Baring It All: Why Boys Swam Naked In Chicago High Schools | WBEZ
OK, imagine you’re a 14-year-old boy. You’ve just started your freshman year at a brand new high school. You’re self conscious and worried about fitting in. Then, your gym teacher tells you to strip naked and walk onto the pool deck with your nude male classmates. Yes, those same classmates you sit next to in math.It’s hard to imagine that any high school would require boys to swim naked today. But for more than 50 years (even until 1980, by some accounts), this was standard policy at public high schools in Chicago and across the country. Curious City listener Michael San Filippo grew up hearing stories about what it was like from his dad.“We just could not really believe that that was something they did,” he says.Michael and several other listeners have sent questions to Curious City asking for more information about the school policy. Specifically, Michael asked: Why did Chicago boys swim naked in high school? How did that start and why did it stop? And was it unique to Chicago?
Curious City asked Chicago Public Schools for data and information about the nude swimming policy multiple times, but officials did not respond to multiple requests. So, we turned to documents, archivists, former CPS coaches, and former students to piece together what the practice was like, why schools required it, what effect it had on students, and how it finally ended. The search for answers revealed a lot about the limits of early 20th-century pool-filtration technology and the way American society’s attitudes have changed on personal hygiene, privacy, sexuality, and gender. It also uncovered a mountain of anger, confusion, and anxiety among some former students who still wonder why school officials made them swim naked while their female counterparts got to wear suits in separate classes.
Why boys were required to swim nude
So, was there a good reason to make teenage boys swim naked while their female counterparts got to wear suits? To find an answer, it helps to know a few things about the history of public swimming pools and the evolving views on personal hygiene. During the 1920s, YMCAs and schools were building pools across the country for fitness and to teach swimming. Drowning was a big problem at the time.The country was also obsessed with fighting disease and promoting personal hygiene, which in the 1920s, was also associated with “good morals.” Health officials worried that allowing potentially dirty fabrics into public pools could introduce germs, and bacteria-killing pool chlorination had still not been perfected. Plus, at the time, swimming pools had fairly primitive filters that could easily be clogged by fabric fibers from swimsuits, which were made of cotton and wool – yes wool. So, in an effort to minimize bacteria, keep pool filters from clogging and ensure male swimmers were clean, the American Public Health Association (APHA) recommended the following in their 1926 standards handbook: Read More….