Jeff Wiltse used to spend all of his summer days at the local pool. He didn’t think that 20 years later it would become the focus of his doctoral thesis and a critcally-acclaimed book.
His book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools, is the first in-depth look at the sociology of municipal facilities.
Wiltse’s research began as a graduate student at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “I thought it could tell us a lot about the country,” said the now assistant professor of history at the University of Montana in Missoula.
He discovered that while there were many books on pool architecture and design, there were none about their social history, nor was there any research on municipal pools.
Wiltse pored over municipal records and viewed rolls and rolls of microfilm of old newspapers. He learned that public pools seemed to be a microcosm of American society. He often found the best stories in the small, African-American-owned newspapers of the 1940s and ‘50s.
The one unexpected discovery for him was just how popular public pools were in the early stages of the recreational water industry.
“There were thousands and thousands of municipal pools and they were enormous — the size of football fields with sand beaches around them,” Wiltse said.
A 1934 article in Fortune magazine estimated that more than 10 million people visited these pools during the ‘20s and early ‘30s and were used by people of all social classes and ages. Racial segregation, however, was always apparent.
Today, Wiltse notes, the advent of backyard pools and private swim clubs means the local pool is no longer such a critical part of community life.
“Swimming pools held out so much promise as public spaces,” he said. “Yet they’ve rarely lived up to their potential to create a vibrant community life and bring together different social groups.”