Duesler’s Third Law: Social Control and the Politics of Fun in the Modern American Swimming Pool – By Michael Rossi & Christopher Capozzola

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Michael Rossi[1] & Christopher Capozzola[2]


John Duesler always reminded swimmers at the Valley Club of Huntingdon Valley that the club’s “final rule was to have fun.”[3] But long before the July 2009 conflict at the Valley Club brought political controversy and racial discord into the seemingly carefree milieu of twenty-first century summer recreation, swimming pools in the United States have been sites of social conflict. “Having fun” has always been a political contest.

Indeed, social control, and not mere “fun,” is the historical raison d’être of pools. From their inception as “swim baths” in the late nineteenth century to their visible place in segregation battles of the mid-twentieth century, swimming pools have played a central role in American communities as technologies of inclusion and exclusion. What is all the more striking about the recent incident at the Valley Club, then, is not simply that racism is alive and well in the United States in the twenty-first century. To historians of U.S. race relations, urban history, and the history of technology, the stories documented in the finding of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee are all too familiar. In their official explanation for breaking their contract with Creative Steps Day Camp, spokespeople for the Valley Club voiced a familiar list of concerns about social order that have shaped swimming pool controversies for over a hundred years. By invoking the need for crowd management, orderly behavior, and community control to justify the revocation of membership of children at the Creative Steps Day Camp, the board and members of the Valley Club recapitulated a common and historically enduring technique by which swimming pools have been used by one segment of the community to define, delimit and exclude others.


From their earliest beginnings, swimming pools in the United States were flashpoints for issues of both class and race. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformers agitated for the construction of municipal pools to improve the moral and physical hygiene of the growing populations of poor and working-class people in the slums of U.S. cities. Pool admission, proper behavior, and personal cleanliness demanded heavy-handed intervention; pool patrons and pool administrators frequently clashed over the correct use of municipal swim facilities.

The first American public swimming pools were, as historian Jeff Wiltse has argued, “quintessential Victorian reforms.”[4] In the late nineteenth century, municipal authorities in Philadelphia—who, it turns out, were among the earliest and most prolific American pool builders—conceived of their “swim baths” literally as giant bath tubs: places where poor and working-class people could go to wash, and thereby acquire middle-class habits of “cleanliness, refinement and modesty.”[5] The architects of New York City’s municipal pool system similarly focused principally on health and hygiene: “The problem” of bath design, wrote one pair of architects in 1906, “is in many ways similar to that of the hospital; fundamentally it must be treated from the standpoint of sanitation, as the mission of the bath is to elevate the standard of cleanliness and public health.”[6] As another correspondent put it, swim baths were “the refuge of the multitude who want to be clean, and they teach the joys of soap and water to those who would shudder at a conventional tub.”[7]

The problem with the unwashed masses, however, was not simply that they were unwashed, but that they were masses—indeed, potentially (and sometimes actually) a destructive mob. As such, pools became sites for imposing conceptions of social order on poor urban populations. Historian Marilyn Thornton Williams points out that reformers saw the slum as “not only an economic and sanitary problem, but also as a threat to the social stability and unity of the community.”[8] The “community” that reformers had in mind, however, was an abstract middle-class American culture, rather than the particular local communities to which different groups of immigrants belonged. Teaching “the joys of soap and water” was part and parcel with “transforming some of these grimy anarchists,” as one editorialist put it, into “good Americans.”[9]

Pool patrons had their own ideas about how to use “swim baths.” In 1884 a small riot accompanied the opening of a swimming pool in Philadelphia when the pool’s superintendent began turning away patrons from the bath on the grounds that it was filled to capacity. The large crowd of young men waiting their turn took umbrage at being denied access, and, in the words of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, “concluded to override [the superintendent’s] authority by the superiority of their numbers.”[10] The boys knocked down the pool’s fence and ripped its door from its frame in their zeal to enter the water—an act which only confirmed the pool’s supervisors’ opinions about their clientele’s need of moral upkeep. In New York a few years later, authorities who allowed only one twenty-minute swim per day to maximize urban cleanliness found that city kids outwitted them; to elide the rule, groups of children would move from bathhouse to bathhouse, dirtying themselves along the way so as to “beard the gatekeeper” and gain entrance to the next cool swim.[11]

