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Taking the Waters

The West Side Natatorium

Apr. 7, 2010
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When Milwaukee was young, the city’s residents were in a lively debate over the appropriateness of male public nudity. At various spots on the banks of the Milwaukee River and the Lake Michigan shore during the warm months, working-class boys and young men could often be found in puris naturalibus, splashing, shouting and roughhousing in the water.

According to Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America by Jeff Wiltse, Milwaukee passed an ordinance in 1856 that restricted public swimming and bathing. The law forbade any person from entering Lake Michigan or the Milwaukee River during the daytime or at a spot “within sight of any dwelling house, public walk, pier, or other place of business.” The law, however, wasn’t really enforced. A Milwaukee Sentinel article from Sept. 3, 1878, reads that one local boy was famous for his habit of “stripping upon the bank of the river and assuming the pose of Michael Angelo’s Slave just as the little river steamer hove in sight with her load of women and children.”

After the Milwaukee Sentinel received several letters penned by residents who lived on the waterfront describing their daily view, the newspaper spearheaded a campaign to convince local authorities to enforce the ordinance. The Sentinel’s argument brought the desired effect—authorities began enforcing the anti-swimming law, and soon the municipal court was flooded with “lads” and “youngsters” caught swimming in the lake and river.

Milwaukee’s public swimmers and bathers resisted the attack on what they believed to be their right to swim when, where and however they wanted. Over the next several years, they wrote letters to the Sentinel defending their claim. As important as swimming was to the boys, bathing in the Milwaukee River was a genuine need for many of the city’s working-class men. A group of four Irish laborers who favored swimming in the river at the Spring Street Bridge (now Wisconsin Avenue) had their employer write a letter for them stating their opinion. Unlike the middle-class “ladies and gentlemen” who supported the law, many of Milwaukee’s working-class didn’t have baths in their homes and couldn’t afford the cost of admission into a private bathhouse. The river was their only place to bathe.

The Irish immigrants identified a social quandary. While the era’s popular magazines and domestic advice journals preached a system of values that emphasized cleanliness, modesty and self-restraint, it was a lifestyle the middle and upper classes could adhere to. Modesty and “respectable” bathing wasn’t an option for a family of 10 living in a two-bedroom tenement without running water. So, Wiltse explains, “cities and private charities began providing public baths…because middle-class reformers and public officials came to see personal cleanliness as a public necessity, not just a cultural preference.”

Milwaukee’s first pool, the West Side Natatorium, located on Prairie Street (now West Highland Avenue and Seventh Street) opened on Aug. 14, 1889. Designed by Paul Schnetzky, the building was 150 feet by 60 feet and constructed of Cream City brick. Ladies' days were usually Monday, Wednesday and Friday; men's days were Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; and the natatorium was closed on Sunday. In the dressing rooms, people would soap themselves under the showers, then have to pass the inspection of a pool custodian before entering the water. While public officials intended the municipal pool to be used “seriously” as a bath and fitness facility, working-class boys transplanted their boisterous swimming culture from the natural waters of the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan to the chlorinated concrete pools of the Natatorium, helping to define public pools as centers for working-class fun.


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