Social Life of Swimming Pools

Anyone whose flown over the US has seen the sight: rows of houses each with their own little swimming pool in the back. I was particularly struck by this after I returned from a trip to Iceland which has an amazing system of public pools and hot springs. I’ve heard Germany’s system is also very good. At the time I chalked it up to American individualism and suspicion of anything “communal,” (hence potentially communist), but what I didn’t know at the time was the role played by racism. I discovered this connection via an NPR story about the book Contested Waters, a social history of community swimming pools in several northern cities in the US.

At its heart, this book answers that question. It explains how and why municipal swimming pools in the northern United States were transformed from austere public baths—where blacks, immigrants, and native-born white laborers swam together, but men and women, rich and poor, and young and old did not—to leisure resorts, where practically everyone in the community except black Americans swam together.

But the story does not end there. A second social transformation occurred at municipal swimming pools after midcentury. Black Americans challenged segregation by repeatedly seeking admission to whites-only pools and by filing lawsuits against their cities. Eventually, these social and legal protests desegregated municipal pools throughout the North, but desegregation rarely led to meaningful interracial swimming. When black Americans gained equal access to municipal pools, white swimmers generally abandoned them for private pools.

Slightly related: even though Taiwan is an island with numerous rivers and streams and even public swimming pools, many people can’t swim. Each year many drown as a result. I know many girls don’t like to swim because they don’t like to spend too much time in the sun, which could “ruin” the pale white complexions they work so hard to maintain, and if the girls aren’t swimming I suppose the boys are much less interested as well… (Many of my female students also equate getting muscles from exercise with getting “fat.”) So I was glad to hear that my university instituted a policy requiring all students to pass a swimming test in order to graduate.