A Social History Of An Unusual Aspect Of America

Rob Hardy, Amazon, May 29, 2007

A review of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, by Jeff Wiltse (University of North Carolina Press : 2007).


Jeff Wiltse has written a history of the social tensions pools have caused (and sometimes eased) in “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America” (University of North Carolina Press).


He amassed a huge amount of data from newspapers and civic documents about who was using the pools, with statistics often kept by race and sex. Wiltse has shown beyond doubt that pools have reflected and generated our feelings on sexual and racial matters, and although his book is a serious academic history, it is by turns amusing and sad as America came to an incomplete understanding of how we ought to treat pools and the swimmers who use them.


The huge pools were viewed as resorts, places where a family might come on vacation, and they had sand around them for artificial beaches. Pools had been segregated by gender, but these were not; because of fretting over what might happen if white women saw athletic black bodies, or if blacks started appreciating the displayed bodies of white women, racial segregation of pools began. There was violence in many cities when black people tried to use the pool. The way one city after another attempted to exclude black people in different ways makes for uncomfortable reading.

Desegregation eventually happened, but the victory turned out to be Pyrrhic. As blacks were admitted, white swimmers stopped going to the public pools, and so it became easier for cities to reduce maintenance on the pools, which fell into disrepair and were closed. Cities had financial crises in the 1970s, further reducing pool budgets, and have never started up another building surge. White swimmers went to private pools or home pools, and Americans aren’t putting a high value on public recreation as much as they used to. Suburban communities are building water theme parks, which are busy places for kids, but do not foster the socialization that families used to find around a public pool. It may not have worked out to be the best outcome for either blacks or whites, but that’s the way history works out sometimes.


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