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.

When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public Schools


At a time when teens expose lots of flesh, it will probably surprise a few of you that high school boys used to swim in the nude when everyone else was much more “covered-up” than today. That practice happened in many places, but it was routine in the (CPS) Chicago Public High Schools in the middle of the last century. Research suggests it stopped at some time in the 1970s, but this post isn’t about how long it lasted. It is about the effect on those of us who lived the experience.

The privacy concerns of today were then unknown. Social Security numbers that would open the door to identity theft in 2014 were unprotected by most people 50 years ago. So, too, were the nude bodies of teen males from about age 13 to 18. It was part of what was called physical education (PE), but the lessons of this particular class were perverse.

We followed orders. We didn’t question it the way one might today. Our fathers, many of whom had been subjected to the same expectation, didn’t ask about it either. I don’t remember having any conversations with my folks or my friends, the latter until many years later. Then the injured skeletons finally popped out of the pool closet.

Organized nude male exercise dates as far back as Ancient Greece. Socrates talks about it in Plato’s Republic and even suggests at one point that male and female potential “guardians” of one’s ideal municipality should be required to work out together buff naked! At least nothing like that happened at Mather High School or elsewhere in the CPS system. Physical education wasn’t co-ed. The young ladies wore unattractive “tank suits” covering crucial parts. Males alone followed the drill sans a bathing suit and did so out of the sight of anyone but their classmates and the teacher.

Believe me, for some people I knew, just standing around nude in the confines of a cold swimming area was bad enough without an audience. Let’s start with the fact that you’d just come out of a shower warmer than the air and water in the “pool room.” The swimming area was tiled. Sitting at pool’s edge or on tile benches always felt like squatting on blocks of ice. Teeth chattered. That was just the start.

Once fully in the water, of course, brought relief from the ease with which others could inspect your “equipment.” There were always some kids who were “advanced” in this department. Others could rightfully have been called “developmentally delayed” in terms of secondary sexual characteristics like pubic hair. There were size differences, too. Comparisons were both inevitable and impossible to avoid, although most of the boys tried to be discreet about it.

Embarrassment came to those targeted by bullies, as their successors surely do today too, especially from the “big guys” who had no problem in any area of growth and enjoyed a little sadism. Mocking occurred, egos crumbled like cookies. These were the stories uttered for the first time (in my non-professional experience) by classmates I saw at the 40th Class Reunion. For a few, the memories remained painful. Young men are enormously insecure in the sexual development and attractiveness department. An entire class devoted to seeing nude bodies of your classmates could only turn out badly for some.

I wonder what the teachers were thinking, not to mention the school administrators who sanctioned this practice. I’ve heard it said that some claimed it was a matter of cleanliness. Or perhaps, somewhere way back, someone had read about Ancient Greek physical ed. and thought it sounded great. “It will make men out of them, maybe even the next Achilles” he must have been thinking.

The eventual decision to require swim trunks might have been the result of increasing concerns over discrimination bubbling up in the 50’s and ’60s about other things, notably race and eventually gender bias. Since only the boys had to swim nude, it was the male gender being disadvantaged. I really don’t know with certainty why the course changed. Surely it didn’t end all at once everywhere that it was happening in the USA.

Nor must anyone who required male nudity have considered the excruciating circumstance it must have created for gay teens at a time before the word “gay” meant anything but being jolly — when custom permitted more pejorative and degrading names for those kids with a predilection for same-sex relationships. And remember, teen-aged boys have enormous difficulty controlling the automatic arousal that can happen anytime, anywhere.

That reminds me of Mae West, a femme fatale of early talking movies. She commented to an attractive male, “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” But I’ll tell you from personal experience that erections often happen to 16-year-old males at the most inopportune moments. I find it rather ironic, in light of the overwhelming number of commercials for middle-aged men with problems of sexual performance these days.

