Understanding the impetus for a pool’s creation and what’s taken place in its waters makes pool tourism that much more enjoyable and meaningful. Thus, I was glad to finally read Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2007; hardcover, 276 pages) around the time that I started this project.
Wiltse explains, in a nutshell, how public pools–or at least those in the Northeast–came into being for health and hygiene reasons and later served a recreational purpose. Early twentieth-century pools were often segregated by gender, and in fact New York’s Orthodox neighborhoods still have pools with gender-specific hours, but that is no longer common. Once men and women started sharing pool time, racial segregation crept in, largely due to prejudices and fears about white women consorting with black men. When courts and social norms turned against segregation–a recent enough development that some of my teammates remember it–private clubs and backyard pools popped up to serve those seeking to limit who else was in the water with them. It’s an uncomfortable story, and pools are just one of many spaces where these issues played out.
Although his writing is a bit dry (no pun intended) and sometimes repetitive, Wiltse documents his contentions thoroughly. Even if you don’t read the book, it’s worth checking out the images, many of them beautiful black-and-white photos from the heyday of public pools in the 1920s-1940s, especially here in New York. (The cover image is an adaptation of a 1940 WPA Art Project poster for Learn to Swim classes in New York; notice how it neatly separates whites and blacks.)
Unfortunately, aquatic sports and the use of pools for competition are not addressed in this story, although the issues Wiltse covers factor in to the lack of racial diversity that is still the norm on many swim teams, including my own. I was surprised that the Esther Williams/Billy Rose Aquacade phenomenon was not mentioned either.
Today, pools like Riverbank have a wonderful mix of clientele peaceably sharing the waters. I believe that we are entering a new heyday of public pools as more people recognize the lifetime benefits of swimming and the community-building effects of pools.