Like many blue humanities people, I was excited to see Karen Eva Carr’s new book, Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming appear from Reaktion earlier this summer. I was lucky to read the book in manuscript, though my excessive praise didn’t all fit onto the back jacket. Here’s the full version –
All humans can swim, but not everyone makes the effort to learn. Out of the cultural asymmetry between swimming and non-swimming cultures, Karen Eva Carr’s expansive and engaging volume traces a complex narrative about the ‘art’ of swimming in world history since the last Ice Age. Carr shows how different cultures organized themselves against each other in relation to swimming practices, from the skilled exploits of Indigenous and African swimmers to the radical immersions of avant-garde Europeans like Byron and Shelley to modern cultural battles over access to watery spaces from California to Australia to Japan. She demonstrates the recurrence of fundamental cultural anxieties about the water – that it is too sacred to be polluted by humans, that it encourages sexual licentiousness, that it is dangerous, and that it promotes racial and class mixing – and shows how these ancient patterns continue in our ambivalently water-focused present. As seas rise in the twenty-first century, we should heed the lessons of this rich history.
I met Karen during the timeless haze of the later pandemic on the always-gorgeous grounds of Mystic Seaport in Connecticut , and we talked about trying to do an event and discussion for the book’s launch. She’s back on the West Coast now, so we have moved to an online discussion.
The recurrence of cultural ideas about swimming, which include the notions that immersion is sacred, that it is licentious, that it is dangerous, and that it promotes the mixing of races and classes, seem a great place to start.
Why does swimming mean what it means?
KC – Thank you for the kind introduction! I’m so glad you were willing to read my book before publication and lend it your support. It was great to meet you at Mystic Seaport last year (too bad we didn’t record *that* conversation to share!) and I’m sorry that my itinerant life and covid combined to impede the in-person event we had hoped for. But I’m loving being back in Portland, where despite our reputation for rain, we actually have lovely sunny summers that are perfect for swimming outside. And from Portland, I’m excited that this conversation will be a good opportunity to explore some of the ways in which our ideas overlap and can feed each other.
I’m going to take your questions one at a time. Why does swimming mean what it means? I think swimming has taken on this strong cultural significance because it’s a great shibboleth. As in the Bible story (Judges 12), where the Jews identified their enemies by their inability to pronounce the word ‘shibboleth’ correctly, swimming is a skill that is difficult to learn and impossible to fake. Nobody, no matter how motivated, can simply jump in deep water and swim without learning how. In places where not everyone learns to swim, swimming presents insiders with a simple and foolproof method for uncovering outsiders who are presenting false credentials. I think we see this in Plato’s proverb that ignorant people can ‘neither read nor swim’: reading, like swimming, is a skill that is difficult to learn and impossible to fake, so it, too, is a good way to uncover would-be social climbers.
SM: That’s an interesting way to frame swimming as a cultural marker. Swimming, like reading, becomes a marker of identity? That also seems important to the story your book tells about swimming cultures, in Africa, the Americas, and other warm/tropical areas, in contrast with non-swimming cultures, mostly from colder places in the north.
KC: Right! In swimming cultures, in the south, this wouldn’t work as a social marker, because everyone learns to swim as a baby. But in northern cultures, even where some people learned to swim, it was mostly the most cosmopolitan, privileged people who learned, and that’s where swimming became a way to discern social status – which it still is today for many people.
SM: That makes me think about recent American history, in which many public pools were closed during the Civil Rights Era, when they would have otherwise been forced to integrate. As a result, swimming and swimming clubs became markers of status and often of race. Jeff Wiltse’s great book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (2010) provides a detailed history.
KC: I love Jeff Wiltse’s book on this! There’s also Andrew Kahrl, The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South (2012), and Gilbert Mason’s Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Black Doctor’s Civil Rights Struggle (2000), which tells the story from a Black man’s point of view. But I’d put it the other way around: swimming had been a marker of status for Europeans since the early Iron Age, when Odysseus knew how to swim but his crew members didn’t. And swimming had been a marker of race at least since the 1400s, when European slave-traders in Africa justified their monstrous business by claiming that African people’s knowledge of swimming showed that they were practically animals. It was because swimming was already a strong cultural marker that White people refused to desegregate the pools, even as they did desegregate other public spaces like libraries and restaurants.
SM: After reading the excerpt of your book on Slate, I’m thinking about the different swimming strokes. Why is it that Europeans love the breaststroke?
