvania...

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Introduction: "Just Don't Touch the Water"

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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...

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1. A "Peculiar Kind" of Bath: The Origin of Municipal Pools in America

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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...

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2. "A Means of Physical Culture": The Redefinition of Municipal Pools during the 1890s

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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...

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3. "A Good Investment in Health, Character, and Citizenship": Municipal Swimming Pools in the Progressive Era

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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...

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Interlude: The Traumatic Early History of Fairgrounds Park Pool

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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...

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4. The "Swimming Pool Age": 1920 to 1940

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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...

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5. "One for the White Race and the Other for the Colored Race": The Onset of Racial Discrimination, 1920 to 1940

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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...

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6. "More Sensitive Than Schools": The Struggle to Desegregate Municipal Swimming Pools

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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...

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7. "Alone in the Backyard": Swimming Pools in Recent America

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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...

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Conclusion: The Promise and Reality of Swimming Pools as Public Spaces

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pp. 207-213

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...


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pp. 215-253


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pp. 255-266


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pp. 267-276

E-ISBN-13: 9781469604664
E-ISBN-10: 1469604663
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807831007
Print-ISBN-10: 080783100X

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2007