The Origins of Nude Swimming at the Y & Public Schools by Jumper-Swim

I'm 61 years old. Grew up in in very rural areas in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, in areas near Lake Michigan. Lots of great memories. Starting at age 9, we lived in a rural area adjacent to a forest preserve but mostly farm land. The only other children in the area, three miles by gravel road from our home, were two boys. One was my age and his older brother was a couple years older. The deal was that if I wanted to hang out there when they had to do chores, I had to help. No problem. We kids liked being together and the work was bearable.

In the summer, starting when I was 9, about 3 or 4 PM, depending on the heat, we'd clean and put up our tools, head for the back pond, undress and bathe using soap kept in a perforated trough nailed to a tree. For the next few years, their mother, sometimes with mine, would come back to make sure we'd washed with soap instead of just playing. Then they'd sit on the bench by the dock and talk or read while we dove into the deep water. I helped on five farms through my teenage years. On each, boys and men
skinny dipping to bathe was standard.

The idea of males bathing in open water being socially standard is further substantiated by soap ads of the early 1900s, which advertised that their soap worked fine in the tub as well as in the river. Also, especially after the U.S. Civil War, river towns began passing regulations to fine males for bathing in front of the town. Up or down stream was fine. They were trying to become upscale.

The 1911 Modern Sanitation magazines carried articles describing how all the major rivers were polluted but men and boys still bathed in them. Yes, bath houses existed but they cost money.

Well, that should answer where skinny dipping came from. Research the old, widely circulated magazines, (as far back as 1873 with Harper's Weekly) and you'll find summer time usually featured men and boys skinny dipping. Likewise, skinny dipping was an icon used by food products, (Cream of Wheat, Gold's Bread, etc.) to signify vigorous good health. That was hugely important because there were no curative medicines and, a man and his family's success in life, was usually strongly influenced by his longevity and vigorous good health. Skinny dipping men and boys was also often used to signify the carefree good moments of summer. This was found in art and photographs inside and on the covers of widely circulated magazines such as Life, Saturday Evening Post, Look, Colliers, Farm Journal, and others. This continued into the 1970s.

Now let's turn to indoor pools. Swimming pools were introduced in the U.S. by the YMCA in the 1880s. In the following 25 years, those pools became major sources of sustainable revenue. Boys drowning was the second leading cause of death, before age 16, after disease. The Y offered both organized lessons and teaching the fastest stroke possible, verified by the Olympics, the crawl stroke. In that pre-TV era, being the fastest was a big part of social entertainment.

However, in 1906 Edwin Foster, a Northwestern medical school graduate working at a YMCA, (a typical situation), tested the water and discovered it was contaminated. This was a major threat to the business income because cholera and typhoid were transmitted through water. These diseases were still causing widespread, fatal epidemics that closed down cities.

In 1906, the standard YMCA pool procedure was to drain the pool and refill it once a week. (This actually continued into the 1920s. In one case, in Spartanburg, SC, the 45,000 gallon pool was emptied and refilled twice a week into the 1920s.) In most cases, the men and boys swam naked just as they had in rivers and farm ponds.

The YMCA National Council recommended the use of sand filters, which were known to be effective. What's available in the literature shows that by 1910 the first pool recirculating pump was installed and by 1913, chlorine chemicals were being added to the water. (The Federal government was just beginning to require chlorination of public water.)

In 1926, the
American Public Health Association published the first guidelines for swimming pool management. These guidelines were updated every one to three years, as needed. Those guidelines recommended that males swimming separate, take a soap shower and swim nude. Unadorned, undyed tank suits were recommended for females. (Keep in mind that women seldom swam in pools since female athleticism was disdained. Even in the 1930s doctors were writing books claiming that athletic women gave birth to ugly babies.)

APHA pool management guidelines were not written about nude swimming but about keeping pools sanitary and that meant keeping the water disinfected. Consequently, male nude swimming was recommended in every edition until 1962. When one studies the APHA guidelines and those issued by other states, such as by the State of Illinois in 1948, (where they flatly state that sanitation is best preserved if people are separated by gender and swim nude. That came from fourteen of the best swim coaches, sports physicians, sports professors and water sanitation specialists the State could put on a board.)

Chlorine was difficult to use effectively because pH had to be managed in addition to having enough chlorine to kill bacteria. It was not until 1939, what was called the break point in water chlorination was discovered. It was then possible to make chemical tests that pool managers could use. However, WW II intervened and the equipment to do automatic chlorination was not available until the late 1940s.

A few months after the U.S. entered WW II, the L-85 Regulation was implemented. This mandated the minimum use of cloth for clothing since it was needed for munitions. It also stopped the sale of home sewing machines. During that time, it became patriotic for men and boys to swim nude. A review of camp archives shows that nude swimming at camp became virtually universal during WW II. However, the hygiene and convenience was recognized and nude swimming at camps continued into the 1960s, beginning to fade in the mid-1950s.

In 1948 and 1956, the Boys Club Operations manual required and then recommended, respectively, boys swim nude. The YMCA and Boys Club Operatons manual both stated it was incumbent upon the boards of directors to abide by the state and American Public Health Association guidelines.

The public school boards responsible for schools with pools also had to abide by the state public health and
APHA pool management guidelines. That's why we swam nude in school pools.

By the way, yes, pool filters are clogged with fibers, even today. For example, put a load of shirts in a clothes dryer after cleaning the lint filter. After they are dry, check how much lint you'll find in the lint filter. It wasn't until the late 60s or early 70s that nylon suits became widely available. However, the fibers clogging the pool filter was only part of the story. What the Public Health officials wanted to avoid was telling all swimmers that their swim suits were probably contaminated from polluted water from their last swim at the beach or outdoor bathing place. As corroboration, recall that they used to have laundry tubs of chemicals you were to drag your suit though and then rinse, when you swam at a co-ed city pool.