KC: Our earliest definite evidence for swimming shows a clear overhand stroke, alternating arms with a straight-legged flutter kick: that’s how we see swimming on an Egyptian hieroglyph from the Old Kingdom, about 5000 years ago. As far as we can tell, that’s how everybody swam from then until the Late Middle Ages, around 1200 CE. That’s true not only throughout Africa, but also in Asia and in Europe in the time of the Greeks and Romans, and in the Americas: everyone swims with an overhand, alternating stroke. It’s faster, of course, than anything else we know of. Maybe it’s also more natural, in the sense of being more like crawling, and more the way dogs and other animals swim, than the breaststroke is. Interestingly, we don’t see much in the way of backstroke in early images of swimming. That, too, seems to wait for the Late Middle Ages. So I think that for most swimmers all over the world, swimming just meant the ‘crawl’ stroke; that was what swimming was.
SM: The early modern English academic Everard Digby talks about swimming like a frog, and shows some pictures of it in De arte natandi (1587). (I wrote a short piece about Digby as swimming teacher here.) That also makes me wonder about whether ancient peoples swam with their faces down in the water. That’s more efficient, but hard to see, and uncomfortable in salt water before goggles.
KC: I’ve actually always hated swim goggles, so I’m used to swimming with my face in the water. I guess in the ocean I just don’t open my eyes under the water; I don’t think I’ve ever tried that. I just look when I take a breath. But in lakes and rivers, I do open my eyes. I don’t know of any discussion of this question, either from southern swimming cultures or among northerners, about whether people opened their eyes underwater. I do suspect that most northerners didn’t put their faces in the water at all if they could help it.
SM: I’d love to read a history of underwater looking! Margaret Cohen has a brand-new study of underwater photography and film, The Underwater Eye: How the Movie Camera Opened the Depths and Unleashed New Realms of Fantasy (2022) – but I’ve not yet received my copy! I think the modern popularizer of swimming goggles was a WWI fighter pilot, Guy Gilpatric, who modified his flight goggles.
KC: Oh, that’s very interesting! I never thought about where swimming goggles came from, but that does seem likely! It’s always dangerous to argue from silence, but I think the silence of our sources on this subject probably indicates that most Europeans swam with their faces out of the water. Byron and his friends, however, are said to have dived to retrieve thimbles from the bottom of the river, so I imagine they must have opened their eyes for that!
How does breaststroke become the dominant stroke of European swimmers?
KC: Well, there is one exception to the general rule that breaststroke is mostly a European innovation, from Central America. About 400-100 BC, images of Maya swimmers show them with their hands together and legs bent, in what could be the breaststroke with a frog kick, but might just be a representation of diving. Otherwise, the big change comes in the Late Middle Ages, as I said. In the 1260s, an illustration of swimming from Frederick II’s On the Art of Hunting with Birds might show the breaststroke; another image from fourteenth-century Iran may show breaststroke with frog kick. The first definite illustration of the breaststroke is in the Très riches heures du duc de Berry, from about 1415, and involves peasants swimming in a pond, but after that everyone in Europe uses the breaststroke exclusively, until the 1800s. Even today, most Europeans learn only the breaststroke, unless they are very good swimmers. The change seems to be connected to a very ancient fear of disturbing the water by splashing. This goes back at least three thousand years: in the early Iron Age, Hesiod warns against crossing rivers without praying first. Zoroastrian Avestas from Iran are concerned about ‘the defilement of still water.’ The Biblical prophet Ezekiel criticizes Egypt’s Pharaoh: ‘you trouble the waters with your feet.’ The Roman philosopher Seneca reviles ‘the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing.’ Around 1000 AD, the Uzbek doctor Ibn Sina also recommended bathing calmly and quietly. And the same sentiment appears in the 1840s, when The Times in London rejected a demonstration of the ‘crawl’ stroke by two Native Americans as ‘grotesque’ because the swimmers ‘lashed the water violently with their arms…and beat downward with their feet.’ People sought ‘a minimum of splashing.’ And it’s still true today. In the 2000s, British ‘wild swimmers’ still value ‘meditative’ swimming, ‘without kicking or thrashing around.’
This fear of splashing isn’t a problem anywhere else: in the Americas, in Africa, in Southeast Asia and Japan, people kept right on using a ‘crawl’ stroke into modern times. There’s no concern about splashing. In the United States today, most children learn the ‘crawl’ stroke first, and only later the breaststroke as a minor alternative. I’m not sure whether that’s because United States swimmers were more influenced by Native American swimmers (especially the Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, who won Olympic medals in the 1920s), or because United States swim teachers (mostly outside of school) place more emphasis on competition swimming, whereas European swim teachers (mostly in a school context) emphasize water safety.
