I’ve developed a fascination as of late, or perhaps more accurately, an obsession, with what I’ve labeled as the Legacy Nudist Resorts of America. This crusade of sorts began as a quest to visit the most renowned of these places over the past eight months, while our proclivity to join the ranks of social nudity were suddenly limited by the confines of a road trip. No more bouncing to Croatia or France for Nakation; time to explore our own backyard!

Photo Credit: Domaine Naturiste La Jenny

I’ve not heard anyone else use the moniker of legacy in regard to naturist establishments, and in fact, I’m not quite sure how to define it myself. But I’m most fascinated with those early nudist camps established by (mostly) European pioneers before World War II. I’m thinking the likes of Solair Recreation League in Connecticut, or Skyfarm in New Jersey, or even Lake O’ the Woods Club in Indiana. A dead giveaway to the origin of a place is a name that fails to make any reference to nudity whatsoever, supposedly obfuscating that awkward moment when the monthly newsletter arrived in your mailbox wrapped in brown paper with an innocuous return address.

While social nudity seemed to be trending on both sides of the Atlantic before the War (WWII), the post-war saga grew increasingly divergent with each passing decade. There are two national archives of naturist research and artifacts extant today: one at Cypress Cove Nudist Resort in Florida, and another at Glen Eden Sun Club in California. Ironically enough, those places were relatively late to the party, established in 1964, and 1963 respectively. Regretably, I’ve only had the opportunity for a brief visit to the Florida archives, but I think it’s time to find my way back for some serious digging.

Of particular intrigue are the hundreds and hundreds of nudist publications and newsletters that were quite literally all the rage during the 1950s and 60s. As an amateur scholar of American nudism, I know just enough to be dangerous – as the saying goes. But the salient parts of the story go something like this.

Legacy American nudist camps were essentially secret societies, typically located in the rural areas that have since been subsumed by suburbia. These were family places, meticulously regimented by policies related to diet, exercise, and a flat-out denial that naked bodies were inherently sexual in any way. (An ideal that remains controversial to this day.) If the photographic evidence is meaningful documentation, nudists were heterosexual, married, and white, with 2.5 children, a Chevy, and a dog.

What I find most stunning about that era is the tangly saga of organized social nudity. The more that unfolds, I realize just how many nudist camps have vanished over the years, as it seems that 1950-something America had a secret garden within an easy drive of nearly every major metropolis. In addition to those mentioned above, Rock Lodge Club in New Jersey and Lupin Lodge in northern California are among the last survivors of that first influx of clothing-free establishments, but I’m forever coming across names and stories of places in the sprawling LA basin that have essentially disappeared without a trace… Except in the archives of nudist publications.

What can we say about those early nudist publications? As I understand it, even the early “gentlemen’s magazines” were closely regulated as to what they could and could not display in their early editions. Most certainly off limits were genitalia and pubic hair – back in the day when most humans had some! At first, this was true for nudist magazines as well, but given myriad court challenges and prolonged brawls with the US Postal Service, full frontal exposure finally got a green light for the nudists well ahead of the pornographers.

Given the entrepreneurial spirit of the American publishing industry, it’s not difficult to imagine what happened next. By the 1960s, nudist camps were hosting week-long events for families in addition to special camps just for teens, with attendance frequently reaching 100 or more campers. Photo journalists needed subjects; nudist camps needed revenue, and getting published also meant free publicity for the clubs, many of which struggled to stay afloat. And after all, what could be more innocent and wholesome than naked 16-year-olds playing volleyball, or a good old fashioned “Miss Nudist Camp” pageant. Eventually, regulations related to censorship of sexually oriented publications would catch up with that of their nudist counterparts, and strangely enough, that was about the time we began to see the decline of the American nudist camp. Draw your own conclusions.

