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Participation in naturism has followed a pattern of increase and decline like many other social trends (corrected)
The book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam helps understand the reasons
Note: Substack munged the text of this post, so here’s a corrected version. Apologies for the problem.
The story varies in different countries where naturism has had meaningful levels of participation. Naturism, as we know it today, appeared in Germany in the later 1890s. It didn’t reach France and England until after World War I, around 1925. About five years later it reached the U.S., mainly due to a German immigrant, Kurt Barthel, who founded the Americal League for Physical Culture in New York in 1929. Participation in naturism in the U.S. increased gradually even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, despite legal efforts to suppress it in various places across the country, from New York to southern California.
There was, understandably, a pause during World War II, in most countries where naturism had become established, including the U.S. After the war, however, the increase of participation in naturism resumed in the U.S. from 1946 until around 1980. Participation in naturism didn’t follow quite the same pattern in other countries as it did in the U.S., but the focus here is on the U.S. specifically. Here there was a plateau of participation sometime around 1990, when participation noticeably began to decline - right up to the present. I presented various examples of this in a previous newsletter.
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But what’s fascinating is that this pattern of increase and decline of participation in naturism in the U.S. is quite similar to trends in a large variety of other social activities. PTAs, service clubs, labor unions, fraternal organizations, and professional organizations - to cite just a few examples - had the same experience. Political scientist/sociologist Robert D. Putnam noticed this pattern and in 2000 published a detailed account and analysis of such trends. His book was titled Bowling Alone. (My review of it is here.)
Strikingly, many quite different sorts of social group activities experienced an increase, a plateau, and a decline in participation in a similar pattern. Bowling leagues are just a prototypical example. (A bowling league, if you’re not familiar with the idea, is a team of people who compete with other teams in the sport of bowling. Bowling itself is still popular with some people, but now it’s mostly practiced individually or with friends instead of in formal leagues.)
Participation in naturism has followed the same pattern as league bowling and many other group activities. These various activities don’t necessarily repeat the pattern at the same time. Timing of the beginning, peak, and end may vary by one or two decades, but the pattern is roughly the same. It’s interesting, though, that the peaks often occurred within one or two decades of 1960. Naturism in the U.S. began in 1930 but didn’t reach a peak until about 1980, so the pattern isn’t delayed very much.
Not all social group activities have followed a similar pattern. As Putnam pointed out, significant exceptions exist. For example, small groups such as reading groups and self-help groups continue to be popular, although individual groups and their members come and go. The same is true of much larger social organizations such as movements for women’s rights, civil rights, and environmental protection continue being highly active
So there are a number of things for which sociologists would like to find explanations. Why do some sorts of social activities - including naturism - experience a pattern of rise and decline, while others do not? When that pattern exists, why is it similar across many examples, although the beginning, middle, and end may vary by several decades? Although sociologists are very interested in these things, the questions aren’t simply matters of academic curiosity.
Naturists, in particular, really should try to understand what’s going on - so they can try to prevent naturism from fading away any further. Or, much better, reverse the downtrend. After all, a pattern of rise, relative popularity, then decline is only one possible pattern. A pattern of either little change or periodic rise and fall - like ocean waves - is just as plausible.
Of course, human societies are very complex things with many moving parts. So there are many factors that contribute to any particular result. Now, I’m not a sociologist, and I don’t even play one in movies. But it’s certainly interesting to think about why participation in many different types of organizations followed the up-and-down pattern just as naturism has done. It’s even more interesting that they have done so at roughly the same times since (at least) 1900.
One factor that seems significant to me is population density. People are more likely to become involved with each other in an area of a relatively limited size if there are more of them in that area. The more relatively close neighbors we have, the more likely it is that we’ll interact with them instead of people in another part of town, let alone in a different state. Viewed differently, if there are the same number of naturists in a small area or a larger one, there will probably be more interactions in the small area. This is why population density matters.
The area of the contiguous United States hasn’t changed since Arizona became a state in 1912. The total population then was a little over 92 million people. The population density then was about 26 people per square mile. However, by 2020, the population was about 329 million (not including Alaska and Hawaii). That’s a factor of roughly 3.6 - hence a population density of about 93 people per square mile. That’s quite a change, so it’s hardly surprising that participation in many different social organizations and activities - such as naturism - increased, at least until 1970 or so. Of course, population density isn’t uniform at all - it’s much more in large urban areas than in rural areas. So it’s to be expected that naturism along with many other social activities is more prevalent in or relatively near urban areas.
It’s interesting to compare the popularity of naturism in the U. S. compared to countries like France and England. About three and a half years ago I made a blog post that compared participation in naturism in England and 10 U.S. states with the most naturists. Since even approximate numbers of naturists in different places are hard to estimate, I estimated how far a person would have to travel to visit the closest naturist club (numbers of which are somewhat accurately known).
You can look at the blog post for details, but it turns out that a naturist in England would need to travel only 15 miles on average to visit the closest naturist club, while in even states with the most naturists, the travel distance is more like 60 miles - 4 times as much. That makes a big difference. Florida has the lowest travel distance - 25 miles - because there are a lot of naturist clubs there. In the U.S. as a whole, the expected distance is 82 miles - and it’s much farther in states that are mostly rural. The population density of England is about 1100 per square mile vs. about 90 in the U.S. It shouldn’t be very surprising that naturism is considerably more popular in England than in the U.S.
