“Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America”


I was excited to find this book (written by Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana; published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2007) at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

I was even more excited that the Introduction begins:

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 to Kearns, attracted only “the lower classes or street gamins.” City officials had built the austere pools during the 1880s and 1890s — before the germ theory of disease transmission was popularly accepted — and intended them to provide baths for working-class men and women, who used them on alternating days.The facilities lacked showers, because the pools themselves were the instruments of cleaning. Armed with the relatively new knowledge of the microbe, Kearns was disturbed to see unclean boys plunging into the water: “I must say that some of the street gamins, both white and colored, that I saw, were quite as dirty as it is possible for one to conceive.” While the unclean boys shocked Kearns, blacks and whites swimming together elicited no surprise. He commented extensively on the shared class status of the “street gamins” and their dirtiness but mentioned their racial diversity only in passing. Nor did racial differences seem to matter much to the swimmers, at least not in this social context. The pools were wildly popular. Each one recorded an average of 144,000 swims per summer, or about 1,500 swimmers per day.

In the first chapter, Wiltse mentions that one of the first municipal pools in the U.S. was Philadelphia’s “swimming bath,” which opened in June 1884 at 12th and Wharton Streets. I live about fifty feet from that intersection (where, sadly, there is no longer a pool). I cannot wait to read more.

3 thoughts on ““Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America”

  1. Pingback: No Horseplay! The Fight to Save Philly Pools – The Philadelphia Partisan

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