I’ve always thought of myself as having an old soul, pining a little every time I see a film set with Art Deco backdrops, or a romance evolving over the course of a long train trip. And so it is with nudism. Given my apparent hard-wiring for getting naked whenever possible, I’ve found myself wondering what it would have been like to be a naturist family in 1960. That’s most certainly what drew us to France in the 1990s, having concluded that the much-heralded traditions of American social nudity were no longer to be found on this side of the Atlantic.

But that leaves the question hanging out there. What happened? How is it that social nudity in Europe continued to evolve into the multi-million-euro industry that it is today, with a decided emphasis on family naturism at the core of their business model. In the meantime, some of the most progressive naturist places in the US have simply hung a shingle at the front door to identify their establishment as adults only, even if their charter insists there’s no hanky panky to be found beyond those gates. – “It’s just better for everyone this way,” they say.

To be fair, many of those early legacy clubs still allow and encourage members to bring their families for a day of naked fun by the pool. But more often than not, playground equipment is old and decrepit, and parents are beholden to keep the kids entertained, as their children are likely to be the only ones on the premises under 30 years of age. And never mind the complicated social constructs of defining “family” in 2020. How many times have I heard a young mom say, “I’d love to bring the kids along, but I don’t think that would go over so well with my ex or the stepmom.” Complicated.

If there is one grand issue that frames this entire conversation, it’s the development of photographic devices and digital media. Ironically, nude photography was at the very core of the movement back in the legacy days, but the implicit dangers of tacitly allowing images of your children to show up in the wrong place has all but paralyzed the holistic ethos of the legacy. I get it. We live in perilous times.

Photo Credit: Domaine Naturiste La Jenny

My readers know I’m not too keen on the rhetoric of making America great again, fixing my own vision on all that has evolved over the past sixty years in regard to personal liberty, freedom of expression, and self-empowerment. (Does anyone really want to go back to 1955? Really?) But it’s difficult not to grow reminiscent when perusing those old nudist magazines. Altruistic or not, it’s seems evident to me that those who’ve gone before gave their all to the naturist cause with passion and conviction. My imagination will never stop dancing with daydreams of what it must have been like on a warm summer’s day at Lake O’ the Woods, when the place was full to the brim with young families. Quite a legacy, indeed.

I would remind readers that I’m quite a novice at naturist research. If I’ve botched or omitted a critical part of the story, comment below or drop me a line. This is fascinating stuff!

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Author’s Note: Do you find this topic as intriguing as I do? You might want to look up the research of Brian Hoffman or Mark Storey, each of whom have written about American nudist history at length. Brian’s book is a particularly fascinating read. It’s also worth checking out the Naturist Vintage website and accompanying Twitter feed.

Black and white mages for this post are drawn my my curated archives of historical naturist photos. Color photos, including the header image, are credited to La Jenny Naturist Resort in Aquitaine, France.

10 thoughts

  1. I feel the same. There was a family in my neighborhood when I was young that went away every summer for a few weeks to Empire Haven near Moravia NY. I wish I had that opportunity as it seems to me it was a time where more families would gather there.

  2. I’m quite interested in this topic too. Here are some observations – quite brief, since this is a hectic time.

    You’re probably familiar with Cec Cinder’s 600+ page tome, The Nudist Idea. It mostly deals with nudism in Europe, but has chapters on the U. S. history too. Cec was quite involved with nudism in Southern California in the 60s and later. He was a pioneer with “free beaches” in the area, and had an organization called Beachfront USA. (See https://aanrwest.org/media/attachments/2020/07/02/cec-cinder.pdf) Still alive now, AFAIK, now 93.

    I’ve read Brian Hoffman’s book. Didn’t like it that much. There were some factual errors, which a PhD historian shouldn’t be excused for making. Also too much detail on legal squabbles.

    A very recent book (2019) by Sarah Schrank, Free and Natural, is much better. Entirely about nudism in the U. S., especially in the period up to the mid-80s. There’s a lot of detail on Los Angeles nudist places, which were for a long time under heavy attack from law enforcement agencies.

