The Water Nymph Club (Part Four)

During the summer of 1923, the Telegram published a syndicated series of swimming tips for women. Click here for the full series.

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The Telegram, August 7, 1923.

From Jeff Wiltse’s book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), a few words on the changes occurring by the 1920s in who was using pools for swimming and other leisurely pursuits (the use of “resort pool” here included large spaces operated by municipalities).

The resort pools of the interwar years democratized swimming in America and transformed the social composition of swimmers. Millions of new swimmers–including large numbers of females, adults, and middle-class Americans–flocked to them. Gone were the days when working class boys dominated these spaces. Most critically, the social divisions that characterized pool use during the Industrial Age largely evaporated during the 1920s and 1930s. Working class and middle class, men and women, and children and adults all swam together. The social integration resulted from several factors. For one, the redesign and relocation of pools made them appealing to adults and the middle class. Adults enjoyed lying out on the sand beaches and socializing on the pool decks. Middle-class Americans felt comfortable accessing pools located in large parks rather than buried in residential slums. At the same time, the prejudices that had deterred the middle class from swimming with the working classes during the Progressive Era weakened during the 1920s. Working-class whites did not seem quite as poor, dirty, and foreign as before. Gender integration resulted mainly from changes to public policy. Across the nation, public officials permitted males and females to swim together beginning in the 1920s because they intended the new resort pools to promote family and community sociability. They looked to swimming pools to bring diverse members of the community together, not keep them apart, as was the case earlier. The result was a complete social reconstruction of these public spaces.

As public officials intended, the municipal pools of the interwar years functioned as centers of community life. They attracted thousands of people at a time and, unlike at most public spaces, the social contact was sustained and interactive. Swimmers spent hours, often the entire day, at pools–playing games, sunbathing, and chatting.

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The Telegram, August 8. 1923.

Not everyone was welcome at all of Toronto’s swimming areas. By the early 1930s, members of the Jewish community found that summer resorts near the city forbid their presence, while groups like the Balmy Beach Swastika Club chased them away from lakeside beaches.

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The Telegram, August 9. 1923.

One other change Wiltse observes happened as gender integration hit swimming spots: the creation of erotic public spaces.

Males and females shared the same water, rubbed shoulders on sandy beaches, and viewed one another mostly unclothed. Public officials mandated conservative swimsuits early in the 1920s in an attempt to ensure modesty and dampen the sexual charge. After the mid-1920s, however, the acceptable size of swimsuits gradually shrank until, by 1940, men wore nothing but tight trunks and many women wore two-piece brassiere suits. Swimmers and spectators at municipal pools could gaze upon the legs, hips, back, bust line, and shoulders of women and almost the entirety of men’s bodies. As a result, municipal pools became public stages for oneself on display and public venues for visually consuming others. This exhibitionism and voyeurism eroticized municipal pools and contributed to a fundamental shift in American culture. Public objectification of female and male bodies became acceptable, and public decency came to mean exhibiting an attractive appearance rather than protecting one’s modesty.

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The Telegram, August 10, 1923.

This increasing eroticism may partly explain the Telegram‘s decision to hold a “Water Nymph Carnival” at Sunnyside to tie into the daily lessons. The first announcement appeared on August 10.

tely 1923-08-10 water nymphs here's your chance

The Telegram, August 10, 1923.

The way “water nymph” is used throughout this announcement makes it sound like a fetish term.

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The Telegram, August 11, 1923.

The Telegram, August 11, 1923.

The Telegram‘s weekend photo roundup began including subtle nods to the upcoming Water Nymph Carnival. Little would readers realize how much promotional material they’d see over the next week.

Next time: All water nymphs, all the time…and why there was no such thing as a masculine water nymph.