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

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  102 ratings  ·  24 reviews
From nineteenth-century public baths to today's private backyard havens, swimming pools have long been a provocative symbol of American life. In this social and cultural history of swimming pools in the United States, Jeff Wiltse relates how, over the years, pools have served as asylums for the urban poor, leisure resorts for the masses, and private clubs for middle-class ...more
Hardcover, 276 pages
Published April 23rd 2007 by University of North Carolina Press
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Jul 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Indispensable guide to understanding the social and cultural context of swimming pools in America, from the Progressive era bathhouses to the privatization of swimming and decline of municipal pools after desegregation in the 1950s. Wiltse traces the cultural valence of pools: from an effort to socialize immigrants and working class urban dwellers (early 20th century), to middle-class resorts of leisure and pleasure (the golden age of public pools in the 20s and 30s), to contested, racially ...more
Jul 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014-read

I just found this in the library and thought it sounded interesting, it was. The main takeaway point is that in the early days of swimming pools (1880ish) pools were segregated by gender and class and no one cared about race. But when pools started becoming less segregated by gender (mostly in the interwar period) the pools were then segregated by race. When (after much fighting) the pools were integrated, whites normally just stopped showing up to public pools, and retreated to private club
Bruce Grossman
Apr 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic! For example, shows the relationship between growth of women's liberties and how this exacerbated racial tensions-- but moreover a cultural tour de force, from Victorian American purposeful directed activities, to pleasure as a good in itself-- body culture-- the evolution of women's swimsuits-- the municipal pool as a site for voyeurism-- how swimming pools were originally public baths for the "unwashed" Irish, Slovaks, and other immigrants-- how municipal pools were formerly great ...more
Aug 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I will never swim laps and think about swimming in a pool in the same way again. So much history is illustrated in the existence and use of swimming pools during the time period covered by this book. It reinforced for me the importance of teaching ALL children and adults how to swim, for social development as well as for survival.
Jan 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
I dig a social history book on a narrow, contained topic such as swimming pools in the US. Wiltse's book was well researched and organized, explaining the uses and rise and decline of (mostly) public swimming pools from the late 1800s/early 1900s into the 2000s. Early pools were built for public health reasons in the slums of cities for the poor to bathe in. The golden age of public pools was from 1920 to 1940, when many cities had resort-style pools with sandy beaches and water slides, which ...more
Claire Poindexter
Mar 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic read - I feel like I now know SO much about the social history of swimming. Swimming pools were initially a public health endeavor to "clean the poor" and then they became a method of social control to give youth something to do rather than "raise trouble." A really interesting book on how our use and consumption of swimming has changed throughout time and how pools have increasingly become privatized to serve the upper class and individualistic needs. Really well-researched.
Mar 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book offers readers a really outstanding piece of social history. Wiltse uses swimming pools, municipal and private, to trace Americans' selective participation in and ultimate retreat from public life, and the racial and gender inequalities that pervade these choices. I've never been prouder to be a member of my own local municipal pool, which is indeed a vibrant bastion of imperiled democracy.
Jeremy Neely
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this fascinating, well crafted history of municipal pools in northern U. S. cities. Readers interested in the histories of recreation, Progressive reform, and the rise and fall of racial segregation will likely find much of interest here. This monograph has broad utility in a survey of recent US history.
Balloon Bruce
Nov 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: noblenet
A fascinating look at race relations through the lens of public swimming pools.
Julie Bosworth
May 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed many aspects of this book, especially that it brought to light the racial and gender struggles of the United States through a familiar and understandable topic...the swimming pool.
Jun 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Wiltse provides an enjoyable history on swimming and swimming pools in the United States from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. In doing so he traces changes in concerns about class and race in American society, as well as the places of leisure and health. Added to this is a description of how the physical environment of pools and their growing privatization evolved. In short, Wiltse is deftly examines frequently unused archival sources to demonstrate the significance of one space, the pool ...more
Deb Sodt
Sep 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
As a regular swimmer, I found this really interesting. He talks about how public swimming pools began and evolved over the 1900s in the U.S. Covers class, gender and race factors. Really made me reflect on how something I completely took for granted - having pools to swim in my whole life - weren't always available to everyone and weren't always as pleasant as what I remember growing up. The book is written by an historian and has a lot of documentation that you can skim quickly if you don't ...more
Feb 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: pool aficionadoes, social historians
I'd been debating to check this book out of the library, and while attending a recent re-opening of the Western Addition public library branch in San Francisco, I finally bothered to do just that. Of the 15 books I've finished so far this year, this one is my favorite. Wiltse shows what swimming pools illuminate about race/gender/class relations in the U.S., following how they began as racially-integrated but gender-segregated spaces to encourage hygiene and middle-class values amongst the ...more
Sep 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: historians
Recommended to Steve by: NYTBR
While this may sound like a "fun" subject, Wiltse treats it very seriously. This is a work of historical scholarship, heavily annotated. His research to find the information that this book is based upon is very impressive.

This is a cultural history of swimming pools. First called "bathing pools" since they were pretty much used for bathing the poor, who did not have indoor plumbing. He then shows how the use of pools was split by gender/class/generation/race through the years. Pools were
Dec 27, 2007 rated it really liked it
I wanted to like this book more than I did, but I gave it a good rating because it is very interesting, if overly academic. It's one of those books that reads like a college paper: each chapter begins with a concise summary of what will follow, broken down into thesis statements, followed by evidence, and conclusions. So essentially, you can get away with reading just the first and last paragraphs of each section, which is what I ended up doing when I couldn't stand the repetition in between. ...more
Aug 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
I thought of this book when I saw (but didn't read) an article about racism and swimming during the Olympics. Since I am adding this to my GoodReads bookshelf seven years after reading it, I can't really review it other than to say it is very worthwhile for learning about impacts of racism and class-ism.
Oct 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Very impressive research of the history of the swimming pool in the US. It really expanded my views of how pivotal the swimming pool was in relation to gender and race relations, class division, immigration and urban (and later suburban) life from the late 1880's until present.
Kevin Fodness
Sep 28, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A really excellent history of public swimming pools in the United States, and the overall degradation of public space. Describes the decline in the context of Putnam's concept of declining social capital.
Jun 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
Very academic, reads like a dissertation, and the first few chapters are a bit repetitive, but so fascinating. Especially the chapters on racial segregation which occurred because of the relaxing of gender segregation. Men controlling women's bodies!
Reggie Franklin
Jul 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well written yet sad history

It provides much insight into the history of pools, but this is a sad history that shows just how little progress has been made as a society.
Sep 25, 2007 rated it liked it
An interesting look at swimming pools and how they have marked the racial climate of America.
Michelle Ireland
Oct 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Very interesting topic. The author's style of writing is very academic so it makes for a slow read at some points. I enjoyed the book and appreciated the detail and the flow of the story.
Feb 03, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: not-gonna-do-it
So far this book has been very repetitive. It feels like someone was going for page count instead of fluidity of content. Hard to finish but will get through it one of these days.
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Mar 29, 2017
Ryan Murtha
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Apr 02, 2017
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Dec 05, 2017
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Jan 06, 2016
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Oct 24, 2019
Marianne Kirby
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Jul 28, 2015
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Jul 03, 2015
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“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. Desegregation was a primary cause of the proliferation of private swimming pools that occurred after the mid-1950s. By the 1970s and 1980s, tens of millions of mostly white middle-class Americans swam in their backyards or at suburban club pools, while mostly African and Latino Americans swam at inner-city municipal pools. America’s history of socially segregated swimming pools” 1 likes
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