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Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism

Brian HoffmanBrian Hoffman received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has taught the history of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco and American Studies at Wesleyan University. He currently teaches in New Haven, Connecticut. He is the author of Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism (New York University Press, 2015).

What initially drew you to studying nudism?

I was originally drawn to the history of nudism as a way to explore why Americans have so strongly associated nakedness and the naked body with shame. I grew up in a fairly unconventional household. My parents very much identified with the counterculture of the late 1960s (even though I grew-up in the 80s) and spent weekends in the backyard in various stages of undress. Block parties were definitely clothing-optional events, dips in the swimming pool did not require a bathing suit, and the photo album was replete with naked pictures of virtually everyone in the family. This was my normal. As I grew into adolescence, however, I quickly realized that most other families preferred to remain clothed on sunny Sunday afternoons. The contrasting attitudes toward nakedness in the United States fascinated me. Why was it that my family’s network of friends had no problem going naked while many of the girls I went to high school with were being yelled at by their parents for wearing skimpy clothes? This contradiction cried out for historical analysis and the nudist movement—beginning in the late 1920s and continuing to the present—provided an excellent case study to probe the conflicting ways Americans have understood the body over most of the twentieth century.

anrlHow did you develop your archive for this project?

Although the focus of my project was on an eccentric and obscure group, Naked required a great deal of old fashioned archival research. My research began in the University of Illinois stacks where I found Maurice Parmelee’s Nudism in Modern Life (1931). This led me to other nudist treatises, an important obscenity case, newspaper articles, congressional records, and the American Civil Liberties Union Archives. I would later find the Maurice Parmelee’s Papers held in the Sterling Library at Yale University. I also spent a great deal of time in Law Libraries attempting to locate important legal documents related to anti-nudity laws, nudist obscenity cases and raids on nudist camps. As I developed an archive for this project, I took great satisfaction every time I found references to nudism in completely unexpected places—mainstream magazines like Literary Digest or Time profiling the emergence of the movement , an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) explaining the therapeutic benefits soldiers gained from the sun, or a debate about nudism in the Congressional Record.  It was amazing how the weird and quirky can be found in the most ordinary places.

The American nudist movement left behind an enormous amount of rich sources that were not always located in the typical archive or library. In order to document nudist voices, experiences and perspectives, I turned to the American Nudist Research Library (ANRL) located on the Cypress Cove Nudist Resort in Kissimmee, Florida (minutes from Walt Disney World). While most archives require you to place your bags in a locker or to wear gloves while touching delicate materials, the ANRL asks its patrons to bring their own towel to use when they sit at the reading table. The small climate controlled building expertly maintained by Helen Fisher contains full runs of numerous nudist magazines dating back to the 1930s, it has personal papers of several nudist leaders, legal documents, rare nudist books, and club newsletters. Despite the naked patrons sitting next to me, I was also allowed to use my digital camera to capture entire runs of critical magazines like The Nudist (1933 to 1940) and Sunshine and Health (1940 to 1963). Whenever possible I attempted to digitize my sources and organize them electronically so that they were fully searchable and could be easily reviewed and annotated outside of the archive—in this case a nudist resort.

ANRL reading room

Research Room at the ANRL (Photo courtesy of American Nudist Research Library)

What was the strangest/most interesting thing you found in the archives/while doing research?

