Review of Barbour, Undressed Toronto

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Dale Barbour, Undressed Toronto: From the Swimming Hole to Sunnyside, How a City Learned to Love the Beach, 1850-1935. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2021. 322 pgs. ISBN 9780887559471.

Reviewed by Mary-Ann Shantz.

Book cover of Undressed Toronto, showing children splashing in the water at a Toronto beach

In Undressed Toronto, Dale Barbour takes something often taken for granted – wearing bathing suits to swim and sunbathe in public view – and causes us to consider why and how this came to be an accepted norm. Focusing on Toronto from the mid-nineteenth century to the interwar period, Barbour traces the evolution of swimming and sunbathing from something typically done nude, in homosocial groups, covertly or under cover of darkness, to a mixed-sex clothed activity done in broad daylight in public settings. At the same time, Barbour treats us to a local history that links industrialization, environmental change, and recreational use. In particular, he focuses on swimming in the Humber and Don rivers as well as in the waterfront along Lake Ontario, with chapters focusing on each of these different “contact points between the bathing body and Toronto’s physical environment” (18).

Key to the book’s analysis is Barbour’s notion of “vernacular bathing.” The author explains that “the swimming hole and the practices and social life within it represent a distinct system of bathing that I call ‘vernacular bathing’; this bathing was homosocial and unregulated, bathers were naked or wore swimming trunks, which were popular but illegal up until the 1930s, and relied on each other for help” (4). Barbour suggests that vernacular bathers had an intimate, embodied relationship with, and knowledge of, the physical environment of the bathing space, and that vernacular bathing acted as a “key moment of identity formation,” especially for working-class male bathers at the Don River (109).

Barbour reminds us that “bathing” – the preferred nineteenth-century term – was both recreational and hygienic, a fact that is crucial to understanding how city officials viewed the activity. In Upper Canada, the regulation of bathing was left to local governments and varied depending on day of the week, physical location, and time of day. Public bathing was typically permitted from dusk till dawn but not during daytime hours. Bathing suits did not feature in the bylaws: “it was assumed that people bathing in public were doing so in the nude and that they were male” (32). Bathing regulations were often ignored and irregularly enforced. Barbour argues that several factors ultimately brought an end to vernacular bathing, especially “the need to find a way for men and women to bathe legally, publicly, and morally during the day” and “the need to create a safer bathing environment” (47). The bathing suit and the beach offered solutions to these problems, and by the 1880s, Toronto began passing bylaws permitting daylight bathing “in proper bathing costumes” (61).

The creation of “a new public bathing system that depended on the bathing suit, bathhouse, and the presence of women to impose a new moral architecture” did not happen in one fell swoop, but was a process that was “negotiated, challenged, and resisted”: “what a beach should be, how it should work, and how men and women should interact upon it was still a matter of debate” (73). People had to learn how to conduct themselves in this new environment. Men accustomed to nude bathing needed to adjust to wearing a bathing suit, and both men and women had to adjust to being objects of public scrutiny on the beach. Behaviour was governed both by external forces, such as the Toronto Harbour Commission’s Life Saving and Police Patrol Service, as well as by public surveillance and the internalization of social expectations.

Barbour compares and contrasts the development and uses of the Don and Humber rivers – “Toronto’s bookends” (p. 8). While the Don was quickly industrialized, the Humber, on the western edge of the city, emerged as a recreational space especially popular for canoeing. Here, “male vernacular bathers had to compete for space with men and women who used the river as an aquatic promenade on warm summer evenings, while canoeing up and down its lower reaches in a sedate courtship ritual” (142). In this environment, there was less tolerance for “rambunctious nude men and boys” than in the Don River (171). Thus, “the beach arrived at the Humber River, bringing bathing suits, public heterosocial bathing, and a security and surveillance system” (169).

Undressed Toronto offers new interpretations of both the industrialization of the Don River and the Esplanade project that brought rail lines into the heart of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario. Barbour notes that previous historical studies cast these changes as severing people’s use of, and embodied relationship with, the Don River and Lake Ontario respectively. In contrast, he argues that these changes created pockets of “hybrid spaces where industry had failed to completely take hold and hints of nature remained” where vernacular bathing could thrive (214). In fact, the Don River persisted as a popular spot for nude bathing well into the 1920s, particularly for working-class men and boys. Barbour argues that vernacular bathing in the Don River was supported by middle-class nostalgia and anti-modernism, and this “valorization of the boyhood experience of the Don” depended on an erasure of the presence of women and girls and of adult men (111).

Vernacular bathing is a useful concept insofar as it functions as a shorthand for the constellation of practices that defined nineteenth-century bathing habits, but at times it seems to function simply as a synonym for nudity. The examples of first-time “vernacular” bathers drowning in the Don River or along the waterfront suggest that not everyone bathing in these spaces had the deep knowledge of the local environment that Barbour’s concept implies. And I wonder if Barbour has overlooked the possibility that beach bathing might also have involved an intimate knowledge of the physical environment and played a part in identity formation for regular beachgoers. Did the adoption of swimming attire and mixed-sex bathing in beach settings necessarily go hand in hand with the loss of this embodied relationship with place?

Sunnyside, 1926. Toronto Public Library. Baldwin Collection. 942-1-65 pictures-r-603. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

Barbour’s primary source material includes Toronto city council records and the archive of the Toronto Harbour Commission, as well as maps, photographs, and newspapers. Particularly poignant and revealing are the newspaper accounts of drownings, which offer heart-breaking insight into Torontonians’ bathing habits and the culture and practices that surrounded public bathing.

Readers interested in urban environmental history and the history of recreation will find this book especially valuable. For me, the book’s most significant contribution is its portrayal of “hybrid spaces” and Torontonians’ embodied encounters with them. Undressed Toronto shows how industry and nature co-existed and even enabled bathing in the urban environment. Cautioning against a presentist view of history, Barbour concludes: “By looking at these spaces through the lens of their embodied use, we can dispense with the idea that they were too polluted, too industrial, or too crowded to have acted as a space for recreational pleasure.” (214) Perhaps there is a useful reminder here for us twenty-first-century urban dwellers to appreciate the nature on our doorstep. “Getting back to nature” does not require lengthy car trips or visits to designated park spaces; we need only see and appreciate what is right in front of us.


Feature Image: Skinny dipping in the Don River near Bloor Viaduct (1912). City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 1244, Item 7339.
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Mary-Ann Shantz

Mary-Ann Shantz is a historian, researcher, and project manager who lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Her first book, What Nudism Exposes: An Unconventional History of Postwar Canada, was published by UBC Press in 2022. She also contributed to the edited collection, Contesting Bodies and Nation in Canadian History, and has published in Histoire Sociale/Social History and the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth.

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