However, besides population density, another factor helps support participation in many social activities, including naturism. That factor is transportation technology. In the early 1900s, relatively few people owned cars. Roads were also much less numerous and less suitable for the travel speeds we’re now used to. Fueling stations were fewer and farther between than today. Railroads allowed faster travel - provided they went where someone wanted to go. By the 1970s cars were much more numerous and capable of higher speeds, and the roads (like the Interstate Highway System) were better.
So by 1980, naturists in the U.S. could, on average, visit nude beaches or naturist clubs (of which there were then many more of both) or naturist friends much more easily than 50 years before. Is it at all surprising that naturism in general had become much more popular? These same factors made participation much easier in many other social activities and organizations too, although maybe one or two decades earlier.
But good things usually don’t last forever
Unfortunately, things changed for many kinds of social activities and organizations between 1960 and 1980. That was the period when participation in most activities and organizations reached a plateau or even started to decline. But it’s important to understand that what’s recorded is the total participation by all age groups, from people just reaching adulthood on up. The amount of participation by different age groups can vary widely from group to group. This is what Putnam calls “generational change”.
He makes a very important point: “The key question to ask about generational differences is not how old are people now, but when were they young.” (His italics.) Putnam considers data for many types of activities and organizations, although he never mentions naturism. Naturism, of course, is what interests us here and illustrates the point well. As it happens, the generation known as “Baby Boomers” - people born within about 20 years after World War II - were young adults from 1966 onward. Their embrace of social nudity exceeded in enthusiasm and in different ways that of previous generations.
However, most parents of the Boomers were still around in the 1960s, as were quite a few of the grandparents, who were near or past retirement age. So even though social group participation by Boomers was lower than that of their elders, total participation rates generally peaked around 1960 (give or take a decade or two), but didn’t decline sharply right away.
The parents of Boomers mostly became adults during a very rough time. First there was the decade of the Great Depression, which started in 1929. That was followed almost immediately by the U.S. entering World War II. Boomers’ grandparents, though, had a better life, relatively speaking. Although they were adults during World War I, that war had less impact on the U.S. than the following one, and the decade of the 1920s (the “Roaring 20s”) was for many a fine time to be alive. So people then were quite involved in social activities and organizations - possibly more than any later generation. Not only did they live in prosperous times, but automobiles became commonly available, which greatly increased the scope of what people could do.
So, what was life like when Boomers entered adulthood? It was pretty good (in spite of the Vietnam war period). Compared to now, cars and gasoline were cheap, thus affordable by a majority of young adults. Apartment rentals and starter homes were too. For those who went to college, tuition was also cheap, and having to borrow money for school was rare. (Besides, the parents often paid college bills.) Taboos around sexuality were crumbling. (Playboy magazine began publishing in 1953.)
Much more important as far as naturism is concerned, Comstock laws, which dated back to 1873, were being reined in by the courts. The legislation (named for a vicious zealot who promoted it) “criminalized any use of the U.S. Postal Service to send any of the following items: obscenity, contraceptives, abortifacients, sex toys, personal letters with any sexual content or information, or any information regarding the above items.” Never repealed, it affects far more than just nudity and could still do great harm. However, in 1957 court decisions ruled the legislation was too strict and burdensome to free speech, especially by classifying any nudity as “obscenity”. So sending nude images through the mail or by other means clearly became legal.
Consequently, naturist publications soon appeared in the U.S. and reached newsstands and bookstores, so many additional people could learn about naturism. People who found the idea intriguing wanted to learn more and considered becoming involved in naturism. As enough people decided that naturism appealed to them, and they wanted to try it, new naturist clubs and parks were established to fill the demand.
Also, after the war young people (parents of Boomers) whose lives had been on hold during the war started getting married and raising families. So families with young children became interested in naturism simply because naturist club fees were low, and the clubs offered facilities like swimming pools, tennis courts, volleyball courts, and archery ranges that the whole family could enjoy.
One effect was that many more people - both Boomers and their parents - began to enjoy social nudity. If young Boomers had been raised in a naturist family, they often didn’t leave naturism as adults. Otherwise, if they discovered naturism from newly available naturist publications and it seemed appealing, they began participating themselves. Even if they didn’t learn about naturism on their own, they may have had a friend or relative who was into naturism. So they may have decided or been invited to join in. “New” ideas have spread through human societies for millennia. Long ago, wearing clothes (if unnecessary for warmth) was a new idea. So “wearing nothing” could also become a new idea much more recently.
Naturism continued growing in the U.S., at least until the 1980s. Many participants in naturism up to 1980 were young - but they’re now in their 60s or 70s. Many of them still visit naturist clubs and resorts - because they began early and naturism remained important to them. The relative lack of younger people now is usually obvious to anyone who visits a naturist club or clothing-optional beach.
There’s little data to say for sure when interest and participation in naturism started to decline. It may have plateaued until around 2000, since the young naturists of the 1960s and 70s brought their children and friends with them to some extent. But the following generations didn’t have the same enthusiasm. We need to consider the causes of this, but that must wait for the next newsletter (pretty soon).
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