A Brief History of Municipal Swimming Pools
Municipal swimming pools have evolved for more than 150 years from little more than public baths for the urban poor to the well-designed and scientifically operated facilities we know today. Author Jeff Wiltse documents the evolution of the public swimming pool in America in his 2007 book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Wiltse focuses on how US swimming pool history reflects changing social dynamics in America, including the erosion of Victorian culture, the emergence of popular recreation, and the racial integration of public spaces. It is a fascinating and insightful read, not only from the sociological standpoint, but also from the perspective of advancements in swimming pool technology.
Boston Pioneers with “River Baths”
Because cholera was thought to be associated with poor human hygiene in 1862, in the summer of that year the city of Boston opened six “river baths” in hope of preventing cholera outbreaks. The baths were enclosed structures housing large wooden tank-like pools submerged into the Charles River. River water circulated naturally between wooden boards spaced inches apart. Wiltse reports these popular baths attracted children and adults alike.
Six years later in 1868, Boston opened the first real municipal pool facility in the United States on Cabot Street in Roxbury. The facility featured two 20’ X 24’ pools, one for males and one for females. The goal was cleanliness for working men. “Bathers plunged their dirty bodies into the water and rubbed their skin clean,” says Wiltse, but, instead of serving mainly working men, children accounted for nearly 97 percent of the baths. Additionally, with water disinfectants not yet a reality, pool water had to be refreshed frequently by emptying and refilling, a significant cost that probably contributed to the facility closing after just eight years.
Municipal Pools Come of Age
Fast-forward to the 1920’s when Americans began to earn more and work less. The average work week had declined from 55 hours per week in 1910 to 48 in 1920. Suddenly Americans had more time for leisure activities, including swimming. According to Wiltse, pool construction accelerated and pool equipment businesses grew up. Swimming pool chlorination began, and public officials and newspapers aggressively publicized pool sanitation measures to alleviate long-standing fears of waterborne illnesses.
The swimming pool boom lasted until 1929 and the start of the Great Depression. It was reinvigorated in late 1933 when the US government initiated large civil works projects to put Americans back to work. Wiltse states that between 1933 and 1938, the federal government built almost 750 “New Deal” swimming pools and remodeled hundreds more. At that time pools were large—some larger than football fields— some featuring sandy beaches and pool decks where sun-bathing became a favorite American past-time.
The Decline of Municipal Pools
Racial integration and the booming post-war economy are reasons Wiltse gives for another major step in American swimming pool evolution: the proliferation of private swim clubs and backyard pools. Wiltse laments the decline of the American municipal pool.
Although municipal pools may not be as commonplace as they once were, the swimming pool, whether public or private, indoor or outdoor, remains a treasured venue for exercise, recreation and relief. The technology that has evolved to operate safe, healthful swimming pools is also used today to reliably maintain water parks, spas and hydrotherapy pools, all of which enrich our lives and health.
Fred Reiff, P.E., is retired from the Pan American Health Organization, and lives in the Reno, Nevada area.