The Emperor in the Swimming Pool : A History

Thought I’d write something a little more light-hearted now that summer is really coming, and write about the history of swimming pools — in fact this is a great way to connect with the ancient Roman emperors, who used to have quite stylish baths themselves, as the fun-looking archaeological evidence in places like Pompeii and Ostia attests.

In Bath, UK, where hot springs form under the ground, a perfectly functional replica of the Roman bath that was built there by the Romans after they invaded Britain in about 60-70 A.D.; although there was already a Celtic shrine at the site of the hot springs before, the Romans gave it their stamp of permanence by transforming it into a temple of Minerva and leaving behind their distinctive architectural style. The Great Roman Baths can still be visited and bathed in today.

The fashion blogs are atwitter with postings about the history of the bikini, but let us dive into the history of swimming pools (pun kind of intended)…

We know the ancient Romans liked to bathe, and we today love lounging by a private pool in summer. But how did it all begin? Have you ever thought many public swimming pools appear to have been built in the mid-20th century, and did you ever wonder why that is?

We’ll have to go back to England, via the USA, to understand the swimming pool phenomenon; because one thing is for sure: in between antiquity and modernity, bathing was certainly not very common during the middle ages in Europe. A mixed set of reasons has been suggested as to why that was, in particular it seems that the church, which was the most influential authority during the middle ages, condemned the use of public bathing facilities by women, arguing that mixed bathing led to immorality, promiscuity, sex and disease. At the time, it was believed that disease spread through water, so that many decided to forego bathing altogether.

Personal hygiene, on the whole, remained rather unsavoury until as late as the 19th century, when many advances were made in the understanding of health and hygiene. Indeed, this is when public bathing facilities began to pop up again. Bathing in the river became a popular social pastime in Britain in the early to mid 19th century, as became water polo and a handful of eccentric games such as swimming breakfast parties. The first recorded swimming club opened its doors in Maidstone in Kent, in 1844. By then, six indoor swimming pools with diving boards existed in London already.

In 1896, the modern Olympic Games were relaunched in Athens, after Greece had gained its national independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, and the idea to reconnect with the Greek cultural patrimony sparked off the Olympic fire. The games included swimming races, which pulled their weight in popularizing swimming as a sport even more, and the enthusiasm for swimming pools began to spread.

The 1952 Hollywood movie Million Dollar Mermaid (aka One Piece Bathing Suit) gave a huge deal of publicity to the private home swimming pool and the swimming sports (not least: the water ballet), and swimming fashion.

And the public pools? Just like the enjoyment of water sports of all kinds flourished in the late 19th century, so too did the return of personal hygiene in that time. For instance in Germany, early pioneers of working class healthcare reforms believed that increasing the standards of basic hygiene would significantly improve the overall health of the population and launched ambitious projects to have numerous public bathing houses built in the German cities.

This is how, before the frenzy for public sports centres and Olympic racing pools of the 1950s and ’60s, many public bathing houses were built in Germany towards the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century. Aside from showers and bathtubs, some also featured swimming pools. A handful of them still survive as listed buildings in all their art deco, art nouveau or bauhaus-style glory, often playing with reminiscences of Roman bath architecture and design.

And today? Oh well, you know…



image : Wikimedia commons. Gellert baths in Budapest