To end, here’s  a story I was told by someone who saw it happen in another CPS swim class. Doubtless it wasn’t the only one of its kind. The teacher wanted someone to demonstrate the back float. The first couple of kids were chosen at random, but couldn’t manage the task, frustrating the instructor. “Hey Murray, you’re the finest swimmer here, show these guys how it’s  done,” he finally barked. Murray tried his stalwart best and did, indeed, display the ideal back float form for the 30 or so fellow-students assembled around him.

There was only one problem for good-old Murray. In the middle of everything, the poor Murray-meister had an erection that popped up like the opening of a switchblade, automatic knife. No sooner did it appear, than one of the class wags yelled out, “Up periscope, Murray!”

For an update on the reasons nude male swimming became mandatory, please read: When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public High Schools: Update.

Fritz Reiner: A Marriage of Talent and Terror

Fritz Reiner

People were afraid of Fritz Reiner. Talented people, self-assured people, decent people. He was notorious for finding a small crack in your confidence and opening it wide. But he was also known for something else.

Fritz Reiner was not just a sadist, but a genius. One of the greatest conductors ever and the man who took the Chicago Symphony, from 1953 to 1962, and fashioned a legend. According to Igor Stravinsky, Reiner “made the Chicago  Symphony into the most precise and flexible orchestra in the world.”

For those who want individuals to be neatly categorized as all good or all bad, Reiner is confounding: both a great artist and a questionable human. He brings to mind Toscanini’s comment about the composer Richard Strauss: “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.”

Fritz Reiner was a conductor who had virtually no flaws, however flawed he was personally. His repertoire ranged from the light music of Johann Strauss, Jr. and Richard Rogers’ musical theater Carousel, to the gravity of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Equally at home in the German, Russian, and French repertoire, he played music from Bach to Bartok and much in between. But the road was hard for those musicians who joined him on his artistic quests: demanding if you were on his good side, career-threatening if you were not.

According to Gunther Schuller, who played principal horn under Reiner at the Metropolitan Opera:

He clearly had a sadistic streak in him, and truly enjoyed making musicians uncomfortable, making them squirm, humiliating them. He was the type (who)… inflicted his particular sadistic gratifications in a coolly clinical, perfectly controlled manner, a type we have seen many times in films caricaturing Prussian or Nazi officers and the like… With Reiner I clearly sensed that he was deriving a certain emotional and intellectual pleasure from torturing his victims… (He was a person who) would not only deliver his stinging sarcasm in utter calculated calm, but would also pursue his victim until the person broke, it being symptomatic of this type of verbal sadist that he can easily sense a weakling who is unable to stand up to the abuse; this type of sadist hunts down his prey until the kill has been accomplished.*

Fritz Reiner by John Jensen:

Fritz Reiner by John Jensen: http://www.Johnjensen.co.uk

Reiner’s twin capacity to inflict discomfort and create staggering musical moments combined in the surgical precision of his approach to his musicians. Through his movements and his words, the conductor was able to inflect the musical line or inflict personal pain as he chose.

Reiner took a minimalist approach to the use of his baton, in what came to be called a “vest pocket beat.” As Philip Farkas (principal horn for most of Reiner’s CSO tenure) recalled:

He conducted with everything he had, not only with his hands. I recall he’d be looking at the first violins, so we’d get only a profile. A big brass entrance would come in. He’d suddenly turn his head and, still directing his hands toward the violins, would look at us and puff out his cheeks right on the beat, which was a real demonstration of when the winds should come in. Then, if we’d had that attack he gave us with his cheeks, if he wanted a crescendo, his eyebrows would go slowly higher. While still working with the first violins, he might kick out in back of him and bring in the violas with his foot**

Clearly, Reiner knew his business and knew what he could achieve by talent and by intimidation, as Farkas illustrated in recalling Reiner’s first rehearsal with the CSO as its new Music Director:

