How Learning to Swim Changed Over the Course of American History

In Depth

Now that the dog days of July have arrived, you’ve probably given some thought to taking a dip. But first, you might consider some beach tips from a pair of books—both from the historical medical collection here at the New York Academy of Medicine, published in 1818 and 1918—once used to teach swimming. Of course, some advice has aged better than others.

First is The Art of Swimming, published in 1818. Author J. Frost encouraged parents to teach their sons to swim:

“Some parents may object to their children being taught the art of swimming, from an apprehension that they would be more exposed to danger, on account of its inducing them more frequently to bathe: to them I would reply, that bathing produces very salutary effects, and expert swimmers are seldom in danger in the water; while, to those who are ignorant of the art, bathing is really dangerous.”

Frost was ahead of his time. In the nineteenth century, New York and many other U.S. cities fined people for public swimming (no day swimming in the East River! It’s “‘extremely offensive to spectators”). As is evident from the male-oriented focus of Frost’s book, swimming only became acceptable for women with the availability of gender-segregated facilities. It was not until the mid-1800s—the age of a growing fitness movement—that upper and middle class Americans turned to swimming as recreation at seaside destinations and private fitness clubs. Public pools opened around the same time, but with a hygienic mission rather than a recreational one.

In a footnote, Frost explains why learning to swim was so important:

“The writer, when young, had the happiness to rescue his brother from a watery grave; and he has lately had the pleasure to hear, that two of his pupils were the means of saving a person from drowning; and still more recently, that one of his pupils was preserved by swimming, when accidentally thrown from a ferry on the river Trent, though encumbered with his clothes.”

In addition to 49 pages of swimming instructions, followed by the text of a swimming-related letter written by one Benjamin Franklin, the book includes “twelve copper plate engravings comprising twenty-six appropriate figures, correctly exhibiting and elucidating the action and attitude, in every branch of that invaluable art.” Here are a few:

This one’s called “playful swimming,” and comes with instructions:

“To spin with ease, the person should be somewhat bouyant; the breast must be well inflated, and the attitude may be that of sitting with the feet crossed…. The stream is the most favorable position for rolling, as it very much assists the turn. To achieve this, the person must lay himself straight across the current; he must inflate his breast, and hold his head very backward; his legs may either lie together, or be crossed; he must exercise his hands in the same manner as in spinning.”

Here’s the illustration for treading water:

By 1918, when Frank Eugen Dalton published Swimming Scientifically Taught, America was on the cusp of a golden age of swimming. From 1920 to 1940, pools opened in more than 1,000 cities across the country as centers for recreation for men and women of all classes. Yet public pools were not Dalton’s focus, at least not in his introduction. He paints this evocative picture:

“When slaves of the desk and the counting-house are looking forward for an all too brief vacation and seek the mountains or seashore to store up energy for another year’s work, they should know how to swim. Poor indeed is the region which can not boast of a piece of water in which to take an invigorating plunge.”

Dalton’s enthusiasm for swimming was limitless: “Most other forms of exercise, after they have been participated in for some time, are apt to become something like efforts, or even hardships. Swimming, on the other hand, continues to be exhilarating.”

Dalton believed that all but the most nervous person could “become a very fair swimmer” by reading his book. In addition to teaching basics, like the back stroke, breast stroke, and side stroke, the book also covers more advanced ground. Dalton shows a number of dives, a maneuver called “The Monte Cristo Sack Trick,” and includes instructions for learning to swim while clothed (“Practice first with a coat, then with a coat and waistcoat; next add trousers, and last the shoes and stockings”) and with hands and feet tied (a trick for advanced performers).

The final chapters focus on emergency response. Dalton describes two forms of resuscitation, Hall’s and Sylvester’s. Hall’s originated in 1856 as a method that did not require artificial respiration. Sylvester’s similar procedure followed two years later. Neither were very effective. It wasn’t until 1958 that mouth-to-mouth ventilation—a practice recommended by some medical societies as early as the 1770s—regained acceptance. Two years later, the American Heart Association developed CPR.

Whether you prefer Frost’s basic instructions or Dalton’s more advanced suggestions, swim safely this summer.

This was originally posted at the blog of the New York Academy of Medicine, where Johanna Goldberg is an information services librarian. All images from the library of the New York Academy of Medicine.

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