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Hollywood Homes Among the First With Backyard Swimming Pools
picture of jayne mansfield by heart-shaped pool

Jayne Mansfield poses next to the heart-shaped swimming pool being built in her Los Angeles-area backyard.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
While swimming pools have been around since the days before the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in modern history, private backyard pools really started to make a big splash after World War II. And guess who owned the very first private pools in Southern California, were photographed in and near them, and sparked the trend that continues nearly 100 years later? Celebrities -- as in "swimming pools, movie stars" (Jed Clampett, Jethro and the rest of The Beverly Hillbillies).

Part of the appeal of relocating the growing film industry from New York and New Jersey to Los Angeles in the early 1900s was the sunny climate -- outdoor filming could take place throughout the year. Studio executives and stars had glamorous homes built by notable architects, and these desirable pads featured lush landscaping along with the ultimate Southern California status symbol -- a private swimming pool.

In the book, Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, Daniell Cornell writes:

As early as the 1920s, the swimming pool brought together two apparently opposite visions of California. It referenced both the nostalgic, edenic promise of an abundant pastoral landscape and the modern, sophisticated, and glamorous world of Hollywood. It comes as no surprise, then, that Hollywood seized upon associations of a bountiful California outdoor life organized around sun and water to evoke a wide range of psychological desires, from innocent pleasures to sybaritic indulgences, from quiet reflection to extravagant spectacle, from shimmering opulence to sensuous excess. As a symbol, water referenced idyllic fantasies, dark threats, and everything in between.

The resurrection of the Olympic Games in 1896 initiated a need for public pools, and collegiate swimming teams built campus-based pools for their teams to practice and compete. Public pools became popular in cities throughout the United States during the early 1900s, although they soon became a source of racial discourse as they shifted away from a place in which to get exercise and instead became more of a gathering site for relaxation and socialization.

If a public or even country club pool was desirable, a private swimming pool was even better. While wealthy studio execs and actors actually had pools built in their backyards, it was the fan magazines and newsreels (shown in movie theaters) that depicted these new popular stars relaxing at home, often by or in their own swimming pool. For the general public, pool ownership was an unattainable luxury. But it became increasingly popular for entertainment and shelter magazines to show supposedly candid views of stars engaged in everyday activities -- something with which people could identify. Southern California became a potentially obtainable dream for everyone -- and thousands flocked to the land of milk, honey, sunshine, movie stars and swimming pools. And if you weren't a celebrity yourself, you certainly could live next door to one (or so the studios' publicity staffs led many to believe).

These old photos -- however contrived they may have been -- serve as a cultural and design reference for modern swimming pool history. It was the beginning of a voyeuristic and envious culture, allowing readers and fans to get past the front doors of the rich, famous and beautiful. In our current over-sharing age of Facebook and Instagram -- it now seems somewhat innocent.

Join us for a nostalgic tour of movie stars' homes and swimming pools.

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