We’d had a long number of years of lax discipline and too many guest conductors. The men were good, it was a good orchestra, but undisciplined and far from being a cohesive group. So Reiner took over and tore that orchestra apart. In a two-hour rehearsal he pulled us apart and put us together again — literally — and in the course of doing it actually fired one of the men. He said, “I don’t accept that kind of playing in my orchestra.” We thought, “Gee, you haven’t even got the orchestra yet, it’s only an hour or so.” But it was his orchestra, he had a contract to prove it. Anyhow, he took us apart and we needed it, we all knew that. And when he put it back together and we went straight through Ein Heldenleben (by Richard Strauss) the last hour of rehearsal, it was a revelation. There we had it, and we knew we had it, but we couldn’t do it until he came along. When he did it, it was great. But, as I say, he was rough. He spared no mercy on us at all. As he went out the door after the rehearsal, he was the only calm one. The rest of us were ringing wet. As he went out the door, one of our wags in the orchestra, (the violinist) Royal Johnson, said, “Well, not much of a conductor, but an awfully nice fellow!”***

Reiner’s reputation had preceded him. Indeed, one attributed feature of his almost demonic musicianship was the ability to give every player the feeling that he and he alone was being watched by the conductor at every moment. Perhaps it was that quality that accounts for the following CSO story, also involving Royal Johnson. Johnson was seated on stage — on the aisle that led to the stage door. At an early rehearsal in Reiner’s tenure, Johnson got up as Reiner moved past him to the podium and walked very quietly just behind the conductor, peering over his shoulder. What he observed was an apparent surgical scar that Reiner had on the back of his neck, something other musicians had already commented on. Johnson quickly returned to his seat before Reiner noticed anything unusual. The violinist turned to his stand-mate and said, “You know, that’s not his original head!”

For Gunther Schuller, Adolph (Bud) Herseth (the CSO’s legendary principal trumpet), and many others, the key to survival under these conditions, was to stand up to the conductor — to look Reiner in the eyes as he stared you down and to keep playing well, no matter how many times he might ask you to repeat a phrase in order to “test” you. Reiner claimed that he wanted musicians he could rely on, who he could depend upon “in the trenches.” If you passed his tests and didn’t break, he usually left you alone thereafter. But, it was a day before strong musicians’ committees and contracts that protected the players. The conductor did, indeed, have your professional life and livelihood in his hands.

Could he have achieved what he wanted without being ruthless? Theoretically, the answer is, of course. But, at a human level, our strengths are frequently also our weaknesses. His ability to lead and his unyielding dominance were probably inextricably intermingled.

The cost of Reiner’s achievement was doubtless a high one. But often, it must be admitted, that combination of talent and terror led to something special. Never more than on a CSO tour concert in 1958. Philip Farkas relates the story:

As time went along on this Boston concert, it was obvious that we had a “no-hitter” going. Tension was mounting — there hadn’t been the slightest flaw, no scratch. Intermission came, and we said, “Jeez, what’s going on? We’re playing even better than usual.” So at the end of the concert — nobody had scratched a note anywhere during the entire concert. We were all aware of this, and very excited about it. When we went off stage after the applause had stopped, Reiner was there shaking everybody’s hand, tears streaming down his face. “All my life I’ve waited for this moment: a perfect concert. The only one I’ve ever experienced.” And it was, so far as I know. I came out the door, and there was (Arthur) Fiedler (conductor of the Boston Pops): “You’re not men — you’re gods,” he said.****

Gods? You can find out for yourself. Sony has just issued every recording the CSO made with Reiner for RCA:
Fritz Reiner — Chicago Symphony Orchestra: The Complete RCA Recordings.

Reiner complete

Special thanks to John Jensen for permission to use his Reiner caricature. Other excellent images can be found at: http://www.johnjensen.co.uk/

*Gunther Schuller, Gunther Schuller: A Life In Pursuit of Music and Beauty (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011), 378.

**Hillyer, Stephen C., ed. “The Podium” 2, no. 2, (Country Club Hills, IL: The Fritz Reiner Society, 1978), Reiner Symposium in Bloomington, IN, March 11, 1978, 12.

***Hillyer, “The Podium,” 12.

****Hillyer, “The Podium” 3, 1979, 22.