“A generation which ignores history has no past — and no future.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
Is it really important to know the history of contemporary nudism? Can’t a person be a nudist without understanding how and when the nudist movement got started?
These are questions that may have occurred to you when you decided to read this article. After all becoming a nudist, practicing nudism seems a simple enough concept. Remove all your clothing, socialize with others who have removed all their clothing, rinse and repeat. After a fashion there may be some truth in that. But there is value in understanding the history of a culture that you decide to become a part of as the opening quote by Robert A. Heinlein suggests.
Nudism isn’t just a physical activity or recreational choice. It is a culture. The word culture has a number of different meanings. With respect to nudism as a culture however we define the term as it is commonly defined by anthropologists and other behavioral scientists―”culture is the complex whole that includes knowledge, beliefs, morals, customs, and any other habits acquired by members of a particular group.”
To grasp nudist culture it is important to understand the history of contemporary nudism because from the past is where we get the sum of what nudist culture was always intended to be about. It is from the past that we get the beliefs, morals, customs, and habits that distinguish nudism from mainstream culture.
Culture is a fragile phenomenon. It is constantly evolving and easily lost because it exists only in our minds. It can be easily diluted even corrupted if too few members of a culture have an awareness of the key cultural imperatives that define a particular culture. Those without respect for a culture can actively pollute it by changing the defining morals, customs, and beliefs to suit their own ends.
The purpose of this brief chronicle of nudism then is to acquaint those new to nudism with the basic historical underpinnings of contemporary nudist culture to equip them to distinguish what nudism is and what it is not.
The naked and the nude
In the beginning everyone on earth was naked. Anthropologists tell us that the cradle of human development was the scorching plains of Africa where conditions made the wearing of clothing completely unnecessary. We humans, Homo sapiens, a culture-bearing, upright-walking species from a zoological perspective first evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago. Based on scientific studies of the organism human body-louse, scientists say that humans began wearing clothing only about 72,000 years ago. Thus, by implication nakedness is the natural condition of the human species.
The above anthropological information is important to note because it is vital to the definition of nudism. Naked and nude are similar terms describing the absence of clothing but are not the same thing. There are nudists who claim that mankind has from the beginning been nudists since humans went without clothing a good long time before wearing clothes become the norm.
When writing the book American Nudist Culture, I asked a well-regarded nudist I was acquainted with to review the book before it was published. A few days later she returned the manuscript telling me she would not provide a review for the book because it was historically inaccurate. She took exception to the fact that I had written that nudism in the United States began in the 1920s. She firmly maintained that American nudism began with the indigenous Native American peoples who habitually went without clothing and thus were the first American nudists. Her error however was in not distinguishing between the naked and the nude.
Nudism did not begin in the United States with the indigenous peoples. As noted nudist author, Cecil (Cec) Cinder observed in his definition of nudism, “It [nudism] must be self-conscious. Stone Age tribes going completely naked in the jungles of the Amazon or the highlands of New Guinea are not nudists. They just “are”. (Cinder, Cec. The Nudist Idea. Riverside, CA: Ultraviolet, 1998. Print.) The same then is true of the indigenous peoples.
The roots of contemporary nudism then are found in late 19th and early 20th century Germany. Nudism was simply one of a number of movements that came into being out of a veritable petri dish of cultural and social change. The movements were produced during a time in history that was influenced by a growing number of people who rejected the reality that the German middle class had become increasingly superficial, coarse, complacent, gluttonous, materialistic, industrialized, technocratic, and urbanized.
Circumstances at the time promoted the birth of renewed interest in a more natural and healthful ways of living that encompassed not only an interest in social nudism but other more natural lifestyle practices like vegetarianism, natural medicine, a heightened interest in physical fitness activities, communing with nature, sexual reform, communitarianism, neo-paganism, religious reform, and abstinence from alcohol. Nudism was influenced by many of those other natural lifestyle practices and indeed incorporated many of them at one time or another.
The American nudist movement began with a group of German immigrants lead by Kurt Barthel, often acknowledged as “the father of the modern United States nudist movement.” He began the American League for Physical Culture (ALPC) in 1929 and was instrumental in organizing the first American nudist outing that was held on Labor Day in 1929. Seven people attended, three women and four men, all but one of whom were between the ages of 20 and 27. The Labor Day outing was held on farmland in the Hudson Highlands in upstate New York.
Later members of Barthel’s American League for Physical Culture visited leased farms in Westchester County, New York during the summer months and sometimes participated in gymnastics and nude swimming in rented urban gymnasiums and pools in winter.
