The first person who asked me to teach her to swim was a
well-groomed, wealthy woman in her 30s. We went to Cedar Creek
for these lessons. I had no training for this job because I was
only 15 years old, but the woman offered to pay me 50 cents each
We waded out till the water was chest deep on me, navel deep
on her. We splashed some water on our arms and shoulders and then
I said, "Cup your hands like this and bring some water up to
wash your face." I did it, but she said, "Oh, no! My
face hasn’t had water on it for over four years!" I
explained that she couldn’t swim without getting down into
the water and therefore there would be no lessons. I had a short
swim being careful not to splash water on her and she drove me
home. At age 15 1 didn’t even know women used cleansing
creams, cold creams, vanishing creams and the like.
The earliest written swimming instructions I’ve located
began like this: "To teach yourself to swim, wade out from
shore to chest deep water and turn toward shore. This suggests
that swimmers taught themselves in creeks, lakes, rivers or other
natural water holes. The next maneuver the writer proposed was to
"turn facing the shore and throw your body on the water,
flailing your arms and legs violently."
The next paragraph began, "In some cases there
will be forward motion."
That was written 150 years ago! Having a lifetime of
experience in teaching this activity, I’ll agree that
"swimming" means propelling one’s self in the
water. However, flailing the arms and legs is the least effective
way to learn that I can imagine!
Johnson’s "Scientific and Popular Treasury of Useful
Knowledge," written 125 years ago puts it this way:
"The specific gravity of the human body being greater than
that of water, swimming, with man, is an artificial operation ...
There is no better method than that suggested by Dr. Franklin:
Let the learner wade out to where the water is breast-deep and
turn toward shore ... Throw a white pebble before him and let him
plunge after it. The resistance which the water makes to his
struggles will buoy him up. The moment he has acquired sufficient
confidence and command of his limbs to strike out regularly, he
has learned to swim." He added, "Corks and floats of
any kind are a hindrance rather than an aid in learning to
My 100-year-old Encyclopedia Britannica advises that, "By
going to a salt water beach to learn, all artificial aids such as
floats, corks, inflated bladders, etc., can be avoided." The
author, H. F. Wilkinson, misunderstood Franklin’s teaching
method when he said, "The floating power of the body is the
first thing to be acquired."
Benjamin Franklin used an egg and asked the student to
retrieve it when standing in chest deep water; thus the student
discovered that he was naturally buoyant and not acquired.
In about 1900, the Australians introduced a crawl stroke.
Americans, early on, improved on the method of using the legs.
Today we hear it called "freestyle," and most racers
swim the American crawl in that event, kicking three strokes with
each arm pull.
Swimming is mentioned in the Bible’s book of Exodus and
used by ancient Egyptians and others. The carvings in the ruins
of Pompeii show swimmers using the sidestroke, which involves a
delicate balance of the body. The earliest style of propelling
the body was probably a loping breast stroke, perhaps not unlike
the way I swam in Grindstone Creek about 80 years ago. More about
swimming on another Tuesday.