H-Environment Roundtable Reviews of Barbour’s Undressed Toronto and Watson’s Making Muskoka

Scroll this

H-Environment Roundtables provide multiple perspectives on books and allow authors the opportunity to respond. One of the editorial board’s goals is to gather scholars from a variety of backgrounds, regions, or ranks, to increase the range of perspectives and create dialogue about new scholarly work. The format allows commentators to pursue themes or issues raised by the book in greater depth. Rather than writing a standard review, commentators are invited to identify topics, questions, and methodologies that bear on the field of environmental history more generally to stimulate a continuing conversation.

In 2023, H-Environment Roundtables featured two books that explore environmental themes in Canadian history, Dale Barbour’s Undressed Toronto: From the Swimming Hole to Sunnyside, How a City Learned to Love the Beach, 1850-1930 and Andrew Watson’s Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920. Both books explore Canadians’ evolving relationships with the environment at the turn of the twentieth century.

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.

Undressed Toronto tells the social history of swimming spaces in the late 19th and early 20th century city. Barbour challenges narratives about pollution and industrialization, class, and the presentation of the naked body to reframe the history of Torontonians interaction with and the value they placed on their city’s rivers and waterfront. Barbour crafts a story about cultural leisure rooted in public bathing and nature experiences in urbanizing spaces.

The Undressed Toronto roundtable contributors reflect on late-19th century understandings of nature, the cultural significance of the nude body in it, and rules concerning bodies at leisure. Barbour responds to the roundtable’s theme of bathing in a “state of nature” and how bathing shaped cultural understandings of green spaces in North America’s rapidly industrializing cities. The design ideals behind and cultural significance of “natural” spaces in 19th and 20th century cities is a longstanding focus of environmental history. Roundtable contributors Sarah Schrank, Bruce Kidd, Ken Cruikshank, and Daniel Ross, in conversation with Barbour, bring to light new facets of this enduring theme.

Andrew Watson, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870–1920. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2022.

Turning north from Toronto, Watson’s history traces how Muskoka developed into a tourist region. Making Muskoka traces the transformation of an Indigenous, rural homeland into a playground for tourists and cottagers. The roundtable’s participants focus on Watson’s conceptualization of “rural identity” and “sustainability” on the Canadian Shield. The roundtable’s four contributors Michael Dawson, Maureen G. Reed, Camden Burd, and Jocelyn Thorpe also reflect on Watson’s methodology and the historian’s craft, as well as the topics of tourism, political ecology, social-ecological systems. This roundtable also reflects on the human beings behind the craft of history—both scholars and the subjects they study—in the context of settler colonialism in Muskoka.

The H-Environment Roundtable series is a venue for scholars who study environment across disciplines to be able to talk to each other and exchange ideas. As an open-access forum, the roundtables available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please enjoy and circulate widely.

The following two tabs change content below.
Kara Murphy Schlichting is an Associate Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY. Schlichting has published in the Journal of Urban History and the Journal of Planning History. She is a co-editor of H-Environment Roundtables and the author of 'New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore' (University of Chicago Press 2019).

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.