SM: I wonder also if it’s generational – I learned crawl stroke in the early 1970s in a system that sent me right through to the swim team. But I’m pretty sure my parents, who learned in the 1950s, also in New Jersey, started with a version of breast stroke. My Dad taught me an irregular breaststroke, which involved putting my head all the way under the water and pulling my arms all the way to my side, sort of like elementary backstroke on the belly. My teachers, who wanted me to learn regulation breaststroke so I could race, were appalled!
KC: Oh, that’s very interesting! I definitely learned crawl first. I only really learned breaststroke when I was in school in France, where they learned breaststroke first and only the best swimmers (the Dolphin group) learned freestyle. My mother says she learned crawl from her mother, and only learned breaststroke when she took a synchronized swimming class in college, wanting to be like Esther Williams! She says as far as she knows her mother knew only the crawl, which she learned at summer camp. My father thinks his mother swam breaststroke, though I know I saw her swim sidestroke too as an older woman.
SM: My kids – who learned to swim through the YMCA at a town pool in Branford CT in the early 2000s – started with crawl.
KC: Mine also learned crawl first, and breaststroke later, at the public pools in Portland, OR in the early 2000s.
SM: Shall we talk about Roger Deacon’s Waterlog here? I was shocked when I read that book & realized he was a breastroker. But I do think it’s a great book.
KC: He’s an excellent example of the meditative swimmer. I’m interested in his imagination of his own swimming as both natural and rebellious. There’s a whole movement in the 1800s where British swimmers see their own swimming as scientific and civilized, like the Greeks and Romans, and they contrast that with the ‘natural’ and ‘savage’ swimming of Indigenous Americans, Africans, and Australians. The breaststroke, then, was the scientific stroke, unlike the ‘savage’s’ crawl stroke. So you’re right, it’s very interesting that even though he’s all about ‘natural’ swimming, he still uses the breaststroke….
SM: Deakin is often described as the initiator of the “wild swimming” craze in Europe. Though I’m not sure how “wild” it always is – mostly he swims in rivers and harbors!
KC: LOL, I think ‘wild’ swimmers often just mean they’re not in a chlorinated swimming pool? I’m sure you read the New Yorker story about them? (although now that I google it, apparently the New Yorker does a version of this story every five years or so; stories about wild swimming must be very reliably popular!)
SM: Wild swimming, in whatever fashion, is definitely a fun topic. Another incidental history-of-breaststroke story – a neighbor of mine who knows my obsessions stopped me on the street when I was walking my dogs last night to say that they swam a breaststroke-ish stroke in the movie “The Northman,” which I’ve not seen.
KC: That’s probably not right! I don’t know of any evidence for the breaststroke as early as the 800s AD, when that film is set. Beowulf swims ‘hugging the ocean currents with your arms, gliding over the sea’ (notice the emphasis on not-splashing!) and we might see that hugging image as indicating the breaststroke. But in the saga of Cormac, from Iceland in the 900s CE, Bersi’s ‘manner of swimming was to breast the waves and strike out with all his might.’ Wouldn’t you have to be using your arms alternately to ‘strike out’ like that?
On behalf of the Early Medievalist Mary Rambaran-Olm, and also for myself, I have to add also that The Northman is the latest in a long line of Viking movies to push the false idea that all ‘real’ Europeans are pale, blond, and blue-eyed: white supremacy at work. That wasn’t true in the Stone Age, and it has never been true at any time since then either.
SM: I very much agree with MRO’s critique of “The Northman,” and with her and many other medievalists’ important pushback against the fantasies of an all-white Middle Ages. That’s not true, and it’s deeply pernicious in the present day.
How does the contrast between overarm swimming, which is faster but also provides less above the water visibility, and breaststroke, map onto the book’s larger argument about swimming cultures?
KC: Part of the issue may be that Europeans and Central Asians didn’t like to put their faces in the water to swim; this is still an issue for many people. Illustrations of Greek and Roman swimmers may indicate that their heads are out of the water; some descriptions of ancient swimming also seem to assume that people tried to keep their hair dry. You can swim the breaststroke without putting your face in the water.
SM: That’s what I see too, even today. I wonder also if the practice is, or at least was until recently, somewhat gendered, with head-dry breastroke being more ladylike. Or maybe that’s just my own sexist childhood culture speaking?
KC: I don’t know of any discussion along those lines, either from antiquity or from the 19th c., where people recommend keeping the hair dry especially for women. Ovid, in describing Leander’s swimming, seems to assume that Leander’s trying to keep his face dry: ‘the swollen water opposed my boyish attempt, and, swimming against the waves, my mouth was submerged.’ The late antique poet Nonnus also describes Semele swimming: ‘she kept her head dry, stretched well above the stream by her practiced skill, under water only just to the hairline, pushing her chest through the stream and pressing the water back with alternating feet.’ Digby’s swimming manual’s illustrations also show the male swimmers with their heads out of the water.
