Utah summers are hot! Taking a dip in a cool pool on a hot day is a popular pastime for many Utahns, but in the 1920s, public swimming pools were hard to come by. Without access to a pool, kids in Sugar House would cool off during baking summer afternoons in the “Pen Pond,” located on the grounds of the Utah State Penitentiary.
The unsupervised Pen Pond presented a few challenges for the swimming children, including jagged rocks, rusty tin cans, broken glass, slimy mud, worms, and water spiders. In addition to the less-than-ideal aquatic environment, swimming suits were expensive – so, many kids simply went without. Some chose to skinny dip, while others created makeshift swimsuits by stretching and pinning their knitted, sleeveless undershirts.
Desperate for relief from the heat, neighborhood boys skinny dipped in Pen Pond, much to the envy of local girls. Two of these girls, Helen Carter and her friend Verla, concocted a plan to join the fun after noticing that the boys usually left the pond by late afternoon. The girls were nervous during their first evening visits to the pond, looking around and jumping at every sound. But they loved the cool water, and soon learned how to doggy paddle. It wasn’t until Helen’s older brother encouraged her to visit the pond with him that she gained confidence in her regular swims. The kids were wary of disapproving parents, and eventually the girls did get caught by an upset father, which ended their skinny-dipping in the pond.
Luckily, the Sugar House public swimming pool opened soon after, providing a safer, supervised environment and cleaner water. Swimming gained popularity and by the 1930s, six of Salt Lake City’s playgrounds boasted public pools. Capitalizing on the fervor, the Red Cross offered free swimming lessons at each of the city’s pools. Their “Learn to Swim Drive” encouraged water safety, and hundreds of kids signed up for instruction. Today, childhood swimming lessons are common and public pools are found in neighborhoods throughout the state.
Image: A group of friends enjoy a swim in a canal in Vernal, circa 1920. Kids all over the state without access to a public pool made do with the waterways available to them to get in some refreshing summer fun. Photo courtesy of the Uintah County Regional History Center - Lamond Caldwell Collection.
See Helen Monson and Kim Poole, No Ordinary Life: An Autobiography of Helen Mar Carter Monson (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2019); All Things Considered, “Plunging Into Public Pools' Contentious Past,” National Public Radio, May 26, 2007; “Swimming Proves Popular with Youngsters at City Playgrounds,” Salt Lake Telegram, June 16, 1929; “Sugarhouse Pool with Water from Ice Plant Proves Very Popular,” Salt Lake Telegram, July 7, 1929; “Youngsters Rush to Register for Aid in Swimming,” Salt Lake Telegram, July 16, 1930; “Enthusiasm and Confidence Reward Beginners in Learn-to-swim Drive,” Salt Lake Telegram, June 21, 1935.