It’s too hot and humid this Fourth of July weekend to write about anything except cooling down in the pool. This little receipt documents Henry Brown’s membership in the Swimming School operated by Jarvis Braman in Boston near Chesnut Street at the foot of Beacon Hill. It opened its doors in 1836 and after the old man’s death in 1850, his son Jarvis Dwight continued to manage the business at least until 1872, according to Boston city directories. The Bramans were not the first to operate a pool in Boston; that distinction belongs to Francis Lieber, who opened one in 1826 at the short-lived Boston Gymnasium. Although the reason given for withdrawing support was that the exercises were too vigorous, there were uncomfortable questions about whether women and African-Americans should be allowed access.
Henry paid for admission on June 10, 1838 and it looks as if he were member number 52. He did not sign up for lessons or a bathing costume, so perhaps he had learned to swim the previous year and now needed access to keep up his strokes, strength, and stamina. The $5.00 fee sounds very reasonable, even without any indication of how many months’ admission he signed up for. That $5.00, however, had the purchasing power of $136.00 in today’s currency, so it was probably a lot for many people to pay. Certainly less affluent Bostonians availed themselves of Braman’s public bath at a different address.
The back of the receipt states all the rules governing members. Opening hours were between sunrise to sunset. No swimming naked: the drawers were for the swimmer’s safety as well as modesty, because proficient swimmers were designated by the red cords around their waists. The interpretation of rule 8 poses a few difficulties. Does “interfere” mean no rough housing or horse play? Or no physical contact of any sort between boys to forestall the temptation of self-pollution? Rule 6, which states that boys may not go into any other boys’ apartments, suggests that management felt obligated to try and maintain their scholars’ purity.
Things on the Continent do not seem to have been quite so regimented, at least in book illustrations where children are shown swimming outside in idyllic settings. In this German salute to the seasons, July was the time for swimming. The boys are shown a garment that looks like a modern pair of trunks, although they were probably made of woven cloth, not a knitted jersey. Perhaps American boys wore something similar.
This illustration of a French Famous Five offers an interesting contrast to the previous illustration. Coed bathing seems not to have been forbidden. Certainly the children’s costumes are less revealing than the German ones. The boy’s chest is covered up, but the trunks are shorter. The girls are wearing suits in two pieces, with the waists defined by drawstrings. Their shorts come to the knee instead of mid-thigh. The hems of the blouses and shorts are trimmed. Everyone has short sleeves, conducive to getting what used to ungraciously be called a “farmer’s tan” in Southern California. Did anyone in the nineteenth century use some kind of sunscreen to prevent sunburn????
To see more children enjoying swimsr, visit Cotsen’s virtual exhibition Water Babies.