The equinox has come and gone. I and some friends had a cookout at my house to celebrate it. Yet, the full internal sensation of the change of seasons came from a more prosaic event. A few days ago my pool closed and will not reopen until May. Open water is a sponge for falling leaves: leaves blow around randomly but stop and sink when they hit the water. By early October it is impossible to keep up with them, so the cover goes on.
Artificial pools have a long history. Swimming for sport and pleasure is older than recorded history. In Classical times, learning to swim was a regular part of youth education in both Greece and Rome – it was, of course, a useful military skill. Julius Caesar remained a renowned swimmer throughout his life. Typically people swam in ponds and rivers including (yuck) the Tiber, but there were purpose-built swimming pools as well. Roman baths are much more famous and impressive than Roman pools. The difference between a public bath and a public swimming pool might seem to reside only in the intent of the user, but the Romans recognized a difference and sometimes built the two side by side. We know that in the first and second centuries CE men and women used the public baths together; the first century poet Juvenal was morally offended by this and railed against it while the more urbane poet Martial simply mentioned it in passing. There is every reason to suppose pools were unsegregated, too. Some wealthy Roman citizens had private swimming pools similar in dimensions to modern ones. There is a well preserved one at Pompeii about 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep that is flanked by small shallower bathing pools. Gaius Maecenas in Rome heated his pool, and it is likely others who could afford it did the same.
Pools (and, it must be said, bathing) fell out of fashion in the Middle Ages. They didn’t really catch on again until the 19th century; competitive swimming was popular enough by 1896 to be part of the first modern Olympics. It was not until the first decade of the 20th century, however, that rising incomes made it possible for private pools to start showing up in backyards in middle class neighborhoods. They were (and still are) a big enough expense that only a minority of those who could build them chose to do so, but by the 1920s they no longer counted as a true rarity. Today in the US there are nearly 5 million private in-ground pools and another 3 or 4 million above-ground pools.
The climate in my home state of New Jersey is such that an outdoor swimming pool is a foolish accessory. It is generally useful for 3 months out of the year. (I keep mine open for 5, but – except for a bear a few weeks ago – I’m the only one who ever uses it in May or September.) It is ridiculously high maintenance. Heating it, which I didn’t bother to do at all this year, is grossly expensive. The elements constantly conspire against a pool’s structural integrity. Winter frost breaks tiles, cracks concrete, and disintegrates coping. Summer algae stubbornly fights efforts to keep it in check. Pumps, filters, and furnaces rust and give out and are hugely costly to replace. Covers tear. Yet, a pool adds nothing – truly zero – to the resale value of a home; the risks and expenses of a pool are such negatives that buyers will not pay extra for one. I have one only because this property was formerly owned by my parents, who wanted a pool and enjoyed it. It became mine in 2001.
Were I to build a home for myself I would not spring for the cost of installing a pool. But, while I wouldn’t pay for one, I do enjoy and make full use of the one that is here. I’m saddened to see it close and look forward to reopening it again in May, during which month I’ll have it to myself – except maybe for the bear.
Eegah! (1962) – Pool parties are all fun and games until a caveman shows up