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Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America Hardcover – April 23, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Historian Wiltse offers a detailed study of the history of municipal swimming pools from the late 19th century through the present, tracing their development from bare-bones baths for the working classes to elegant, "sylvan" recreational spaces for the middle and upper classes. Wiltse makes a strong case that the history of these swimming pools embodies the painful challenges that class, gender and race presented America in the 20th century. The most compelling portions of the book deal with segregation and the fight to integrate municipal pools. Wiltse describes the eroticizing of the municipal pool as white women began to appear in increasingly revealing swimming suits; this, says the author, was one of the primary motivations behind the white push for municipal pool segregation. Wiltse also details the "white flight" from the pools that followed desegregation. This is well done, clearly written, thoroughly researched history, and it effectively makes important points about the tensions that confounded America during the Civil Rights movement. The writing is occasionally dry and statistic-laden, but Wiltse uses the municipal swimming pool as a fascinating window onto social changes and urban tensions across the 20th century. B&w photos. (Apr. 23)
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From The New Yorker

The first public swimming pools in the United States were "large community bath tubs"—indoors, relatively small, and intended to encourage good hygiene among the poor. By the nineteen-twenties, pools had become elaborate "public amusements," accommodating thousands. Wiltse’s history argues that, at every turn, these sites of "intimate and prolonged contact" between swimmers of different races, genders, and social classes stirred intense conflict. The book is most incisive in its discussion of swimming pools as what one editorialist called "one of the touchiest problems in race relations." Between the wars, swimming pools began to mix the genders, but African-Americans were gradually excluded from the "sexually charged" spaces. In the fifties and sixties, as civil-rights activists persevered in the courts, many cities chose to close municipal pools rather than integrate them.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; First Edition edition (April 23, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080783100X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807831007
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #435,612 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Here comes summer, and Americans will head for a trusted way of getting rid of stress and heat: they will jump into swimming pools. But pools themselves have been a source of stress to many communities within the nation; indeed, Jeff Wiltse has written a history of the social tensions pools have caused (and sometimes eased) in _Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America_ (University of North Carolina Press). It is surprising that what might seem a trivial subject, a pastime in which millions of Americans have innocently indulged for over a hundred years now, might even have a history. But Wiltse, who teaches history at the University of Montana, has driven from town to town to draw information for this book. His travels were mostly in the north, for he did not want to range too far and write separate regional histories, although he says the pattern of social use of pools is consistent within the towns he surveyed. He amassed a huge amount of data from newspapers and civic documents about who was using the pools, with statistics often kept by race and sex. Wiltse has shown beyond doubt that pools have reflected and generated our feelings on sexual and racial matters, and although his book is a serious academic history, it is by turns amusing and sad as America came to an incomplete understanding of how we ought to treat pools and the swimmers who use them.

We didn't have pools originally, going down to swim in the river or "the old swimming hole". The swimmers often had no running water at home and this was a way for them to wash away some bodily grime; their Victorian betters strongly agreed with bathing for this purpose, but not with the way it was being accomplished.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jay R. Goerke on July 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a must read for every teen or adult that believes history is simply about boring dead white people and inconsequential dates. Can you write a "real" history book that has valid arguments about.....SWIMMING POOLS? Dr. Wiltse has caught the attention of the young people of this nation who believed that history, real history, has to be about a President, King, or a General, and has taught us all that seemingly mundane events in the lives of common people, often overlooked, are history too!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Sherri L. Bergman on July 5, 2010
Format: Paperback
I'm not sure how this book ended up on my reading list, but I'm so glad it did. As a child, I remember wondering why I never saw a black swimmer. Now I better understand the history that led to the de facto segregation of my suburban pool. Wiltse's narrative is compelling and readable and the archival photos are a nice touch. I only wish there was a little more information on how pools came to be gender desegregated and how religious exclusion played into the swim club landscape.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Very informative book. Interesting and a must read--especially if you have young children who are swimmers. Important book because it provides information about the history of swimming pools --that (suprisingly) had little to do with pleasure/swimming, but rather sanitation. This book may help the parent to understand "raudy" behavior among youngsters in swimming pool settings..and may also help parents to temper that behavior in a more loving/understanding manner..given the evolution of swimming pools. ..once parents have a better understanding of the possible uses of pools and all. (a little boring in places..but overall..a great book!
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By N. Ash on March 25, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I needed this book for school and I wanted it for personal reasons. I am glad that I finally found it. It is very informative and well written.
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