I adore the warmer months and like nothing better than to dive into and float around the swimming pool. Although I enjoy the beach, I am a always a little wary of the tides and general unpredictability of swimming in the sea. The July 4th long weekend we have just enjoyed was a great time to indulge in my passion for the swimming pool, and as I lay next to the pool reading and dozing in our beautiful Georgia sunshine, I starting thinking about their history.
The concept of man-made swimming pools for bathing and swimming dates back to the ancient world. In Pakistan around 2600 B.C., the Great Baths of Mohenjodaro, were probably used for religious ceremonies. Cave paintings have been discovered in Egypt from around the same time which show people swimming. From around 800 B.C. the ancient Greeks created open-air gymnasiums and swimming became part of young boys’ education. Starting in about 300 B.C. the Ancient Romans built luxurious heated swimming pools using thermal springs and manual furnaces. Roman technology led to the building of aqueducts which enabled them to circulate fresh water into the baths for a more hygienic experience. Ritual bathing and recreational swimming became part of Roman culture and they brought this to Britain when they conquered the country in 43 A.D. I have visited the Roman ruins in Southwestern England in a town called Bath (really!). This is where the Romans used the thermal springs found there to build a religious spa called Aquae Sulis which became a much-desired destination for worship, bathing, swimming and healing.
There appears to be a long period when there wasn’t much focus on building bathing or swimming pools, but around the middle of the 19th century, six indoor pools with diving boards were built in London, England. After the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 with swimming races, pools became much more popular. According to the book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming in America, the Cabot Street Bath in Boston was the first swimming pool in the U.S. It opened in 1868 and served a neighborhood where few if any of the homes had running water.
When we visited George Vanderbilt’s fabulous Biltmore Estate in North Carolina a few years ago, I was intrigued by the huge (but empty) indoor swimming pool which was built in the 1890s. The architect designed this 70,000-gallon swimming pool with a heating system and underwater lights, which were well ahead of their time, along with rope rails around the pool to help people who were unaccustomed to deep water. However, the pool didn’t have a filtration system, so the water had to be drained and refilled from the nearby French Broad River every few days. This was before 20th century technology when chemicals including chlorine and algaecides started to be used to keep pools clean. I tried not to dwell on the levels of bacteria and dirt in the pool after a houseful of guests had been enjoying hospitality at Biltmore for a few days!
By 1906, the first indoor swimming pool was installed on an ocean liner by the White Star Line. The first above ground pool in America was built at the exclusive Racquet Club of Philadelphia in 1907, a big advance in swimming pool science. Technology continued to improve with the invention of gunite, a material that allowed for flexibility and quicker installation leading to lower costs.
During my recent visit to Austin, Texas, I was sorry I missed going to the iconic Deep Eddy Pool which earned its name from how the pool was originally formed. The Colorado River created a swimming hole in Austin where a giant boulder formed an eddy, or a pool of swirling water blocked from flowing because of a large obstacle. Today, swimmers can still enjoy the fresh water, swimming lanes and wading area of this amazing historic site.
In 1947, above ground pool kits hit the market, creating an entirely new pool experience. The comparative affordability of building swimming pools led to explosive growth. Due to the rather challenging cold and wet British climate and the fact that most homes have less space available, private pools are not very common in the land of my birth. Even after living here for 14 years I still get excited that many days are warm enough to be “pool days”, if only I had the time!
The trade body Pool and Hot Tub Alliance estimates there are more than 10 million swimming pools across the USA, including more than 300,000 public pools. During the pandemic lockdown, there was a big demand for private pools, so the market for residential pools continues to be strong.
I will say goodbye this week with a quote from American basketball great Dennis Rodman. “This life is like a swimming pool, you dive into the water but you can’t see how deep it is.”
God Bless America!
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