As late as 1906, an American swim coach dismissed the practice of side breathing on the grounds that ‘it is very exhausting, owing principally to the fact that the breath must be held, excepting at intervals when the head is raised forward or at one side for breathing purposes. In addition the swimmer finds it difficult to keep a straight course.’
I have found generally that we tend to assume that there was a lot of gendering in swimming and that the historical evidence doesn’t support it. Both in the south and in the north, there’s no reason to think women didn’t swim as much as men in all periods, except insofar as women were legally barred from the pool in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Maybe girls were less free to go wander to the nearest pond, but our sources don’t discuss it.
Neither of my grandfathers really knew how to swim, and my father doesn’t really either: just barely enough crawl to pass the college swim test. So that’s only anecdote, but in my own family, 20th c. women swam much better than men. More recently, all my brothers and sisters swim pretty well.
Where do you like to swim?
KC: I grew up in upstate New York, where I had two very different swimming experiences that paralleled each other. On the one hand, my mother took us nearly every day in summer to a private swim club (not a country club, but not so far off one either), with a good-sized pool and diving board, where we were in and out of the water all day long. We had swim lessons there, and played pool games like Marco Polo and hunts for bracelets thrown down to the bottom of the pool; I remember trying over and over again to stand on a kickboard pushed under the water. My mother liked us to swim there; she didn’t like us to swim in unsupervised rivers and ponds, but we did anyway. We often skinny-dipped in the city reservoir, which was totally not allowed; you could climb the rocks and jump off, and swim under waterfalls. If you held your clothes over your head, swimming across the reservoir was also a shortcut from our house to our friends’.
When I was a teenager, we spent summers in France, where my father was working, and we used to swim at the university pool near our house, which was open to the public. It was an enormous Olympic pool, with a separate diving pool. My brother jumped from the ten meter platform, but I never got higher than the five meter platform. For a few francs (about a dollar) you could rent a large inner tube, about six feet across. But as soon as you put it in the water, piratical teens would board your craft and push you off. Then your gang spent the rest of the afternoon trying to seize someone else’s inner tube, because you couldn’t leave the pool without returning a tube. There were lifeguards, but they refused to get involved in this daily war. That was great fun!
Kelley Point Park, where the Willamette meets the Columbia river (John Wachunas at Spinlister)
In Oregon, as in New York, we sometimes swim in public swimming pools, and sometimes in the Sandy or the Willamette river. I like both swimming pools and rivers, but adults in American swimming pools are expected basically to swim laps, so I really would rather swim in rivers, where you can play games and socialize in the water, and there aren’t so many rules. A new friend just told me about some swimming holes on the Washougal, a smaller river, that I am looking forward to trying out!
SM: These days I mostly swim in the salt water of Long Island Sound, or down the shore in New Jersey on family vacation – but I also did a fun swim auto bio for an Australian blog a couple years ago.
KC: Love this! I feel like I’ve gotten to know you a lot better by reading it. I was never a sports team person myself: my swimming has nearly all been with young kids in tow, as a form of child care, so not solitary at all! I’ve done a lot of my swimming with a child lying on my back, holding on loosely around my neck. I can swim breaststroke that way until the child is about five or six, and then they’re too heavy for me to get my head up and catch my breath, and they have to learn to swim on their own… I was super amused to see this image of a Taino or Arawak woman swimming in the same way half a millennium ago:
SM: I have also spent lots of time swimming with kids on my back or shoulders, though not so much since they’ve grown up. I swim mostly now from the beach down the street from my house, in Branford CT. It’s very much the social hub of the neighborhood, especially in summer – kids and some senior citizens in floaties, the occasional dog, paddle boarders, kayaks, and sailboats all sharing space with open-water swimmers like me. Plus we share the bay with cormorants, osprey, and an increasing population of menhaden (“bunker” or “pogies”), which have had their populations rebound since we moved here twenty-five years ago. I love seeing a cormorant come up from a dive with a fish in its mouth bigger than its own head!
I had a dip in the Willamette a few years ago – maybe 2019? pre-Covid, anyway – and it seems like a great place to swim!
KC: It really is: not too cold in the summer, calm and placid, and (now that it has been cleaned up) clean! We’re fortunate to have it so close. You’re very fortunate to live within a short walk of the beach, though, and to have social swimming so easily available!