The 1948 State of Illinois Public Health Association pool management guidelines states specifically that to preserve female modesty, they could wear unadorned, undyed tank suits, after they took a nude soap shower. That's why females wre suits.

Now as for YMCAs and nude swimming. If one researches this Nation's newspapers, one will find that when YMCAs ran ads for learn-to-swim, it was stated in both the display ad and in the reporter's commentary that boys swam nude and only needed to bring a towel. In a few cases, the boys were photographed swimming nude and the photographs published in the town newspaper. It was a socially expected practice since they were men and boys and had nothing to be ashamed of. (And, I recall hearing that as a child.)

My best estimate is that there were about 5,500 pools, (school, YMCA and Boys Club.) Each had a board of directors with about 12 members, typically men. That's 66,000 men per year, across the nation, sitting on the boards. However, this was spread across a roughly 70 year period. Assume the men served for about 5 years each. That leads to 14 groups of about 40,000 (to allow for earlier years) men. Calculating 14 times 40.000 is 560,000 men who supervised millions of men and boys swimming nude. Hope this makes it obvious this was a widely accepted, expected social norm for male swimming when it was only males.

By 1962, most Americans lived in suburbs and most boys, (who did most of the swimming), did not swim in polluted outdoor water but swam in city pools. Automatic chlorination was controllable to adjust for the contamination in pools. Medicine had conquered Polio and the medical profession was confident curative medicines could stop outbreaks of any disease that might be transmitted by pool water. Also, in 1962, there was no public hue and cry to end male nude swimming and there was no feminist pressure.

In 1962, the American Public Health Association dropped the nude swimming recommendation because it was no longer needed to preserve public health. This insight is important because it underscores why male nude swimming was recommended and required for more than 50 years. As any of us who have dealt with boys and wet towels and suits, its obvious why the Y and schools continued nude swimming into the 70s, and in a few schools, into the 80s.

My father left in my early middle school years. My best friend's father took that role in my life from then until after I graduated from high school. However, it was my YMCA assistant swim instructor who, after swim lessons, taught me how to study in the YMCA homework room. My Y, camps and high school swim coaches taught me to believe in myself and to never give up in tough situations and to control my fears. Much of my success in life goes back to those critical learning experiences.

I've done this research first because I was wondering why it stopped but also because I really resent all these people with no knowledge of the era claiming nude swimming was creepy or our instructors were pedophiles. The record shows a few were but the vast majority of the thousands who worked with us, and certainly all of mine, were good decent men trying to help develop a bunch of typically unruly, know-it-all boys.

As for boys objecting. Over all the years I swam nude, I only ever saw two. I think both objected because they were overweight. No one forced either to swim nude or even teased them. When I was eleven and joined the Scouts, our troop had monthly swims. When I was twelve, these were changed to weekly swims (Thursday nights ... I remember!) Our troop had agreements with at least four school pools. It only cost us 50 cents to swim for two hours. The reason for the low cost was because we agreed to share the pool with up to three other groups. However, often we were the only group at the pool. Our fathers drove in a car-pool arrangement. When we piled out of the cars, ran down the hallway and into lockerroom, the first question we began asking our adults was if we were the only ones using the pool. If we were, we were allowed to swim naked which most of us were looking forward to. I only recall a few of the older teenagers wearing a suit.

A couple of references were made to some on-line audio recollections about school nude swimming. Brother. First, take a look at the guy who makes the cartoon. He shows himself at age 14 wearing a zoot suit. Do you think his mother or father made him buy that? Neither do I. He wanted attention ... yet he calls it the worst suit ever. If you listen to his nude swimming adventure, he says all the boys jumped into the pool when the girls came in but NOT HIM. No, in his total lack of commonsense, he ran around to try and hide behind the diving board. Lack of common sense and desire for attention seem to still affect him.

He also casts doubt on the character of his coach by claiming the coach watched them like a hawk. Well, of course he did. Mr. Zoot suit describes how they had "chicken" fights in the pool. Chicken fights are notoriously dangerous, pool or no pool. I've saved three people from drowning. Drowning can happen quickly and with almost no warning. Since that coach had such rough housing in his pool, of course he watched the youngsters like a hawk.

I'd heard the PBS audio sometime ago. What a crock. He, too, was trying to get listener attention. Who'd pay attention to a story about the fun they had swimming naked. Ah, but it's okay to talk about skinny dipping if you want to speak as though you are confessing how abusive it was. Take a look at Life magazine in 1950, which shows the New Trier High School swim class of naked boys playing with a beach ball. Any of them look like they are having a bad day? No. New Trier swim team regularly beat the audio complainer's Lane Tech.

Naked swimming was just the way it was, it was seldom sprung on the class as a surprise. Typically the students knew from a year or two before that when they reached that point they would swim naked. Even for boys that found it a novel experience, the novelty wore off within two or three lessons.

I still like swimming, mostly to keep in shape for SCUBA diving and often swim a mile or so three times a week in the early morning. I wouldn't mind a return to the days when a man could undress, shower, take his towel to the pool, store it and get into the pool and swim without a suit. It's nearly incomprehensible that during my childhood and young adult years that was socially normal but today our society considers it a criminal felony and will get your picture posted on the Internet as a sex offender. Guess it was a combination of co-ed swimming and some folks making a lot of political hay protecting the community from naked swimming.

It wasn't urban legend; just a normal part of life in a different and much more self-confident time.