Several years ago while attending a swimming pool convention in Fort Myers, Florida, I had an afternoon off and decided to visit the Edison Estate in Fort Myers. Edison was an extremely talented, hard working individual who really made a contribution that is still being felt today. While I really enjoyed looking at his inventions and his estate, I was most fascinated by his swimming pool. With the modern equipment that we have today, this would have been a simple pool to build, but the physical labor that must have gone into building this pool in the early 1900’s is amazing.
I began to wonder about the history of swimming pools. I know that they began as public baths and have been around for as long as history has been recorded. I even know about the Sutro baths on the coastline of San Francisco. But when did swimming pools become a reality in the United States? I decided to find out.
The first swimming pool was a public pool built in 1887 in Brookline, Massachusetts. Pools such as this were great places to socialize, and they provided a way to escape the summer heat before the invention of air conditioning. One of the first residential pools built was on the Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, North Carolina in 1895. Other wealthy families followed suit, with the Edisons being constructed in 1910.
Since there were no “pool contractors”, pools were built by general contractors, road contractors, concrete contractors, and water treatment plant contractors. These pools were usually made of concrete or concrete blocks. You can imagine how labor-intensive pool construction must have been, as the pool was dug either by hand or with the help of a mule, depending on access. Many of the same concrete construction concepts were used, but improvements were on the horizon.
In the 1930’s, hotels began having pools built as marketing tools. The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida was one of the first and certainly one of the most historic in the United States. The hotel typified the South Florida lifestyle and was host to the social elite, including movie stars such as Judy Garland, Ginger Rodgers, Bing Crosby and many others. Other hotels followed this lead with success. In addition, the pool at the famed Hearst Castle was constructed during this time. Municipalities also began building pools and the popularity of pools was increasing as the public was trying to avoid the summer heat. The most common construction method used for building swimming pools involved workers installing rebar or wire mesh on the wall, dumping concrete into the floor of the pool, and then hand-packing the concrete up the walls.
In 1940, the first gunite pool was built. The application method of gunite is through a nozzle or gun. It is sprayed on with air pressure and holds up on walls without the use of form boards or hand-packing. This new method was less expensive and was easier to shape. This is when productivity increased and the volume pool construction business began. This gunite method is still used today. Soon after the method of guniting was invented, World War II put the industry on hold.
In the mid to late 1940’s, after World War II was over, millions of men came home trained to swim and some were able, thanks to GI bill, to own homes. Wives had worked during the war and some continued to work after, boosting the family income even higher. The combination of these events was perfect for the pool industry. This is when companies such as Anthony Pools, Sylvan Pools, and California Pools began and the kidney-shaped pool emerged.
In the 1950’s, after the Korean War, the pool construction boom really took off, as more and more pool companies were using gunite over poured concrete or hand-stacked concrete. Now Florida, Texas, New York, and even the Midwest were beginning to have pool companies move in, mostly from California. Pool financing began a popular way to pay for the pools and made it possible for the upper-middle class to be pool owners. The industry was unified by the formation of the National Pool and Spa Institute, providing a forum for builders and manufacturers to exchange ideas and solutions to problems. In the late 1950’s, Esther Williams brand pools began operation, which was the first vinyl-lined swimming pool manufacturer. It was also during this time that the one-piece fiberglass pool debuted.
In the 1960’s the boom continued, with low unemployment and a good economy. Motels continued to put pools in people’s minds, and the application process of gunite continued to improve. The whole process of swimming pool construction really improved with the improvement of construction equipment and swimming pool plumbing and filtration equipment. The 1960’s are credited with PVC plumbing, pool skimmers, manufactured pool main drains, underwater lights, kool deck, and vinyl-liner pools. But the biggest advancement for the decade of the 1960’s was the shapes of pools, which were becoming more freeform than the rectangle pool that preceded it.
The 1970’s were very good for the swimming pool industry, as consumers and pool contractors were wanting more than a lap pool, and they got just what they wanted. The inground gunite spa was the development of the decade, once again with California blazing the trail. In addition, interesting shapes and raised beams were becoming very popular ways to deal with elevation changes. Improvements were also made in the area of vinyl-lined pools and fiberglass pools. There were now three types of pools and they were all potentially high-quality pools—gunite, fiberglass and vinyl-lined.
In the 1980’s, pool contractors looked for ways to make their pools more interesting. Lot sizes were decreasing, therefore pool builders had less area to deal with elevation issues, as raised spas and raised beams on pools continued to increase in popularity. New shapes were seen and new materials were used. One of the biggest changes of the 1980’s was the desire for pools to be more natural looking, rather than the traditional look of the swimming pool. Natural looking pools with dark interior finishes created a lagoon type pool that is still growing in popularity. The 1980’s were also responsible for the vanishing edge pool, which creates a look that the pool is emptying out. The decade also saw pool/spa computer control systems increase in popularity.
In the 1990’s, the swimming pool industry finally got what it has needed for a long time—input from consumers. Studies were commissioned and consumers wanted lower maintenance pools that were easier to operate. Studies show that safety was also a big concern. The pool industry addressed those concerns by offering higher quality automatic cleaners, control systems that are easy to operate and safety devices such as pool alarms and safety covers.
Although the look and construction methods have changed throughout the years—the reason for building a pool has not changed since that first public pool was built in Brookline, Massachusetts over 125 years ago— pools are a great places to socialize and they provided a way to escape the summer heat.