In May 1932, Barthel founded Sky Farm, America’s first nudist club, in New Jersey. To this day Sky Farm continues to function as a member owned co-operative nudist club. The American League for Physical Culture was the antecedent of the American Sunbathing Association, present-day American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR).
Dutch Reformed Pastor Ilsley Boone joined the ALPC in July 1931 after reading the book Among the Nudists. Boone was elected vice president of the ALPC in 1931, but by October 1931 became president. In late 1931, Boone and two other ALPC members created a new organization they named the International Nudist League (INL).
After several years, INL changed its name to the American Sunbathing Association (ASA) when Boone took sole control over the organization. With complete control over the finances of the ASA, the membership lists with names and addresses of all of the members of the ASA, and the lists of subscribers to the ASA newsletter and magazines, Boone ran the organization under his self-styled title as President for life. While the ASA was publicly represented to be a national association of nudist clubs, it was in fact operated as a private business with all the revenues from membership sales and the sale of magazines and books that were printed and published by Boone’s publishing house, Sunshine Press going to Boone himself.
AANR was created out of a struggle to wrest control over the organization from Boone by many of the member clubs that resented the heavy-handed way that Boone ran the ASA. After three attempts, in 1951 the clubs finally succeeded after a lengthy court battle in taking control from Boone.
Not all of the original ASA clubs were part of the effort to oust Boone. Those that remained loyal to Boone changed their national affiliation to a new organization that Boone created in 1950 called the National Nudist Council (NNC). The NNC operated as the second national nudist organization of clubs until Boone died in 1968. Upon his death the NNC was shut down by long-time Boone supporter and confidante Edith Church.
In 1993, recognizing that more people outside than inside the organization were nudists, the American Sunbathing Association changed its name to American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR).
While the preceding chronicles the birth and history of contemporary organized nudism in the United States, it must be noted that the national organizations discussed represent what might be termed “club nudism.” A comprehensive history of contemporary nudism would be incomplete without a mention to the naturist branch of the movement.
Free beach movement
In 1963, Jefferson Poland founded the Sexual Freedom League in New York City with Leo Koch. He later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and focused his organizing efforts at the University of California, Berkeley. Poland first made national news in August 1965 with the “Nude Wade-in” he led with Ina Saslow and Shirley Einseidel at Aquatic Park, a public beach in San Francisco.
The purpose of the Sexual Freedom League was helping people become free from the shame and guilt attached to sex. Poland, who identified as a bi-sexual, declared that “man will only become free when e can overcome his own guilt and when society stops trying to manage his sex life for him.” The San Francisco “Nude Wade-In” was but one of the public demonstrations used by Poland in his attempts to promote social reform through sexual liberation. His efforts spawned a new generation of young nudists who rejected the hetero-normative boundaries that had long defined American nudism.
After Poland’s “Nude Wade-In” groups of young men and women including some members of local nudist clubs, all dedicated beachgoers, began to actively seek out beach areas that afforded enough privacy to go nude without offending other visitors and local residents. The looked for beaches that were off the beaten path, surrounded by features like high cliffs that concealed them from the view of nearby homes, and had degree of difficulty with regard to accessibility. Thus the Free Beach Movement was born in response to the reluctance of organized nudism to advocate for nude beach use.
By the 1960s, groups of young adults were gathering in the nude at secluded beaches up and down the coast of California to enjoy the sun, surf, socializing, drinking, recreational drug use, and sometimes a variety of sexual behaviors. The growing interest in nude beaches led to the formation in 1965 of an organization, Committee for Free Beaches, dedicated to identifying ideal nude beach sites and advocating for making the locations permanent and legal nude beaches after the model of free beaches in Europe.
The sexually liberated atmosphere of the free beaches appealed especially to many in the gay and lesbian community who saw nude beaches as an opportunity to relocate nude social interactions they enjoyed from more restrictive and less appealing urban environments to more open, natural and enjoyable settings. Gay men and lesbians interested in the sun and the surf found a place on nude beaches alongside student activists from organizations like the Sexual Freedom League as well as progressive nudist families. Thus, the gay and lesbian community were an influential part in the founding of the free beach movement.
Eventually the free beach movement advocates became victims of their own success. As more and more nude beachgoers flocked to California beaches, both the authorities and local residents unimpressed with public nudity began to take notice. Local residents started to complain that the rampant public sex, degenerate drug users, and homosexuals were ruining their exclusive neighborhoods and the authorities started to take action. Some communities began enacting ordinances banning public nudity on the beaches. The police began making indecent exposure arrests. They were particularly harsh towards the gay community. While heterosexual men arrested for public nudity were often permitted to plead guilty to a lessor disturbing the peace charge, gay men were routinely prosecuted for indecent exposure which carried more severe penalties and stigma.
