Jeff Wiltse’s Book “Contested Waters”

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Updated: May 16, 2022
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Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the meaning and social values of municipal swimming pools in America has shifted drastically. According to Jeff Wiltse’s book Contested Waters, community swimming pools were originally used as communal spaces where judges, reformers, social activists, and citizens came together to shape American culture. These pools spread across the United States…from condensed built-up cities such as New York City and Chicago all the way to little towns in Kansas. Contested Waters does an excellent job at demonstrating how municipal swimming pools prompted a social change starting with the Gilded age all the way to post World War II.

Swimming pools were communal areas where race, gender, and class met with developing ideas of leisure, public health, and proper behavior in America. The promoters of these public pools established rules in order to preserve the presence of order in the pool. For example, naked and rowdy boys/men bathed their bodies in Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia rivers because residence housing in urban areas had limited facilities that were indoors. The men bathing outdoors eventually offended citizens of the Gilded Age, so the reformers corrected the establishment of these bathing pools. The new municipal bathing pools did not separate people based on their race or ethnicity, but they did separate men and women while bathing. After 1980, the social activists and Progressive Era reformers began to change the meaning of pool by putting emphasis on fitness and “Americanization” rather than personal cleanliness. In the cities of Chicago, New York, and Boston, officials of the city upheld gender segregation and forced pools to offer unstructured play (like we see in pools today) and exercise classes.

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The “Swimming Pool Age” signified a “watershed” for municipal pools’ social value and day-to-day operation (p. 212). Post 1913 these community pools all throughout the county, which were more devoted to leisure recreation, finally stopped segregating between male and female. When the pools were unified along gender lines, their sexual and racial anxieties about putting black men and white women in close quarters were calmed by segregating the public spaces along racial lines to exclude women and black men. The community pools were not always separate but equal though, this was primarily due to the New Deal public works funding. Technically, these municipal pools “democratized” access to the public based on their socioeconomic class instead of on their race. The larger urbanized societies in Wiltse’s book Contested Waters typically gave white swimmers many pools to use and only gave one or two pools for the nonwhite swimmers.

These issues went on for decades. There were a few chapters in Contested Waters that focused on the continuous crossings of class disparity, sexual anxieties, and racial segregation. Many riots broke out between states such as West Virginia or Kansas (which held smaller communities with single pools) and cities such as Washing DC or Pittsburgh (which held multiple municipal pools). These riots were fought over united access and civil rights to separate-but-equal pools. These legal challenges were put on by African Americans who were trying to gain entry to the segregated pools. It usually ended in decisions that were hardly defined which commanded officials to just close all of the pools instead of facing more legal problems in these small communities. This brought about many other court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education which occurred in 1954. But, with that being said, positive cases that came from desegregation did not necessarily lead to integrated pools. Underprivileged whites stopped going to pools and those whites that were wealthy moved to the suburbs and instituted swim clubs that were exclusive to themselves or built private pools in their own backyards.

One point in Contested Waters that Jeff Wiltse argues is that he is against a historiographic trend that stresses consumption as the main thing responsible for defining the twentieth century American culture. Wiltse also proclaims that these municipal swimming pools offer inconsistent evidence to this overriding interpretation. Some of these community swimming pools charged admission to enter and were run by third parties. The gender integrated swimming pools gave a national platform for the current swimsuit fashion and served as a place for men and women to “visually” consume each other (page 109). This example is just one of many that shows how municipal swimming pools define American culture as we knew it.

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Throughout Contested Waters, Wiltse focuses mostly on the area east of the Mississippi River and north of Washington DC which made the research a bit easier to handle. If he were to look at the southern parts of America would things look different? Would the rivers, creeks, streams, and climate in the south impact community swimming and bathing?

Overall, Contested Waters looks at a wide range across United States history. Legal, cultural, and social historians will find many different similarities between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some similarities include civil rights, the role of the different reform movements, and the definitions of public space. In my opinion, this book did a great job at presenting the geography of swimming pools but did an even better job at trying to get the readers, such as us, to see behaviors in public spaces as a form of cultural and social reproduction. The history of the swimming pool involved some very personal values and experiences all while showing and proving momentous themes throughout American political and social history. If it weren’t for these municipal swimming pools Americans would lose more than a chance to interact personally with the people that live near them, but they would also lose a inimitable part of what we know as the American experience. In my opinion, The history behind swimming pools in the United States does a really good job at serving as an effective window into the making, remaking, and unmaking of the boundaries of belonging in the United States. This is shown in great detail through books such as Contested Waters and the American Yawp.

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Jeff Wiltse’s book "Contested Waters". (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved from