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Swimming Was Once Illegal In Madison

Vintage Wisconsin: Indecent Dress Led City To Ban Swimming In Public

Wisconsin Historical Society

It’s hot and humid in Wisconsin. This week is often a warm one with the hottest recorded temperature in state history reached this week in 1936 – 114 degrees in the Wisconsin Dells. Swimming is a popular way to cool off, but it hasn’t always been legal.

Madison banned bathing and swimming along a large swathe of the shorelines of Lake Monona and Lake Mendota in 1851 between the hours of 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. Anywhere within “public view” was off limits for swimming and sunbathing, seemingly out of fear of indecent exposure. Madison expanded the prohibited area even further in 1856 and expanded the definition of “public view” to be anywhere within one mile of the shore.

The law wasn’t terribly popular on hot days. Boys could often be found skinny dipping in the lakes.

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Others thought there should be a place for swimming set aside so people could learn the skill.

“While the city has done perfectly right in prohibiting public swimming between certain hours of the day, in order to prevent people who wish to visit the lake shores from being annoyed by the noise and appearance of boys and men splashing and yelling in the water at all times,” argued the Wisconsin State Journal in 1880. “We should think that a place might be selected on the shores of each lake where the healthful exercise of swimming might be indulged in at any hour.”

For a time in the mid-1860s, there was a swimming school in Lake Monona for boys and girls to learn to swim in the “scientific way.” Proper dress for men was provided while “female swimming scholars (were) required to furnish their own swimming dress,” according to the 1865 ad in the State Journal.

The outright prohibition started to bend in the 1870s. In 1873, the city allowed swimming in more secluded parts of the lakeshore. Finally, in 1879, Madison switched tactics and legalized swimming but only for swimmers covered from their necks to their knees.