    One problem that grew out of the many naturist magazines of the 50s, 60s, and 70s was the way some of them evolved into focusing on nudist children to appeal to the pedophile market (not by real nudists, of course). That had much to do with how even legit nudist publications were also attacked.

    Another thing that happened in the 60s was movies such as by Doris Wishman and a few others. The films were often set in nudist clubs. Although there was no explicit sex in the nudist films, they clearly intended to exploit nudity, and are sometimes called “sexploitation”.

    Another thing about the 60s is the success of Playboy and similar non-nudist magazines, which eclipsed nudist magazines for men who were interested only in the naked women.

    Ed Lange, a professional photographer who owned Elysium, was a controversial character, as there was some suspicion of shady motivations on his part. He was also connected with the “sexual revolution” of the 60s and 70s. I visited Elysium around 1990, and it was a beautiful place, though small (about 10 acres). This was on a weekday, and there was not a single person there, except for myself and a young woman in the office. After Lange died in 1995, Elysium was sold by his children and no longer nudist.

    There’s another old-style nudist place in the SF area – The Sequoians. It was sort of a late-comer, founded only in 1947. I’ve visited there a couple of times, though not recently. It was kind of run-down, even when I was there maybe 20 years ago. The problem seems to be that it is fully open only to “members” who pay an annual fee. Non-members can visit at most 2 or 3 times per year, I think. This is a problem with many of the original clubs. (Though not with Lupin, at least in recent decades.) What happens is that the only visitors either live on the grounds or come from nearby.

    I think one conclusion that can draw from all this is that, compared to Europe, where nudism could be pursued for its own value, in the puritanical U. S. too many people became interested in nudism only for a somewhat more “acceptable” way to gawk at naked women. Hence the widespread confusion in this country of nudity and sexuality.

  3. Thanks for an open and interesting article. And pictures of both side of the human body. You have done allot the Naturiste around the world. Wish you all the best and please go on.
    Kirsten and Herbert Fischer

  4. One thing I’ve noticed is how unfriendly some naturist groups are to the media. Storytellers like myself simply want to make movies or novels about our experiences, but the minute we enter a club, everyone gets defensive, as though they feel the need to explain things or justify their existence. Too often, we’re stuck making propaganda films. It’s about time that changed and we just tell the truth.

  5. well written and very eye opening for me. having been raised in a very strict church based family i am not sure i ever heard about nudist resorts growing up at all. And did not know much about such things till visiting orient beach for a day and from then on looking into places that allowed nude sunbathing. spent a lot of time on cruise ships and back then almost all ships had an area for topless or nude sunbathing. but slowly the nude areas have gone away now if we are on a cruise to europe most ships will still allow for a upper deck for nudist. just more example of the difference between europe and usa. we spent 14 days in the nude on a trans atlantic cruise enjoying the top deck along with around 20 other people and by the time the 2 weeks was over had gotten to know quit a few of the others. a few of them lived near haulover beach and as mentioned here i agree nudist are some of the friendliest people any where. i do enjoy your posts thanks

  6. In the UK we have some of these ‘legacy’ venues that go back to the 1930’s. They face all these issues. I long standing waterpark family event has recently been forced to become adult only due to pressure on the venue by campaigners and media interests. Where the venues still survive they are also hampered by an aging and declining number of people willing to put time and resources into them.

    1. Interestingly, I’ve been following BN pretty closely, including the waterpark story. I haven’t been there to experience it myself, but I would have to say that you’re in a better situation here in the US. AND… it seems that BN is really taking advantage of the pandemic to reconceptualize their entire approach through online engagement.

      But there’s no question, even France has grown more paranoid and conservative over the years, but somehow, they are managing to keep the family naturist business alive and booming. (If last year is any indication, I would say they’re experiencing a resurgence.)

      Thanks for following the blog. 🙂