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Jeff Wiltse Will Receive ISHOF’s Dawson Award
For His Book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America”

Fort Lauderdale – April 27, 2007

The International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) announced today that Jeff Wiltse, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Montana, will receive the 2007 William F. “Buck” Dawson Author’s Award during the ISHOF’s 43rd Annual TOYOTA Honoree Induction Weekend, May 10-13, 2007. The Dawson Award, recognizes authors for works that promote swimming. Dawson was ISHOF’s founding Executive Director of ISHOF, is a Director Emeritus of ISHOF and is the author of over a dozen books on topics ranging from Swimming to Volcanoes and World War II.

Wiltse is being recognized for his just released book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, published by the University of North Carolina Press. 

“In Contested Waters professor Wiltse provides an entertaining, fascinating and at times disturbing look at the remarkably significant role swimming has played in shaping our modern social and cultural landscape,” said Bruce Wigo, ISHOF CEO. “If you want to understand America, whether you are interested in swimming or not, you will want to read this book.”

Wiltse will also give a lecture about his book, participate in a panel discussion on “Government and Swimming,” and have a book signing, starting at 10 AM on Saturday, May 12, 2007.  All events will take place at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

The International Swimming Hall of Fame opened in 1965 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida as the first amateur sports hall of fame and the first international sports hall of fame in the world.  ISHOF’s mission is to promote the benefits and importance of swimming as a key to fitness, good health, quality of life, and the water safety of children.  For more information ISHOF or the 43rd Annual ISHOF Induction Ceremonies, call 954-462-6536.

For more information about Contested Waterswww.uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-7981.html

For more information about ISHOF or the 43rd Annual TOYOTA Honoree Induction Weekend, call 954-462-6536, or visit www.ishof.org


Contested Waters: A Review By Bruce Wigo

While Contested Waters tells the story of the incredible role that swimming and swimming pools have played in shaping the social and cultural history of America, the book also provides an important historical context for the soon to be released motion picture, PRIDE, which tells the story of Jim Ellis, an African-American swimming coach in Philadelphia, and for Mermaids on Parade: America’s Love Affair With Its First Women Swimmers, written by Buck Dawson in 2000.  

The story begins in the 1880’s, when very few Americans knew how to swim.  Swimming was, for the most part, an activity for lower class boys and sailors, characterized by public nudity, profanity and roughhousing.  Because this behavior offended the Victorian sense of morality and “public decency,” many cities passed anti-swimming ordinances.

After the Civil War, communities recognized the need to provide bathing facilities for the urban working-class who typically lacked bathing facilities in their homes.  In 1868 the City of Boston opened America’s first municipal pool and other northern cities were quick follow the example.  These early pools and baths were located along rivers like the Charles in Boston or East River in New York.  Because these pools were not designed for swimming, but for bathing and cleansing purposes, many older bathers would jump in the rivers and enjoy a swim.  The river baths proved so popular that would-be bathers often waited in long lines to get in, clogging up the surrounding streets.  At first these baths were for men only, but when acceptable women’s bathing costumes were introduced, special times were set aside for the exclusive use of women. 

The 1880’s saw the appearance of elite private athletic clubs which built pools designed for competitions in swimming, diving and water polo and as child labor laws were passed and workers were given more leisure time municipal pools took on the same character.  These new pools and seaside resorts like Atlantic City and Coney Island made swimming a middle class activity and by the 1890’s swimming was seen as an important element of education and pools were seen by municipal governments as a good investment for building public health, character and citizenship. 

The next big development in swimming and in the cultural history of America came when gender integration was permitted on beaches and in public pools.  Gender integration allowed men and women to swim together and was intended to make swimming a family activity.  Prior to the time of mixed swimming, Blacks and Whites commonly swam together in the public pools of the northern states, but that all changed when gender segregation ended.  Women bathers introduced an element of eroticism to swimming and as Wiltse explains, Whites did not like the idea of Black men interacting with White women in such visually and physically intimate public places as swimming pools and beaches. At about the same time there was a great migration to northern cities of southern Blacks who were looked upon as dirty and more than likely to carry communicable diseases.  So gender segregation was replaced in swimming pools and at the beach by a strictly enforced racial segregation. 

While the iconic institutions of cities today may be the professional sports arena or motor track, it was the municipal swimming pool in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Wiltse calls this time period as the “Swimming Pool Age” and with the help America’s Olympic swimming stars, such as Johnny Weissmuller, Gertrude Ederle, Buster Crabbe and Eleanor Holm, swimming became America’s most popular pastime, by far.  To satisfy the public’s demand for more and better swimming facilities some incredible swimming pools were built, like the Fairgrounds Park Pool in St. Louis, Astoria Pool in New York or the Fleishhacker Pool in San Francisco.  These pools were gigantic and could accommodate more than 20,000 or more White bathers a day.  By 1940 there were few towns in America of more than 1,500 people that did not have a municipal pool which became, during the summer months, every town’s principal gathering spot and the hub of social activity.

Although the law of the land was “separate but equal,” the reality was that while swimming became an important part of White culture, Jim Crow laws in the south and de facto segregation in the north excluded most Blacks from the swimming experience.  Not surprisingly, swimming pools became some of the most visible and hotly contested battle grounds during the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s and it was from this era that the book gets its title. 

In the post WWII era, suburbanization and fears of integration spelled the death knell for the Municipal pool as Whites fled from the inner cities and took their swimming to country clubs and backyard swimming pools.  With drastically declining attendance, municipal pools fell into disrepair and pools were either closed or sold to private operators.  When new pools were built to accommodate Blacks, they were generally nothing more than places to cool off rather than enjoyable bodies of water that could be a hub of social activity.   

This is the background and prism through which the film PRIDE and the Jim Ellis story must me seen to be appreciated.  Contested Waters gives us a clear understanding of why African Americans make up less than one percent of USA Swimming membership and why Blacks do not participate in any aquatic related activities in similar proportions as Whites.  This historical and now apparent cultural disconnect between swimming and African Americans is tragic for many reasons.  First, according to the Center for Disease Control, African Americans drown at significantly higher rates than other races.  Second, because many African Americans don’t swim, they cannot enjoy the health benefits of swimming or the pleasures of aquatics from competitive sports to pastimes like body surfing, surfing, snorkeling, scuba, sailboarding, spearfishing, etc. and will be denied the many employment opportunities available to those who can swim. 

Contested Waters also provides historical insight into what swimming must do to recapture the imagination of the public so that government, educational institutions and private entrepreneurs will support and fund pool repairs, build new pools and fund the expense of aquatic programs today and tomorrow.  While Wiltse’s book explains how swimming got to where it is today, it will be up to others to use this information to figure out ways to chart a bright future for the sports we love. 

 For more information about Contested Waters:  www.uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-7981.html

For more information about the African American Experience in Swimming, see Black Splash: The History of African-American Swimmers by Lee Pitts, at: www.ishof.org/pdf/black_splash.pdf

 

Greg LouganisEraldo

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