Contested Waters

A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

By Jeff Wiltse

288 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 29 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-7127-0
    Published: May 2010
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-8898-8
    Published: November 2009
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8113-7
    Published: November 2009

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Awards & distinctions

2007 William F. "Buck" Dawson Author's Award, International Swimming Hall of Fame

A 2008 Best of the Best from University Presses selection by a panel of public and academic librarians for the Association of American University Presses

From nineteenth-century public baths to today's private backyard havens, swimming pools have long been a provocative symbol of American life. In this social and cultural history of swimming pools in the United States, Jeff Wiltse relates how, over the years, pools have served as asylums for the urban poor, leisure resorts for the masses, and private clubs for middle-class suburbanites. As sites of race riots, shrinking swimsuits, and conspicuous leisure, swimming pools reflect many of the tensions and transformations that have given rise to modern America.

About the Author

Jeff Wiltse is associate professor of history at the University of Montana.
For more information about Jeff Wiltse, visit the Author Page.


"Intelligent, compelling social history."—Atlantic Monthly

"It quickly becomes clear that Wiltse's Contested Waters isn't a dreary historical catalog of shapes and styles of swimming pools vast and small. It's the colorful story of America's municipal swimming pools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Against that backdrop it becomes a story of America. It's all here: a sense of this country's benevolence, its community relations, civic wars, social strata, sexuality and sexism as well as our capacity for having a good time. Chronicled along with these are our ill-feeling prejudice, ignorance and racial strife. . . . [Contested Waters offers] a good course in America. All its traits, fine and lamentable are found here—the most vivid being, alas, our stinking racism."—Dick Cavett, New York Times Book Review

"This is well done, clearly written, thoroughly researched history, and it effectively makes important points about the tensions that confounded America during the Civil Rights movement. . . . Wiltse uses the municipal swimming pool as a fascinating window onto social changes and urban tensions across the 20th century."—Publishers Weekly

"Incisive."—New Yorker

"[A] well-written account. . . . [Wiltse's] myriad primary sources are particularly impressive. . . . Succeeds on all accounts."—Journal of American History

"Carefully researched and well-written . . . a welcome beginning to a national story of public recreation."—American Historical Review