Faced with technologies designed to militate particular modes of hygiene and behavior, pool patrons responded by imposing their own rules and uses. Through these actions—and through the expansion of private bathing facilities in tenements—swimmers and administrators reached a sort of tacit accord. Exercise, in the form of swimming, was a sort of moral virtue, and conducive of order, in a manner of speaking. Pools could be used for swimming and recreation, and still emphasize efficient crowd control and control of bathers’ behavior—not least of all through rules emphasizing safety and skill at swimming. For their parts, pool patrons could swim with friends, and even roughhouse within certain acceptable limits. Indeed, a 1908 New York Times article lauded the “ear splitting” cacophony, unruly behavior, and even occasional nakedness that accompanied a swim race between different public elementary schools in the city’s 60th Street swim bath; in this context, sport and unruly behavior were entirely acceptable.[12] In the early decades of the twentieth century, municipal swim baths designed for cleanliness and crowd control became municipal swimming pools, used as places for exercise and—perhaps more importantly—socializing. John Duesler’s final rule for the use of the Valley Club pool—“to have fun”—was a hard-won victory that was far from the minds of America’s first designers of public pools.


For municipal pools in the urban north in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then, questions of who could swim and how they were to behave when in the water tended typically to surround matters of age, sex, and social class rather than race. (Throughout the South and in parts of the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions, where the legal restrictions of Jim Crow predated the development of the modern swimming pool, formal exclusion by race was uniformly enforced.) This is not to say that race did not divide northern urban swimmers—New York’s 60th Street bath, for instance, was located between working-class Irish and African-American neighborhoods, and conflicts were frequent. But, in official doctrine, at least, racial segregation was less important than segregation by social class and gender.[13]

Following an efflorescence of swimming pool construction during the 1920s and 1930s, however, the model of pool administration switched from one that focused on discrete swimming arrangements for men and women, and upper and lower classes, to an approach that favored mingling among sexes and classes, but not among races. As documented in depth by Wiltse, a wartime influx of black migrants from southern to northern cities, and the increasingly heterosocial nature of swimming as an activity, were among the principal causes for more careful regulation of the racial makeup of northern swimming pool patrons. The case of the Valley Club and Creative Steps Day Camp is only the most recent of a long chain of incidents, from Robert Moses’ putative attempts to dissuade fraternization between whites and blacks at New York City’s public pools in the 1930s, to the 1951 case of Al Bright, the only African-American player on a champion little league team in Youngstown, Ohio, forced to sit out his team’s end-of-season pool party because of the pool’s exclusionary policy.[14]

In the face of increasing legal and direct-action political challenges, pool administrators and white patrons continued to uphold racial discrimination through complex official rules and unofficial practices. The Kansas City Parks Department’s decision to close that city’s Swope Park Pool in 1952 and 1953 to avoid desegregation reflected a typical approach. In cities and towns across the country, crowds intimidated African-American would-be swimmers; a riot at the Fairgrounds Park Pool in St. Louis in June 1949 sent twelve people to the city’s segregated hospitals.[15]

Finance frequently served as a conveniently neutral justification for maintaining exclusionary policies. In 1921, for instance, a father sued the Mayor and Park Superintendent of Los Angeles after his daughter was denied access to one of the city’s municipal pools because she was black. Park officials claimed that “receipts from the plunge, amounting to thousands of dollars each season, practically make the park self-sustaining,” and that “if no arrangement could be maintained whereby a segregation of the races is possible, the pool would fall into disuse.”[16] In 1960, when activists in Lawrence, Kansas, challenged the racist policies of the Jayhawk Plunge, a private swim club that promised members a “socially selective and friendly” atmosphere, the pool’s owner insisted that integration would be “economic suicide.”[17]

