When the Internet became popular in the late 1980s, heated debates took place on forums and blogs concerning the customs of the mid and early 20th century that required all boys that participated in swimming activities to do so in the nude whereas all girls were allowed to wear suits. But the power of the Internet also brought with it the ability to research archives and news sources, and it was through that research that those that educated themselves now unanimously agree that it was indeed a common practice.
The acceptability of requiring only the boys to swim nude during this era must be viewed in context. As evidenced in the archives of earlier times presented on this site, it was common for men and boys to swim, or rather "sea bathe" in the buff from the early 1700s through much of the 1800s, which was curtailed when rail systems began allowing the masses to vacation at popular watering places. Yet for boys, skinny dipping remained the norm for swimming in rivers and lakes well into the 20th century. When such activities were moved indoors in an all-male environment, it was only logical that suits were not necessary given tradition. Further, there were also problems early inefficient filtration systems, costs to provide and launder bating suits, and, perceived health issues when suits were left wet in lockers, which all added to the tradition of nude swimming for boys. However, there was always a double-standard in that it was rarely ever the case for girls, who were routinely provided suits by the schools or local recreations associations.
The context is also tied to a timeline. At the turn of last century it was rare that any man or boy wore a swimsuit when swimming at the "Y" or swimming spots on a river or lake as to do so was considered unmanly whereas girls were expected to be more modest and where suits at all times. The practice of male nudity at swimming spots began to change over the course of the 20th century to where it became universal that all public swimming spots were mixed-gender and suits always were worn (of course, with the exception of those well known places frequented by nudists). A snap shot in the timeline can be found in an article in another page for news articles, which was published in a 1961 edition of the Appleton Post. It dealt with a petition wherein parents were demanding that the policy mandating that all boys swim nude be lifted. As part of the debate, the school district conducted a survey of other public schools, which showed that 20 out of 31 school districts contacted had policies requiring boys to swim nude while girls did not. With survey in hand, the school board ruled that the nudity policy for the boys would remain in effect. That survey provides some evidence that about two-thirds of all swimming programs still enforced nudity policies for the boys swimming classes in 1961. Articles obtained from future publications evidence the last vestiges of this policy were still alive as late as 1976, but thereafter there is little evidence of any school or community program still retaining policy that boys were to swim nude whereas girls were provided suits. Interestingly, this timeline coincides with the same timeline whereby a greater emphasis on the feminist movement for women's rights had forced opened the doors to many athletic programs, including access to men's locker rooms by female reporters. Fight the perception that women were the weaker sex and needed protection and privileges not afforded men it in some ways backfired for women. Double-standards were beginning to be viewed as cutting both ways. The Dear Abby and Ann Landers columns of the 1970s presented on this site shows how these double-standards were beginning to be challenged.
The news articles, photos and columns surrounding nude-boy versus clothed-girl swim classes are extensively documented and all one needs to do is a simple Internet search to find many. The articles we present within the sub-pages should be considered just a small sampling of hundreds of similar articles printed throughout the 20th century as we felt it was unnecessary to provide them in great volume. However, what is still in debate was level in which females were allowed to be present in the boys swimming areas as instructors, or, to watch swimming meets at a time when the boys were nude. There are many anecdotes told by those that claim to have experienced it on various forums and blogs, and such claims are always challenged by the naysayers that accuse them of fabricating their accounts. But we did indeed find articles that appear to confirm that in at least some communities, particularly in decades before the feminist movement, that female instructors taught boys' swim classes at the Y and elsewhere when the boys were nude, and, mothers and families were allowed to attend "parents nights" at the end of swim programs to see the boys demonstrate their swimming skills learned from the course while such boys were nude. We also provide photographic evidence in our photos section wherein in certain cultures around the world, boys still swim in the nude in public areas while clothed girls swim with them. So if other cultures are still experiencing such occurrences, is it unfathomable to think that our own western culture may have been the same a hundred years ago?
You will observe on our photographs page actual vintage photos from the early 20th century of groups of boys, some close to being teenagers, swimming nude while parents and clothed girls their age are present watching and/or swimming with them. Articles and photos presented evidence how in the 20th swimming tanks were built to allow boys an alternative to swimming in the nude on the East River, Hudson or Delaware, and while under supervision yet still doing so nude. Of course, this was not always the case and customs and culture varied widely with some communities disallowing boys' nudity and even having constables pursue them at swimming holes - particularly in the more conservative U.S. And there are, of course, the "man bites dog" type of articles that defy customary practices, such as one school program wherein the girls also participated in swim classes in the nude. Thus, there is no consistency in the culture and to assume a carte blanche position taken by all communities during that era is overly simplistic and uninformed.
Should you have any historical references, materials or links that will help us build upon this, please email us.
Three Part Documentary on the History of Boys Swimming Nude at the YMCA and Public Schools
The following three part video is a YouTube documentary compiled by an historian that did extensive documentation research into the policy requiring boys to swim nude at schools and such organizations as the YMCA. It presents a lot of factual information, is tremendously educational and very well done. It is best to watch these videos as the articles and other documentation presented in our sub-pages will be more meaningful to the learned viewer.
NPR Radio Commentator Talks About Mandatory Nude Swimming For Boys
The following link will take you to an audio broadcast wherein NPR Commentator Robin Washington recounts a time when it was required of all male students to take swimming lessons in the nude up through the late 1970s. In it he shares various anecdotes, such as how uncircumcised boys were thought to have possibly had their penises slammed in doors when they were babies, or when one boy sported an erection while doing the back stroke and the coach poked him with lifesaving pole saying "Get that periscope down!". Washington is editorial page editor of The Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn.
Naked in High School: Bad Dreams Do Come True
NPR Radio Commentator Talks About Attending Camp For Boys
The following link will take you to another NPR broadcast where writer Mark Oppenheimer recounts his 1983 summer camp experience. The camp, run by Quakers, required all boys to be nude, not only while swimming, but also when playing other sports as well as when sleeping.
Naked at Summer Camp
Its Jerry Time - The Naked Swim
This is a very humorous and creative short animated video from the Emmy Award Winning Jerry Zucker. It it he retells the true story of when in 1974 he had to take a swimming class at his middle school in Buffalo, New York wherein all boys were required to participate naked. He and his classmates are mortified one day when they are all lined up nude and the girls' class enters.