Just When You Thought It Wasn’t Safe …

How Wilbert Longfellow turned America into a nation of swimmers

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

In 1921, at the newly opened swimming pool at Washington University, St. Louis, a crowd of 2,500 gathered across two nights to witness America’s first water pageant. A portly man dressed as Father Neptune, with a long gray beard and trident, emerged from the water as a bugler heralded his arrival. Standing on the pool deck, the foil-gilded king of the sea looked around quizzically and, addressing the people seated in the bleachers, demanded to know the purpose of this strange, rectangular body of water. A master of ceremonies joined Neptune and explained that the pool was built for four noble reasons: health, safety, sport, and fun. The four-act spectacle that followed, “Showing Father Neptune,” illustrated each of these, with marching drills in the pool; demonstrations of water rescues and resuscitation methods; relay races and diving displays; water clowns and pajama races.

Thousands of these water pageants—plays performed in lakes, rivers, oceans, or pools—were produced across the United States in the first half of the 20th century. This genre of aquatic theater was the brainchild of Wilbert E. Longfellow, who wanted to do something about the nation’s abysmally high drowning rates—10,000 Americans died in the water each year—at a time when most people in this country couldn’t swim. Longfellow, whose motto was to “educate them gently while entertaining them hugely,” believed that the best way to interest the public in swimming was to put on a good show. His water pageants merged the theatrical elements of dialogue, costumes, and colorful set designs with aquatics, featuring demonstrations of various strokes, aquatic stunts, and lifesaving techniques as well as take-home messages about the importance of water safety. Not only did generations of Americans learn how to swim, but the pageants also helped popularize the then-nascent sport of synchronized swimming—one that I have practiced for years. And even though artistic swimming, as the Olympic event is now called, has long since abandoned the trappings of aquatic theater, water pageants provided the sport its earliest platform, leading to its widespread popularity.

As a young man, Wilbert Longfellow worked as a marine journalist on the Rhode Island waterfront. After covering more than his share of watery deaths and being saved twice from drowning himself, he began to develop a passion for swimming and lifesaving. He joined the United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps, the first lifesaving organization dedicated to protecting the American public (as opposed to sailors and seamen). Longfellow quickly rose to a position of leadership—receiving the title of Commodore in 1905—and drowning rates in Rhode Island and New York fell dramatically. Eager to expand his work beyond the Northeast, he persuaded the American Red Cross in 1914 to establish the first nationwide program dedicated to lifesaving and water safety. Serving as national field director for the new Red Cross Life Saving Corps, Longfellow chartered 61 corps across the country in his first three years.

“With his height and bulk and booming voice,” wrote a friend, “he needed only a flowing robe, a wig and long gray beard, a gilded cardboard crown and the symbolic trident to perfectly personify the mythological god of the sea.”

Longfellow’s goal was to make “every American a swimmer” and “every swimmer a lifesaver,” but that would require vastly different teaching methods than those previously used. In the early 20th century, beginning swimmers were often strapped in harnesses suspended from overhead pulley systems that supported them in the water as they worked on the basic movements of the breaststroke. This method severely limited the number of students who could learn at any given time, and it also kept swimmers from learning to trust their natural ability to float.

New pedagogical techniques were, however, emerging. In 1906, George Corsan, a member of the Canadian Royal Life Saving Society, had introduced the first mass teaching method, at the Detroit YMCA. Departing from the conventional breaststroke, which was difficult for fledgling swimmers to coordinate, Corsan opted to teach the crawl stroke and flutter kick, which he could do on land with large cohorts of children before transitioning them to the water. Meanwhile, B. Dean Brink of the American Swimming Association encouraged beginners to visualize images they could imitate, such as a hungry duck sticking its face under the water or a sleeping turtle gently floating on the surface.

Longfellow combined these methods and added his own twist. As he traveled across the country training lifeguards and giving swimming demonstrations, he would gather his young pupils at local swimming holes and weave imaginative tales—those of near drownings due to horseplay or ignorance and of heroic rescues by trained lifeguards—and have them act out the stories. Sometimes he played the drowning victim and asked the tiniest tots in the group to tow him by the hair to safety, thereby proving that someone of any size could save lives in the water. These sessions were so popular that Longfellow began planning ahead, shaping his stories around local lore or celebrations in the towns he was visiting. When Washington University asked him in 1921 to help dedicate its new pool, he wrote “Showing Father Neptune.” The portly figure of Father Neptune? That was Longfellow himself. “With his height and bulk and booming voice,” wrote a friend, “he needed only a flowing robe, a wig and long gray beard, a gilded cardboard crown and the symbolic trident to perfectly personify the mythological god of the sea.”

