Swimming Class

To clean the unwashed masses, American social reformers built public pools. You will believe what happened next.

“No TANF cash assistance,” the Kansas HOPE Act of 2015 stipulates, “shall be used in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility or sexually oriented business.” Kansas passed this law a few months ago as part of a grotesque game of one-upsmanship that currently has state legislatures competing with each other to inflict suffering on welfare recipients in the most novel and headline-grabbing ways: If Missouri proposes a ban on spending EBT on steak or seafood, Wisconsin ups the ante by adding sharp cheddar cheese, white rice, and all herbs and seasonings to its own list of restricted foods.

While the Kansas law also includes less attention-drawing but far more devastating provisions like a lifetime cap of 36 months of Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) benefits and a three-month limit to benefits for those the state deems able-bodied workers, news coverage of it has focused on the list of prohibitions of fun. Many observers have singled out the swimming pool as such an indisputably wholesome form of amusement that its inclusion on this list makes the malicious spirit of the law especially obvious. There’s no denying the intense hatred of the poor that emanates from the list, but the fact that it includes swimming pools is in many senses nothing new. The claim that the poor should not have fun has been asserted—and contested—at the American swimming pool for centuries.

The first municipal pools in the United States were mid-19th-century public baths in working-class neighborhoods. The public discourse of the time commonly referred to the urban poor and working classes as “the great unwashed,” distinguishing them as a teeming mass of deviance from respectable standards of cleanliness. Public baths were intended to wash the great unwashed. One of the first of these, the Cabot Street Bath, opened in the Roxbury district of Boston in 1868. It was an austere building housing two small rectangular pools—one for women and girls, the other for boys and men. City officials envisioned that the slum-dwellers who bathed at Cabot Street would acquire middle-class habits and would cease to cause the outbreaks of cholera that were habitually blamed on them. Mid-19th-century public health was based on the erroneous zymotic theory of contagion, which held that diseases were spread by foul odors or “miasmas” that emanated from the unwashed bodies and clothing of the urban poor.

The bathers at Cabot Street did not wash themselves the way that city officials wanted them to. They splashed and roughhoused in the water. They behaved like human beings at play, not like vectors of disease being soberly scrubbed of their miasmas. The bath had been intended for working adults, but most of the people who frequented it were children. Since at least the 18th century, working-class American men and boys had swum for pleasure in lakes and rivers—often naked, at the edges of cities and outside the bounds of public decency. This raucous swimming culture was tolerated in natural waters, but city officials wanted none of it in the new artificial waters. They made rules against all manner of noisy and disorderly behavior at Cabot Street Bath, and posted police officers to enforce the rules. But bathers, especially children, continued to play there, and so—only eight years after it opened, and despite its popularity—the city council closed it down in 1876. Cleaning the great unwashed for the benefit of others was an appropriate use of public money; amusement for the poor was not.

Over the next few decades, as the zymotic theory of contagion was debunked and a culture of moral self-improvement through physical exercise emerged, public pools were recast from disease prevention measures to places where the working classes could better themselves by swimming in an orderly way. The first public outdoor pool in America opened at Twelfth and Wharton Streets in Philadelphia in 1884. It erupted into a small riot within a few days. When the pool opened, neighborhood boys waited in long lines in the summer heat to get in. They became unruly as they waited, shoving each other and arguing. On the third night, a supervisor told the gathered crowd that they would not be allowed in because the pool was already filled with as many boys as it could handle without succumbing to chaos.

Blocked from entering, the boys tore the bolted pool door from its hinges, knocked down the fence, and stormed the pool. Four police officers had been stationed there in anticipation of wild behavior. The angry crowd threw them into the water, where they were “tossed about like little bits of driftwood in rough water,” according to a Philadelphia newspaper. Police reinforcements soon arrived and restored order by beating the protesters with clubs. The same newspaper lamented that “the good (the pool) has accomplished among the unwashed down-town youths has been more than counterbalanced by the harm a certain gang of roughs has seen fit in their ignorant and brutal nature to inflict.” After the riot, city commissioners threatened to close the pool for good if the disorderly conduct continued.

As historian Jeff Wiltse shows in his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, this threat by the Philadelphia city commissioners epitomized the early history of public swimming pools. Cities designed them as spaces of moral instruction through exercise and cleanliness; working-class swimmers defiantly used them as places of amusement; pool authorities responded by removing the “unwashed youths” from the water, either by closing the pools or by introducing entrance fees they couldn’t afford. These fees were then periodically abolished, and working-class swimmers welcomed back into the water, whenever social reformers advised that the vigorous exercise of swimming expended energy that might otherwise be devoted to crime or labor radicalism.

