The story behind the modern American public swimming pool is a surprisingly fascinating journey.
We’re diving into a quick history lesson to help you understand how public pools have evolved to where they are today.
Bathing Pool Beginnings
The concept of using public swimming pools for recreation in the United States began in the late 1800s. In general, the way people swam was defined by class: the wealthy élite frequented visited beaches and pools for lounging and socializing, while the middle class used pools for swimming and the lower class went to pools for “bathing.”
Early American municipal pools in the mid-1800s were actually a Victorian-era attempt to ingrain cleanliness and decorum to the urban poor. They were called “bathing pools” or “plunge baths” rather than swimming pools.
During this time, modern Germ Theory was not widely accepted, and the public pools were installed to curb the spread of diseases. At the time, there was a common belief that illnesses were spread by foul-smelling vapors from unclean substances. Therefore, the city folk used public baths to wash regularly so they wouldn’t spread diseases, such as yellow fever, cholera and tuberculosis.
It wasn’t until the 1890’s that Germ Theory became widely accepted and the entire idea of using municipal bathing pools to stop the spread of diseases went out of style.
The Rise of Recreational Pools
By the 1930s, public pools had transformed from bathing houses to recreational havens where all economic classes could swim, relax and socialize. This trend of recreational public pools was led by New York City when thousands of New Yorkers turned out for the official opening of Hamilton Fish Pool on June 24, 1936.
The excited public crammed in Hamilton Fish Park, Pitt Street and the surrounding fire-escapes and rooftops to see the new pool that Mayor La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses opened.
The opening of Hamilton Fish Pool was the start of New York’s “Summer of Pools.” Each week of the summer in 1936, 11 new outdoor pools, paid for and built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), opened in neighborhoods across New York City. Much like the movies, these 11 pools offered millions of New Yorkers a distraction from the summer heat and struggles brought by the Great Depression.
Simultaneous with the reinvention of the public swimming pool as a place for recreation in the 1920’s to the 1950’s, pools began to release the old-fashioned practice of segregating swimming. However as society marched forth into a new modern era through the Civil Rights Movement, pools started to become de-segregated.
Public Pools for Exercise & Competition
While the private backyard pools gained popularity after the mid-1950’s, modern public pools still have remained a source of leisure, community and, especially, exercise.
In 1972, Mark Spitz, a U.S. swimmer, won seven gold medals in the Summer Olympic Games. This U.S. Olympic triumph not only peaked interest in swimming pool ownership but also inspired pool designers to create competition pools that would accommodate fast and record-breaking swimming times.
Additionally, in the 1970’s, new information on the harmful health effects of chlorine byproducts prompted public pools to adopt alternative non-chlorine sanitizers like UV, ozone, biguanides and mineral ionizers.
Modern swimming as a sport is proven as one of the best low-impact types of exercises. Competitive swimming has continued wide popularity in the U.S. in the new millennium and is one of the most popular Olympic sports.
Following the record-breaking performances by U.S. Olympians Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, competitive swimming has experienced a further surge in popularity. The goal of today’s high-level competitive swimming is to break personal or world records while beating competitors in any given event.
Also in the early 2010s, new developments for healthy alternative sanitizers continued and a new method of hydroxyl-based advanced oxidation (AOP) gained popularity in public pools. In addition to minimizing chlorine levels, this method allows today’s swimmers to benefit from less irritation, chlorine byproduct exposure and risk of water-borne illness, like Cryptosporidium, all while improving the ability to swim and exercise longer and more safely.
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