Two weeks ago Bernhard and Milinda opened class with a discussion of the transnationality of nudism and ‘the global naturist movement’. While this light-hearted conversation was clearly meant to be only a quirky way to pass the time until everyone had joined the call, I can’t help but see this as a challenge to write a blog post on the movement—especially after listening to an episode about it on my favourite history podcast, The Dollop. In this episode, the podcast presenters open with a wonderful quotation on the ever idiosyncratic American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, that serves as what I agree is a good introduction to this topic.
But I’ve found it much more agreeable to my constitution to bath in another element, cold air. With this in view I rise every morning and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatsoever—half an hour to an hour reading or writing.” — Benjamin Franklin, 1750.
In fact, nudism (also known as naturism) has a long history in America, especially with those in the political and social elite. There were also many other famous American men who enjoyed nude activities. John Quincy Adams, Walt Whitman, Thomas Jefferson, and later Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Roosevelt.
While these persons may all have been men of influence, their penchant for bareness was more of an personal ritual and cannot be considered part of a movement and was still considered radical in early America. And though the word naturism would be coined in 1778 by the Belgian Jean Baptiste Luc Planchon as a term to describe healthy living, it would not be until the end of the 19th century that it would become synonymous with nakedness.
The first documented naturist club, the ‘Fellowship of the Naked Trust’, was established in British India in 1891 by Charles Edward Gordon Crawford, an English judge for the Bombay Civil Service. But the commune struggled to find members and dissolved upon Crawford’s death in 1894.
In 1902, a German philosopher named Henrich Pudor published a set of articles and later a book promoting the social and practical benefits of nudity in education and sports, namely in body/class image and mobility. Though naturism, termed Nacktkultur, borrowed from the contemporary Lebensreform and Wandervogel movements which promoted athletics and healthy living, it more than anything took hold as a reaction to rapid industrialization and urbanization. By spending time in nature, getting exercise, and eating a plant based diet—all while naked of course—naturists hoped to counteract what they saw as negative aspects of urban life like disease and pollution. At this same time, many more liberal doctors were also prescribing fresh air and sunlight (or heliopathy) as treatment for Tuberculosis, Rheumatism, Scrofula, and Rickets. In 1921, the Frisian island of Sylt opened its first official nudist beach as a getaway destination and in 1930 the Berlin School of Nudism opened—though this was less of a school and more of an advocacy group. From 1902-1932, many of these early German naturists read and participated in the publication of the first journal of nudism. Initially, the naturist movement was associated with left wing political movements, pacifists, and homosexuals. For this reason, restrictions were placed on naturists in Germany when Hitler’s regime took power. As Germans fled for America in the late 1920s, they often found themselves living in cities even larger and more urbanized than their German counterparts. Soon, dozens of naturist camps began to pop up in the areas surrounding American cities and became a regular destination for more than just German immigrants, especially in summer months.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, naturism as a movement, like other organizations of the time, began to lose its universalist identity as certain clubs became open only to members of the landed class or certain ethnic/religious groups. In 1951, several national European and American nudist groups came together to form the International Naturist Federation or INF. But, since this type of organization and politicization of nudity was in conflict with its grass roots origins, many naturists preferred not to join. Thus, while historians can trace networks of naturists using data from groups like the INF, they are unable to account for the many who existed outside.
Through the second half of the 20th century and up to today, naturism has found its niche within the hospitality industry as many resorts and clubs have begun to offer the same types of amenities as their clothed counterparts. Today there even exist nudist cruises and five start hotels, while in Croatia up to 15% of their tourism sector can be attributed to nudist retreats. This new nakedness, however, cannot perhaps be referred to as naturism even if it is nudism, as it has become out of touch with its countercultural origins. Still, there are countless less formal nude beaches and parks in operation worldwide as many people continue to advocate the naturist lifestyle. One such advocate is Dame Helen Mirren, who once said, ‘I do believe in naturism and am my happiest on a nude beach with people of all ages and races.’ Some of these modern naturists even continue the movements political traditions, like those who practice the lifestyle in Indonesia, defying the country’s strict laws against public nudity. Other groups like the Young Naturists and Nudists America have sought to bring nakedness and healthy outdoor living to young people as a mean of coping with a society that is so plagued by issues of body image, substance abuse, and a lack of exercise.
“By being unencumbered by clothing,” argues a writer for menswear magazine The Rake, “we reconnect with a state of pre-Judeo/Christian guilt, one of utter innocence and joyful embracement [of nature and humanity].”