In the summer of 1891, the view from the Burlington river bluffs was spectacular. There was the mighty rolling river, the wooded Illinois shoreline and the passing “wedding cake” steamboats. And then there were the bare bottoms.
Yup. Bare bottoms, buttocks, derrieres, tushes were part of the local scenery at the Mississippi levee, and it had reached a point that city fathers had to do something about it.
This “grievous breach of public morality” was exposed by an unusually warm summer and the desire of the town’s young men and boys to seek relief from the oppressive heat by dipping into the cooling river waters.
The Daily Gazette was the first to address the problem in print when it recounted a trip by the proper crowd at the Burlington Boat Club to a picnic outing on the islands north of town.
After an exceedingly proper outing upon the sylvan islands, the picnic crowd was returning to home base at the club’s prestigious clubhouse near the site of today’s Memorial Auditorium.
As evening approached, a flotilla of picnic boats was skimming the river levee as they returned to home base when suddenly in the twilight, there was a flash of pink among the moored work boats and drifting logs scattered along the riverfront.
The blur of color prompted the ladies on the boats to suggest the color was a flag or perhaps a river animal and they urged their male companions to draw closer for a visual inspection.
As the rowers pulled closer to the shore, the flash of pink multiplied into numerous pale shapes and then — whoops! A shock or recognition reverberated among the picnic boats.
There, standing, splashing, and doing the 19th-century version of “mooning” were a score of working men and boys, all naked as jay birds.
The skinny dippers responded to their unexpected visitors with laughter and shouts of derision. But aboard the boats, it was shock that ruled. The city fathers must be told about this disgusting display and the fair sex spared from future assaults on their sensibilities.
Upon reaching the shore, the boaters summoned the marshal and charged him with clearing the riverfront of these ruffians. The next day the city council met in solemn deliberation and passed an ordinance dealing with the flaunting of the flesh.
“Whoever shall bathe, wash or swim in the Mississippi River, except in that part opposite that portion of the city north of High Street and south of Locust Street, being naked or insufficiently clothed to prevent exposure of his or her person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
When word got around town, the new law was greeted with hoots of derision because in those days before swimming pools, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing, the river was the only way to cool a hard-working body.
Source: The Hawk Eye
Original publication 29 January, 2021
Posted on NatCorn 11th February 2021
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