At the turn of the last century, swimming holes became a source of nostalgia, a symbol for Americans of the price of progress, of all that had been lost thanks to modernization. Every town and village in the country sent out photographers to take pictures of their local swimming holes, putting them on postcards that visitors and residents alike sent to friends and family. I began to collect some of these souvenirs a few years back when I stumbled across an old photo postcard of a Hudson River scene at an antique store. It reminded me of my early summer days at camp where my cabin buddies and I would slip off to one of the rocky slopes along a lake, strip down to our birthday suits, and climb a weathered old piece of rope that flung us out into the crisp rain-fed waters of an old pond. Over the years, I've collected dozens of Swimming Hole images on postcards, stereoscopes, calendars, jigsaw puzzles, magazine covers, printing blocks, matchbooks, ashtrays, glassware, handkerchiefs, medallions and, of course, old photographs. There was even a film in the 40s called The Old Swimmin' Hole, starring Jackie Moran. Its lobby cards and posters turn up occasionally on eBay.
What is remarkable in looking back over the vast variety of Swimming Hole ephemera is how much humor there was in it. Rockwell was best at capturing the unbridled glee of youths shirking their menial duties while grasping an hour of free time at the old "hole." Other cards and advertisements focused on the good clean fun of bathing regularly (at a time when most people only took a bath on Saturday nights). Ads for Ivory Soap, Crisco, Cream of Wheat and motor oils emphasized the hygienic benefits of swimming regularly. In later years, soda companies like 7-UP underscored the sheer exuberance of the experience.
Here are a few parting words from James Whitcomb Riley, the author of the famous poem "Ye Ole Swimming Hole."
Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin'-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be --
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin'-hole.
Even when he wrote this touching bit of colloquial verse, he knew the swimming hole was fading fast. For most of us now, it is just a wisp of a memory, a souvenir of times past, but a world of comforting recollections well worth collecting.
Brooks Peters Blog
Click here for more information on Brooks Peters