The Swimming Pool: It’s Complicated
I never intended to opine about swimming pools, much less devote two entire columns—a month’s worth of writing—to them! While I have been intrigued by stories of old school Hollywood director George Cukor and his private Sunday afternoon all-male pool parties, the “cement pond” has never been a topic to pique my literary curiosity. Until now.
The swimming pool seems to be this summer’s hot button issue, and not just here in Rehoboth Beach where the City Commission is considering a ban on swimming pools because they can be noisy. The recent pool party melee in Texas is bringing up all kinds of racial questions. Some California municipalities are looking to prevent people from filling up their pools and to put moratoriums on building new pools because of the record-breaking drought. It’s causing Californians to re-think their blue pool and green lawn lifestyle.
I never would have thought a simple hole in the ground filled with water could cause such consternation. Shows how naïve I am. Swimming pools have a complicated legacy, according to academic Jeff Wiltsie, the author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.
The first swimming pools in this country were built in the slum neighborhoods of Boston and Philadelphia in the 1880s to provide ways for poor and working class immigrants to take a bath. It was hoped this would help counteract rising rates of disease, crime, and pauperism. The middle and upper classes, naturally, wanted nothing to do with the déclassé swimming pool.
By the turn of the 20th century, however, opinions began to change. The swimming pool became more of a fitness institution than a bath, playing into the “muscular Christianity” sports movement sweeping the country. Swimming was viewed as a way to counteract the effects of sedentary jobs and a comfortable lifestyle that were feminizing American men. Wealthy industrialists also began building their own residential swimming pools, status symbols that embodied the vigorous sporting life glorified by Teddy Roosevelt. George Vanderbilt is said to have commissioned the first indoor residential pool at his Biltmore Estate in 1895.
Social reformers in the early 20th century pushed things a little further. To them the pool was a public investment in health, character, and citizenship. Why not build pools outdoors in nice public locations? Could pools, they wondered, quell urban social problems?
The elite in most cities opposed this notion, claiming it would turn municipal parks into Coney-Island type amusement centers. They also were adamantly against the idea of a city funding leisure for the poor. This sentiment was especially strong in New York and rose up in opposition to a proposal to build a public pool in Central Park.
That pool in Central Park was never built, but in most cities the progressives did win the day. In 1913, the City of St. Louis opened the largest outdoor pool in the world. Fairgrounds Park Pool was promoted as a leisure resort. City officials called it a valuable civic asset.
Fairgrounds Park Pool helped launch the “Great Swimming Pool Age” of the 1920s and 1930s where thousands of cities and towns opened swimming pools, many funded as part of the government’s New Deal program. These pools were huge, with sandy beaches, lush lawns, and concrete decks. San Francisco opened a pool that could accommodate ten thousand swimmers at one time.
The swimming pool was now unabashedly focused on recreation. Bathing suits were skimpier. Lounging, sunbathing, and socializing became quintessential pool activities, as did exhibitionism and voyeurism. They attracted millions of people. A new pool construction industry even sprang up. So too did racial segregation, driven by black migration from the South, race-based sanitation scares, and growing fears about black men and white women swimming together.
Private pools changed too during the 1920s. The mega rich on Long Island, Florida, and in southern California began building ornate outdoor swimming pools to embellish their estates and enliven their parties. Pools represented new values focused on pleasure, leisure, and physical beauty. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured it all brilliantly in his novel The Great Gatsby.
The Depression and World War II slowed down the pool boom, but it came back strong in the 1950s and 1960s with economic prosperity, mass suburbanization, and less expensive pool construction techniques. Suburban communities began building private pool clubs and country clubs instead of public pools, a response to the desegregation movement. Residential pools became even more popular and one of the highest symbols of upward mobility and wealth.
The love affair with the swimming pool has continued, driven more recently by the population boom of the Sunbelt region and the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation. I think it’s fair to say the swimming pool is viewed by most people as an American staple like apple pie and baseball, a symbol of the good life. Yet to a growing number of people it’s a symbol of what’s wrong with this country: materialism and wastefulness.
Here in Rehoboth, the swimming pool issue seems to be one of property rights versus quality of life rights. If you feel your home is your castle then you believe it’s your right to put in a pool. If you’re more concerned with quality of life issues then you believe it’s your right not be disturbed by a neighbor’s pool.
How you reconcile these competing philosophies I don’t know. What I do know is that the swimming pool, as in the past, has become the poster child for a broader