When Boys Swam Nude in Public High Schools: UPDATE

The experience still haunts men. Older men. They had to swim in the nude in Chicago Public Schools and elsewhere around the country.

I wrote about the psychological effects here: When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public High Schools. If you don’t think such trials should have made such a difference to those teens, then why have about 20,000 thousand people read my post, not to mention other posts on other sites?

Boys searched for reasons to get excused from swimming. They suffered distress over psoriasis or sundry obvious “defects.” Shame, bullying, and potential arousal at the wrong moment were inevitable; especially anything that might betray a homosexual inclination (long before the word gay meant men who favored other men).

Today, however, I want to answer a question I could not in 2014, when I wrote the post linked above: how did such a practice begin?

According to WBEZ Radio’s Monica Eng:

The country was … 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:

Those recommendations, nothing more, turned the tide (pun intended) as one school system imitated another and made the practice compulsory. Thus, we have another example of the often observed human tendency to cause unintended side-effects growing out of an effort to make the world a bit better.

Read or listen to the whole story as reported by Monica Eng here: Why Boys Swam Naked.

14 thoughts on “When Boys Swam Nude in Public High Schools: UPDATE

  1. Interesting and distressing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Seems like they could have issued small swim trunks that were washed in a chlorine solution prior to the men entering the pool.

    I guess there was no girls swimming in school then and there! Yikes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      The cost of swim trunks seems to have been considered, according to Monica Eng’s piece. Since she also reports that chlorination within pools had not been perfected, treating the materials with chlorine would surely have been an added and expensive encumbrance even if it were not controversial. I recall as a kid that putting chlorine in swimming pools was (indeed) a controversial issue in some parts of the USA. On a side note, summer time and swimming was a scary time before the Salk polio vaccine was created. You might recall from the history books that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had contracted polio as an adult, well before he became President.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting piece. Either I was so traumatized that the memories are still repressed, or it was no big deal. I do remember the gym instructor rubbing the crook of our arms for evidence of dirt before allowing us to enter the pool. The double standard involving girls makes absolutely no “hygienic” sense; which, of course, suggests other reasons that boys swam nude.


    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Harvey. I fall into your camp. I remember plenty with respect to high school gym and swimming, but nothing more powerfully than a kid who had a locker next to mine, whose hygiene left lots to be desired. He became an MD specializing in heart disease!


  4. Dr. Stein, thanks for the update. It’s interesting to note that your 2014 post has received comments over the years since then, even as recent as May 10, 2018. Indications, no doubt, of continued trauma among older males who suffered such indignity.


  5. drgeraldstein

    Thanks, Rosaliene. I hadn’t checked the dates on the comments, but don’t doubt that the trouble lingers. Indeed, the update was due to someone asking the WBEZ reporter the question for their program “Curious City,” which investigates such things.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I would like to repeat, if I may, a comment that I made last summer when I stumbled upon this discovery while browsing online last summer.
    As I pointed out last year, the rule of nude male swimming in public highschools also applied to team sports, including swimming, diving and water polo, and was often extended clear through college. Male athletes swam nude and totally exposed to the general public, which included classmates, faculty members and family members of all ages and genders. Moreover, since these events were school activities, yearbook photographers were allowed to cover the contests and print the pictures uncensored while naming the contestants in the captions. In addition to the “health and hygiene” rationale, the practice of photographing team members in the nude extended to team pictures as well, with team members, once again, identified in the captions. Evidently, since team pictures for other sports were taken, and team members were identified in the captions while wearing the uniform that they wore when representing their school in competition with other schools, the members of swim teams were photographed in the same manner that they appeared in competition with other schools. Many team pictures were taken combining both male and female members with the boys, totally nude, in the back, and with hardly any interest in concealing anything. There are a lot of old photographs of nude boys and girls in swimsuits combined together, often in no apparent particular order. Furthermore, the practice of compulsory nude male swimming was often extended to life guards, and even at public beaches where male and female lifeguards either often posed for photographs or were simply photographed together “talking shop”. The male lifeguards often wore a special white cap to identify themselves, and that was their only piece of clothing on job.
    That was how I, myself stumbled upon the extent of this practice in the past. As I pointed out last year, the photographs are all over the internet.


    • drgeraldstein

      I’d be interested to see something documenting this from a website that is known as a fact-checked source. I can tell you with certainty, this did not happen at the Chicago Public High School I attended in the 1960s. I have a yearbook without the pictures you are describing, Joseph. It sounds like you did not witness such things yourself. Nor did the WBEZ article, for example, speak of this.


  7. Dr. Stein:
    Go to the “CHROME” app logo on the Home page of your phone. (In case you you don’t know, or have forgotten, the “CHROME” logo is the rainbow spiral).
    When you have gained access to “CHROME”, type in “nude male swimming” and hit “search”.
    At the top of the page, hit “images”.
    When the images appear, You’ll be able to see a lot of the old photographs right away. Focus mainly on the black and white photographs. There are links that you can click back and forth on.
    That should shed plenty of light on the subject.


    • drgeraldstein

      I did a brief search, Joseph. I saw many images that seem to date to the early part of the last century, a period before the Chicago Public Schools instituted the naked swimming policy. I don’t doubt that there might have been different practices in some parts of the country or the world. I have not seen anything published by a reputable, fact-checked news outlet that would suggest young men and women swam together (except in nudist colonies) or that public high school swimming contests were conducted before mixed-gender audiences. Perhaps you are a better researcher than I. Best wishes.


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