Learning to Bathe: The Emergence of Public School Locker Rooms in the Early 20th Century

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:50 PM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Laura Walikainen Rouleau, Michigan Technological University
The development of the public school locker room in the early twentieth century is essential to understanding how Americans managed and regulated the developing bodies of children and adolescents. Indeed, the appearance of the locker room during the expansion of the physical education system signals the recognition that younger Americans needed to be “taught” how to cleanse their bodies and keep them healthy. After the appearance of other private spaces in public places, school locker rooms were created as sites of “body education,” where children were taught how to function in the private/public spaces they would encounter throughout adulthood. Children learned the importance of bodily privacy by experiencing a lack of privacy during their highly supervised school-bathing experiences. Middle class reformers argued that public school physical education and hygiene programs could counter the adverse affects of urban and industrial life on the children of working-class, immigrant families. These reformers connected the mental and moral development of America’s youth with their physical health and hygiene. The development of the public school system and the growing importance of physical education and hygiene necessitated the creation of a new boundary space where students could cleanse and clothe their bodies at school. These new spaces were designed and regulated in stark contrast to the home-bathing experiences of students whose families were often members of the working class and/or newly arrived immigrants. This study investigates the emergence of physical education spaces, especially public school locker rooms and bathing facilities, in the early twentieth century. By exploring the historical experience of public school locker rooms through extant examples, oral histories, interviews, and contemporary floor plans, this presentation addresses how the absence of privacy could be used as a tool of socialization within these boundary spaces.