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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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. Wiltses 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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