In the early 1930s, after attending a showing of This Nude World at the Castle Theater in Chicago, Alois Knapp and his wife Lorena decided to convert their 200-acre farm located in Roselawn, Indiana into a nudist camp. Although they had never dreamed that they would go into the “nakedness business,” the idyllic scenes that they had seen on screen—of nude men and women frolicking naked in Germany, France, and the United States—profoundly affected the couple, who had privately enjoyed “sunbaths for over ten years.” The couple thought that Lorena’s family farm, located fifty-five miles south of Chicago and surrounded by thick woods, could provide privacy and create the perfect weekend escape for men, women, and children to enjoy nature, sunbathing, and fresh air in the nude. The middle-aged couple gave “Zoro Nature Park,” founded on July 16th, 1933, a distinctly mom and pop character. In little more than a month, the small group grew to over fifty members. By October, Alois and Lorena limited the membership to two hundred in order to preserve the “community spirit among them.”
Until recently, migration into the cities in the twentieth century influenced historians of sexuality to focus primarily on the urban landscape as a key component of sexual liberalism. The history of nudism’s emergence in the United States reveals that sparsely populated rural areas proved more hospitable to the fledgling movement than did major cities. Nudists discovered that urban spaces, and the repressive movements and authorities there, accentuated the eroticism of the naked body while rural locations allowed for multiple and contradictory conceptions of nakedness that could be molded and constructed around health, family, and recreation. The American countryside—framed as a site of innocence—provided an ideal setting for the healthy, nature-oriented, and heteronormative principles of nudism and gave the movement the respectability necessary to develop and prosper in the United States.
Meeting at gymnasiums and private countryside retreats, small groups of men and women removed their clothes and participated in exercises that included tossing medicine balls, vigorous calisthenics, and swimming. Nudists believed that the experience of going naked was essential to maintaining physical and mental health. For many, the removal of clothing served as an important hygienic purpose since it freed the excretory functions of the skin from sweating garments that clung to the body and restricted free flowing movement. In addition, several early advocates wanted to reform what they considered to be a psychologically unhealthy conception of the body as shameful and erotic. American nudists contended that being naked with the opposite sex satisfied the “natural” curiosity to see and know about the body, promoted a “wholesome” way of thinking, and ultimately strengthened the relations between men and women.
The perceived eroticism of the naked body, however, remained a constant threat to the therapeutic character of nudism. Many social critics and moral reformers asserted that nudism’s therapeutic ideals and principles masked the movement’s effort to profit from the commercial appeal of the naked body. In cities like New York, local police, community leaders, politicians, and judges conflated nudist gatherings with a rapidly expanding sexual urban underworld. There, they believed, prostitutes used their scantily clad bodies to entice customers, while seedy bookstores, theaters, and newsstands brandished nudity for profit, and naked men met in bathhouses to engage in homosexual acts. Critics construed nudist activities as yet another form of commercial sexuality that needed to be removed from the city. The countryside had fewer regulations and nudist camps thrived there.
In the 1930s, a network of rural nudist camps that built on the idealized relationship between nature and nudity emerged in places like Indiana, New Jersey, and California and allowed urban residents to escape the noise, pollution, and stresses of the city and enjoy hiking, athletic competitions, swimming, rowing, and, of course, sunbathing.
Although rural campsites offered urban dwellers a temporary reprieve from the close scrutiny they faced in cities, the nudist movement remained anxious to avoid criticism and legal trouble. Determining who posed a threat to the camps’ carefully managed atmosphere proved to be a continual source of struggle within the movement, revealing its heteronormative leanings. Without a wife or family to confirm their heterosexuality or moral integrity, single men elicited fears of homosexuality, posed a threat as potential voyeurs, and represented individuals who might pursue inter-generational sex. In the 1950s, the editors of Sunshine and Health (S&H), the nudist movement’s flagship magazine, explained that the “unlimited admission” of single men into a camp might “overbalance the membership of any group,” driving away families and defeating the very purpose of social nudism. The editorial reported that many nudists believed that the “motives of all single men who apply for nudist membership cannot be accurately known at the outset.”
During the Great Migration, white nudists feared the interaction of naked white and nonwhite bodies would negatively impact the image of the movement and “considered any discussion of this question as untimely.” One white man wrote to the editors of S&H, claiming that only a person with a “sinister object in mind” would want to bring other races into nudist camps. Urging members to “keep the nudist camps free from scandals,” he suggested that “separate camps for Negro and separate camps for white can [sic] hurt no one.” One camp in Jamal, California, explained its policy of exclusion with the statement: “Double prejudice is a long row to hoe.” Nudists felt that they had to “bend over backwards” to comply with the “rules and morals of a community.” While they might not have wanted to exclude people of color, many nudists believed that the “presence of Negroes would jeopardize the very existence of their camps because of pressure from prejudiced neighbors.”
Amidst sexual and racial fears of the post-WWII period, the American nudist movement transformed its fledgling network of isolated rustic camps into well-equipped resorts ready to cater to young middle-class white families in search of leisure and recreation. Numerous articles in S&H advised prospective camp managers to identify grounds with large lakes, flowing streams, and bountiful vegetation if they wished to establish a successful club that would attract members and visitors. The movement was very much in step with the mainstream of consumer culture by creating a resort atmosphere that revolved around family, domesticity, and traditional gender ideals. In other words, nudists carefully created a space for its camps within the post-war vacationing experience.
The respectable character of nudism at mid-century—with its emphasis on domesticity, racial homogeneity, and heterosexuality—clashed with the sexual revolution. The counterculture that emerged in the late 1960s saw public nudity as a way to challenge what they considered to be the hypocritical values and social customs of mainstream society. Yet, an aging nudist membership preferred their private, secluded, and rustic clubs and clung to rules restricting sexual behavior, while club owners maintained exclusionary policies based on race and gender. The rural spaces that had long provided refuge to so many nudist clubs came under attack from a generation seeking sexual liberation. Nudism at mid-century—revolting to many in the respectable middle classes—had its own politics of respectability that was hardly revolutionary.
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