All too frequently, the formal desegregation of municipal pools sent white patrons—those who could afford it, anyway—packing off to private clubs. A 1958 article in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin noted that “swim-club pools have sprung up in every direction” in the city’s rapidly growing suburbs, leaving inner-city pools to decay on the crumbling tax base that slowly ceased to support them. Meanwhile, in the suburbs, private swim clubs offered “a means of … uniting a community in a common purpose. The community swim pool is an investment not only in money but in neighborhood co-operation, enjoyment and friendliness.” The politics of localism and the rhetoric of community enabled all-white club memberships, even when—as at the Valley Club—bylaws featured formal non-discrimination clauses and membership forms did not inquire after a swimmer’s race. Policing the boundaries of “community” guaranteed “enjoyment” for some—but only some—of the community’s bathers.[18]


For over a hundred years, public swimming pools have been sites of social control. But that control has always been incomplete. Whether they were rowdy children in Manhattan swim baths or committed citizens picketing, signing petitions, and filing legal challenges, pool users have consistently remade the terms of social order that swimming pools have attempted to impose. In Pennsylvania today, rebuilding community and ensuring equal justice for all of the Commonwealth’s citizens will require a serious examination of the long history of social conflict in American swimming pools, and with the ways that languages of orderliness, safety, and community have built upon ideologies of racial hierarchy, both spoken and unspoken. There is much work to be done before all of Pennsylvania’s children can obey Duesler’s Third Law: “to have fun.”

[1] Ph.D. Candidate, Program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., mrossi@mit.edu.

[2] Associate Professor, History Faculty, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., capozzol@mit.edu.

[3] Finding of Probable Cause, Pa. Human Rel. Comm’n Docket No. 200900165, §§  84, 95, 166.

[4] Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America 9 (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[5] Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America 9 (2007)..

[6] Harold Werner & August P. Windolph, The Public Bath V,  17 The Brickbuilder 115  (June 1906).:

[7] Ralph D. Paine, The Bathers of the City, Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, Aug. 1905, at 562.

[8] Marilyn Thornton Williams, New York City’s Public Baths: A Case Study in Urban Progressive Reform, 7 Journal of Urban History 49, 49 (1980).

[9] Public Baths, New York Sun, March 31, 1891.

[10] Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America 8 (2007) (citing Almost a Riot: An Attack by Roughs on the Down-town Free Bath-House, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin) .

[11] Ralph D. Paine, The Bathers of the City, Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, Aug. 1905, at 568.

[12] Schoolboys Swim in Championships, New York Times, Feb. 25, 1908.

[13] See Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America 121-153 (2007) (on the onset of segregation in swimming pools).

[14] Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York 512-514 (1974);,Marta Gutman, Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and WPA Swimming Pools in New York City, 67 Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 532 – 561 (December 2008); Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America 1 – 2 (2007).

[15] Rusty L. Monhollon, Taking the Plunge: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Desegregation in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960, 20 Kansas History 145 n.21 (Autumn 1997):Wiltse, Contested Waters at 169-174; see also Darryl Paulson, Stay Out, The Water’s Fine: Desegregating Municipal Swimming Facilities in St. Petersburg, Florida, 4 Tampa Bay History 6-19  (1982); See Arnold R. Hirsch, Massive Resistance in the Urban North: Trumbull Park, Chicago, 1953-1966, 82 Journal of American History 522-550 (September 1995) (on violent resistance to desegregation outside the South); Thomas J. Sugrue, Crabgrass-Roots Politics: Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 1940-1964, 82 Journal of American History 551 – 578 (September 1995).

[16] Negro Brings Suit, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 23, 1921.

[17] Rusty L. Monhollon, Taking the Plunge: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Desegregation in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960, 20 Kansas History 144, 150 (Autumn 1997).

[18] Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America 193 – 198 (2007) (quoting Communities Are Pooling Their Interests for Everyone’s Benefit, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Apr. 6, 1958) ; Findingof Probable Cause, Pa. Human Rel. Comm’n Docket No. 200900165, §§ 5, 33, 246;  see also Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism 123-125 ( 2005) (On private swim clubs).

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