The United States entered a pool-building spree in the 1920s, and by 1924, “Showing Father Neptune” had been performed at the dedication ceremonies of at least 75 swimming pools. A female adaptation, “Showing Neptune’s Daughter,” was developed by the Girl Scouts. It was also an era of massive growth in physical education programs and organized recreation for youth—from the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, the Camp Fire Girls, and the YMCA and YWCA to the proliferation of summer camps. The Red Cross was highly influential, too, and with its robust endorsement, water pageants caught on. Soon, recreation and education leaders were writing their own scripts, which were shared at professional conferences and in journals.

In 1934, Olive McCormick, the Girl Scouts’ national adviser on water safety, published the first book on the subject, Water Pageants: Games and Stunts, which included a foreword by Longfellow and covered music, casting, lighting, set designs, and costuming. Turtles, gnomes, water lilies, satyrs, and even human totem poles could be wardrobed with inexpensive materials such as cheesecloth, rope, muslin, wire, and waterproofed cardboard. McCormick advised that a combination of aluminum powder and banana oil slathered on one’s legs could give the illusion of a shimmery mermaid’s tail. As the title of her book implies, she also provided instructions for performing a variety of swimming “stunts,” isolated movements that members of England’s renowned Royal Life Saving Society, as well as generations of vaudeville performers, had used to demonstrate mastery in the aquatic element. Within a decade of Longfellow’s writing his first script, pageants were being produced pretty much anywhere youth and water came together. A 1937 survey of 140 high schools, colleges, universities, and camps found that 36 percent produced water pageants; more than half of those that did not would have done so but for the lack of proper swimming facilities.

Some swimming instructors and educators had already begun experimenting with ways to combine aquatic stunts with group formation work and music—thanks to the availability of portable Victrolas, which instructors could roll onto a pool deck. This combination became the basis of synchronized swimming, which got its name during a performance organized by physical educator Katharine Curtis at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair—and which would feature prominently in water pageants. In “Neptune’s Cure for Piracy,” another of Longfellow’s works, water nymphs help a band of pirates overcome their fear of swimming by artistically swirling in and out of circles and lacy patterns illuminated by lanterns dangling from bamboo poles. The nymphs coax the pirates from their canoe and teach them the crawl stroke and aquatic stunts like somersaults and “the porpoise.” By the end of the pageant, the pirates have transformed into skilled swimmers and join their nymph teachers in a coed water ballet.

We still bedazzle our swimsuits and wear lipstick at our competitions. Even as the sport has grown considerably harder, we perform our athletic maneuvers with a smile and forgo goggles so that we can make eye contact with the judges.

After Curtis and others ushered synchronized swimming into the world of competitive sports, Longfellow wrote “Swimming in Peace and War: A Water Ballet.” In that guide, he called synchronized swimming the “newest phase of aquatic dramatics.” Although synchronized swimming would soon drop the scripts and dialogue—or “trite versions of King Neptune,” as one instructor put it—in favor of emphasizing the beauty, rhythm, and precision associated with swimming, a strong element of performance would remain. Nearly a century later, we still bedazzle our swimsuits and wear lipstick at our competitions. Even as the sport has grown considerably harder, we perform our athletic maneuvers with a smile and forgo the comfort of goggles so that we can make eye contact with the judges.

Longfellow retired in 1947, a year after the first national-level synchronized swimming championship. By that time, the drowning rate in the United States had dropped by half and 80 million Americans had taken up water activities of some kind. The Red Cross, meanwhile, had qualified 100,000 water safety instructors and issued 4.5 million swimming and lifesaving certificates. As Longfellow wrote, “The art of swimming is increasing very rapidly, and human beings are attaining a great mastery over the comparatively unfamiliar element of water.” But he also knew what was needed to inspire new generations of aquaphiles: “Let us not neglect to keep swimming a great game, full of fun and color and glamorous experiences.” Thanks to his pioneering work, it would remain just that.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Vicki Valosik is a competitive synchronized swimmer. Her first book, Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water, will be out this summer. She is an editorial director and writing instructor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.


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