The absence of a strong, structured organization hampered the efforts of free beach activists to respond to their well-organized and vocal opponents and by 1974, the future of the free beach movement in the United States was seriously endangered. In the summer of 1974 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a long tradition of skinny-dipping and nude sunbathing at Truro Beach was overturned when Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Lawrence Hadley published a new regulation that banned nude bathing within all of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Free beach advocates immediately rallied in opposition to the federal regulation, among them Lee Baxandall, a political activist, playwright, and publisher who had for years enjoyed nude sunbathing at Truro Beach with his wife and family. Baxandall’s response was the founding of the Free the Free Beach Committee.
Baxandall joined with other free beach activists across the country, including Eugene Callen, founder of Beachfront, USA, to advocate for the permanent establishment of legal clothing-optional beaches. Preferring the European concept of naturism over nudism, Baxandall believed that social nudity could play an important role in restoring the balances of nature and more completely humanizing American culture by promoting a heightened awareness of how much all Americans were more alike than different regardless of one’s race, color, sex, or sexual orientation.
In May of 1980, Baxandall and a few others founded the Naturist Society, an organization aimed at promoting an activist approach to nudism through a more decentralized organizational structure and by actively working to increase awareness of nude recreation among the general public. Instead of promoting club nudism the organization held regularly scheduled “gatherings” of members interested in social nudity.
While the free beach movement began as much as an effort to advance sexual liberation as social nudism, by the mid-1970s primarily due to the pressure from moral reformers, child-welfare advocates, and conservative politicians that had made child pornography a national issue, the arguments for sexual liberation and the breakdown of heteronormative boundaries began to crumble. Facing charges from anti-child pornography activists, child-welfare advocates, and the general public that any photograph depicting a naked child was child pornography and that exposure of children to adult sexuality was child abuse, the free beach movement in the interest of survival was forced to abandon the sexual liberation argument and to embrace the more conservative and more acceptable argument that simple nudity does not equal sex that had always characterized the club nudist scene. Recognizing that the favorite tactic of the anti-nudity crowd was to shut down nude beaches by filing complaints claiming public sexual activity at the nude beach sites, the naturist community was soon actively enforcing a no tolerance stance towards open sexual behavior on nude beaches. The willingness to take action by confronting those responsible and reporting inappropriate lewd behavior became part of the definition of the good naturist citizen.
The least you need to know about the history of contemporary nudism
From its historical beginning in Germany more than a century ago and the American genesis of nudism in 1929, nudism has always been characterized by the practice of wholesome, non-sexual social nudity. Nudists neither deny their own sexuality nor minimize the importance of sex to the human experience, they simply choose to draw a distinction between sexual behavior and mere nudity. Consequently there has always been a no tolerance policy when it comes to overt sexual behavior in a social nudity environment. Public sex is no more welcome in a nudist club environment or on a clothing-optional beach than anywhere else in mainstream society.
Those who wish to advocate for a more open and sexually liberated society have every right to do so but will find their views unpopular among most traditional nudists. As the early history of the free beach movement aptly illustrates, sexual liberation is not a cause that can be advanced while standing on the nudist soapbox. To do so threatens the very existence of nudism because it plays right into the hands of anti-nudist opponents. Those who identify as nudists and who insist on attempting to be activists for sexual liberation and things like sex positivity while appealing to their nudist credentials are at the same time advocating for the demise of organized nudism and the shuttering of the few remaining free beaches in this country even if they lack the intellectual acumen to grasp it.
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Once we were all happy to be nude and now many of us are not. Yet today nudism is well-established across most of the United States. While progress in gaining mainstream acceptance has been slow and opposition remains fierce especially with respect to the establishment and preservation of permanent, legal clothing-optional beaches, there are encouraging signs that responsible social nudity is becoming more acceptable to many Americans.
It must be remembered however, as history teaches us, that in the American psyche there continues an undercurrent of prudishness that irresponsible and lewd behavior on the part of those who claim to be nudists can quickly bring to the surface in the form of highly organized and vocal anti-nudity opposition. Such behavior further slows ready acceptance of nudist culture among the masses.
America still has a long way to go in obtaining mainstream acceptance of nudist culture in comparison to many other countries in the world. But by heeding the lessons of our history and practicing nudism responsibly and when and where it’s appropriate may yet turn the tide in gaining greater tolerance and wider acceptance of the culture.
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