One of the strangest experiences I had researching this project involved a missing picture of a nude female javelin thrower and the Congressional Record.  Over the years, many of the older nudist books from the 1930s, despite often being held in special collections, frequently had images removed by library patrons. To make matters worse, it was often difficult to discern if a picture had been ripped out. I stumbled across this problem as I researched the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) persecution of Maurice Parmelee. When Martin Dies (R. Texas) attacked the Roosevelt administration for appointing Parmelee to the Post War Economic Planning Board there was an extensive debate around his book, Nudism in Modern Life. Several Congressmen objected to the full frontal nudity displayed in a picture of a woman throwing a javelin. Even though I knew almost every page of Parmelee’s treatise, I had never seen the picture that the Congressmen thought belonged in a “saloon.” It was obvious the image had been removed so I put in an inter-library loan request for another edition of Parmelee’s book, only to discover that the same picture had again been removed! I was now more determined than ever to see this javelin thrower! Only a special note in World Cat eventually (after almost two weeks) yielded an unmutilated edition of Parmelee’s Nudism in Modern Life. While most of the images in Parmelee’s book were far from arousing, the Javelin thrower was apparently a very desirable image for many library patrons (and a few Congressmen)!

javelin thrower

The Javelin Thrower in Maurice Parmelee, Nudism in Modern Life (Knopf, 1931)

What surprised you while writing this book?

I did not anticipate that a case study of an eccentric marginal social movement would require me to develop expertise in so many different sub-fields of American history. In addition to drawing on the history of gender, sexuality, and the body, I found myself making substantial connections to legal history, the history of health and healing, political history, literary studies, religious studies, art history, the history of race relations, film studies, and the history of rural America. I learned quite a bit about a variety of areas of American History and really enjoyed the opportunity to present papers at a variety of disciplinary specific conferences.  And I now have the ability to offer some really unique courses and seminars on a number of topics that appeal to students with a variety of interests.

Your study incorporates both rural and urban histories into its larger structure. Do you see this as an important corrective to more traditional histories of sexuality that are centered on the city?

One of the distinguishing features of American nudism was that it largely developed off the beaten path far away from the major urban metropolis that many historians of sexuality have made the focus of their studies. This allowed me to analyze how the meaning of nakedness shifted according to particular spaces, settings, or environments. The intimate relationship between sexual expression and the city that so many historians have documented made it difficult for nudists to convince neighbors, police, judges, and local politicians that exposing the body to the fresh air yielded therapeutic benefits. Yet, in the American countryside nakedness lost its association with commercial eroticism and– under the right circumstances—the naked body was linked with nature, skinny dipping, and the religious imagery of the Garden of Eden before the fall. Incorporating rurality into the history of sexuality challenges the assumption that only urban spaces allowed for sexual expression and deviance and demonstrates the complex ways that sex, eroticism and the body were socially constructed according to specific environments and spaces.


Many nudist images used a wide-angled perspective to recall a pastoral ideal of nakedness associated with the tradition of skinny-dipping. (Nudist, November 1936 9; courtesy of the Sunshine and Health Publishing Company)

Your study touches on a number of topics (religion, morality, politics, the law), but it seems that sexuality and eroticism is at the center. Do you see this study as primarily an exploration of how race, gender and the body shape our understanding of sexuality?

The complex relationship between nakedness and shame in the United States required an analysis that fully integrated race, gender, eroticism, sexuality and the body (both old and young).  The challenges made against nudism and public nudity often stemmed from broader social and cultural anxieties that defined the body as illicit. In the 1930s, for example, local police, moral reformers, and politicians associated nudism with an underworld of commercial sexuality. During the Second World War, these fears abated as the public accepted the erotic desires of servicemen serving far away from home and the covers of nudist magazines took on the appearance of pinups and full-frontal nudity began to sneak into the pages of the magazine. The nudist movement, yet again, adjusted to changing anxieties in the post-war period. Nudists guarded against fears of homoeroticism and interracial sexuality by promoting an ideology of domesticity at nudist resorts that excluded single men and people of color while celebrating family, nature and recreation. In the late 1960s, a new generation of youthful activists interested in going naked as a way to advocate for the politics of sexual liberation challenged the “respectable” character of many nudist organizations and welcomed gay men and women, people of color, and casual eroticism. My analysis of the way the American nudist movement negotiated the shifting anxieties around nakedness “uncovered”—pun intended—the critical role that race, gender, and the body played in shaping our understanding of sexuality, public nudity, and shame.