These battles to define the public space of the swimming pool took place in an era when the middle- and upper-classes avidly embraced physical exercise. As in today’s culture of wellness as conspicuous consumption, exercise was loaded with class connotations, and functioned as a barometer of moral virtue. The broader American context bore striking parallels to the present. In the final decades of the 19th century, massive tax cuts, speculative finance and corporate consolidation fueled record levels of wealth and income inequality. Individual debt skyrocketed and prison populations exploded. The public increasingly regarded the political parties as indistinguishable from each other and both beholden to the same corporate interests.

Between about 1870 and 1900, American cities’ “poor relief” systems, which were meager and piecemeal to start with, were gutted by reformers. They rolled back aid as they pushed a narrative that the poor were poor because of their moral failings and not because of any inequity in the system of industrial capitalism. Relief, these reformers claimed, did not reduce poverty but rather perpetuated it by causing “idleness;” the needs of the poor were moral and not material. Working-class swimmers splashing wildly in a publicly funded pool were an affront to this agenda, because a body at play in the water is “idle” and unashamed; it is not toiling to elevate itself, and it does not appear to be suffering.

The contemporary phrase “compassionate conservative” revives late-19th-century reformers’ notion that inflicting suffering on the poor is an act of compassion because physical suffering is morally salutary. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback frequently describes himself as a “compassionate conservative.” Far from admitting to any hatred of the poor, he professes a special and fervent love for them, which he framed in creepy theological terms in a 2007 interview in which he claimed that through his punitive welfare policies, “the poor will save our souls.” By imposing greater material deprivation on the poor, he is not only redeeming them morally, but redeeming all of us. The more forms of pleasure Kansas can think to remove from the lives of welfare recipients, the greater our collective salvation.

In the early decades of the American swimming pool, a battle raged between social reformers’ moral agenda and a longstanding working-class culture of swimming for pleasure—a battle that the working-class swimmers ultimately won. By the early 20th century, they had succeeded in redefining swimming pools as spaces of amusement. As the class-focused Gilded Age discourse of punitive morality receded, the contestation of the swimming pool shifted to different categories. The design of public pools began to reflect their stated purpose of fun: they became much larger, and the earlier austere rectangles gave way to rounded shapes. They had sandy beaches and slides and zero-depth entry. With this emphasis on fun, pools became gender integrated around 1920—and, at precisely the same moment, racially segregated.

These mixed-gender, mixed-class, racially segregated pools remained wildly popular public amusements until the orders to desegregate them began in the 1950s—whereupon white people fled. In a 1954 hearing about desegregating Baltimore’s public pools, the judge proclaimed pools “more sensitive than schools.” As soon as municipal pools were integrated, banks reclassified private residential pools as home improvements and began issuing loans for their construction, making the backyard pool, which had previously been a rare luxury for the truly rich, accessible to middle-class suburbanites. A rapid series of technological innovations in residential pool design in the years following the desegregation of public pools made backyard pools even more affordable, and almost a million of them were built in the 1960s.

The brief final burst of American municipal pool-building came in the late 1960s, when federal anti-poverty grants were used to build pools for “disadvantaged youth” in black neighborhoods in 40 Americans cities. According to the Chicago News, the pools were intended to “cool hot tempers” and “head off racial trouble.” Like the baths built for the great unwashed a century earlier, these pools were small, angular, and so austere that they did not even have dressing rooms. A far cry from the (also federally funded) vast and resort-like WPA pools of the 1930s, most of them were called “mini-pools.” Concrete perimeters and chain-link fences encircled them. The fun-shaped pools were private now, and were hidden away in white people’s backyards in the suburbs.

The visual and physical intimacy of swimming makes the pool a fraught space. Public pools never displayed the temporary suspension of boundaries that marked early-20th-century commercial amusements like Coney Island. Bodies are exposed in the water. They are all touching each other in the shared liquid in which they are suspended—more keenly so in the artificial water of the pool than in a lake or river. The surface of the water acts as a screen obscuring what is going on below; surveillance is difficult.

Who is being kept out of the water, and what those in the water are being kept from doing, has shifted over time, but some boundary is always being vigorously policed at the pool. The history of the swimming pool is an index of how and where America has prioritized different kinds of exclusion and separation in different eras. Today, as the Kansas TANF restrictions reflect, the discourse of poverty as a moral failure that must be punished has returned with a vengeance. At the pool, a line is being drawn is between the poor and all enjoyment of life, just as it was 150 years ago.