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!
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.
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.