Gary Mussel, who’s been an activist for naturism and an official of various naturist organizations, offers a birds-eye view of the history of naturism. Open, unproblematic nudity has occurred frequently in human societies as long as humans have existed, especially in regions with mild climates. Occasional open nudity wasn’t unusual even in various more “modern” urban societies until a couple thousand years ago. Even within the past 100 years or so, bathing naked in rivers, lakes, and the ocean wasn’t unusual (at least for males). But, of course, historical trends such as urbanization and religious dogmatism gradually stigmatized nudity.
However, trends may eventually reverse when extremes are reached. In Europe, the “Romantic” writers lamented the increasing alienation of humans from the natural world. In the U.S., somewhat later, writers like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau echoed those sentiments. Finally in Germany in 1894 Heinrich Pudor (using the pseudonym Heinrich Scham) openly advocated for naturism in a short tract entitled Naked People. It was optimistically subtitled “A triumph-shout of the future”. 9 years later, the first known nudist park, Freilichtpark, was opened in Germany by Paul Zimmerman.
After the First World War, nudism caught on in Germany, and (partly thanks to German tourists) in France later in the 1920s. Spielplatz opened in England in 1929 – and has operated continuously since then. Mussell traces the further evolution of nudism (and naturism) in the U.S. thanks to people like Kurt Barthel, Bernard MacFadden, and (especially) Ilsley Boone. Boone took over Barthel’s American League for Physical Culture in 1931 and renamed it The American Sunbathing Association. He also bought an existing property, Sunshine Park, in 1935 and located the ASA office there.
Boone was quite a controversial figure. He lost control of the ASA in 1951, and in 1994 it was renamed The American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR). The bulk of Mussell’s historical account goes into many details of the history of nudism/naturism in the U.S. in Boone’s time up to (almost) the present day.
Unfortunately, as Mussell writes, “At AANR, there has been a steady decline in membership over the past decade from a 50,000 peak in 1998 to under 30,000 in 2015.” The number of affiliated clubs has also dropped from a peak of 270 to about 180 currently. Mussell suggests, however, that “even as the number of “card-carrying” nudists may be getting smaller and grayer, nude recreation continues to grow as more people choose clothes-free vacations.” Naturists need to work harder to ensure this isn’t just wishful thinking.
Spielplatz, the British nudist club mentioned above, was established in 1929 by Charles Macaskie and his wife Dorothy near the village of Bricket Wood, about a 40-minute drive from central London. Although it covers only 12 acres, it has about 50 full-time residents and admits naturist visitors during the summer season. Although originally situated in a wooded area, there’s now a small suburban area east of it, and another naturist park, British Naturism’s Sunfolk, next door to the south. Spielplatz is the oldest surviving naturist place in England, and the only one having full-time residents.
The Macaskie’s daughter, Iseult Richardson, inherited the property and managed it until passing it on to her daughter, Beverly Kelly, Spielplatz’s current manager. The place has been a naturist park the entire time. Iseult’s autobiography, No Shadows Fall: The Story of Spielplatz, provides a very personal account of the park’s history. Iseult was born into nudism in 1932 and remained an enthusiast her whole life.
Spielplatz means “play place” in German, and there are many children’s playgrounds so named in Germany. Macaskie intended it to refer to somewhere people could live and enjoy recreation while completely naked. (Related articles here, here, here, here, here, here, here)
Despite its longevity, Spielplatz wasn’t the first nudist park in England. According to this history, that honor belongs to a club called Sunbeam, founded 5 years earlier in 1924. It was located near the town of Wickford, about 35 miles east of London. The “English Gymnosophical Society”, organized in 1922, needed a place for their members to enjoy naturism without fear of legal hassles. Although this was more than two decades after naturism appeared in Germany, Brits were more reticent than less inhibited Teutons. But then, even in France, naturism didn’t gain much interest until the latter half of the 1920s. (France then had stricter laws against public nudity than Germany, and in fact still does.)
“Gymnosophy” was a more “polite” term for nudism – although it was based on the ancient Greek “γυμνός”, which simply meant naked. The initial name of the new club was the “Moonella Group”, supposedly a name associated with the owner of the land where the club met. Sunbeam soon replaced the earlier name to avoid inane puns. Much of the club’s history is unclear, but here’s a very good article based on later research. Apparently, the original location of the club was in use for only two years. Outside of Germany, it seems naturism didn’t really get much traction until after 1930 – when it got started even in the U.S. (by Kurt Barthel and other German expatriates).
If you often enjoy being naked, at least when it’s possible, then before long you’ll probably want to be naked not just when you’re alone. Maybe that’s possible even when certain others are around – hopefully with some family members, or at least a significant other. But also, you may have friends who don’t seem to mind seeing you naked. Even then, you may be unsure they’re actually comfortable with your nudity, but simply being tolerant. The best case, of course, would be having friends who also enjoy being naked. So that’s an obvious reason to want friends like that, even if they don’t actually consider themselves naturists.
With naturist friends, you can enjoy naked activities like camping, hiking, sports, parties, or just watching movies together. But will only one or two naturist friends be enough? They may not always be available when you want to go skinny-dipping, or perhaps none live close enough to visit with often. In general, the more naturist friends you have the better.
The good news is that every naturist friend you have, even if it’s only one or two, can help you find others. Your naturist friends probably know other naturists you’ve never met – so they can introduce you. Even if they don’t know other naturists you haven’t met they may have friends or relatives who aren’t naturists but know one or more other naturists. I’ve written in detail about how this works. Here’s a shorter article with good suggestions. And here’s another article of mine on the same subject.
When you’re discussing naturism with others who don’t quite understand what you like so much about being naked, it’s handy to have a few plausible reasons to offer. Out of this list of 10 reasons, these are two of the best.
- Feeling comfortable in your own skin
There’s more to it than simply feeling comfortable wearing nothing. It not only feels good, but there are measurable psychological benefits. Keon West of Goldsmiths’ College, University of London conducted experiments with groups of strangers who volunteered to be naked together. He found that “people who regularly participated in group nudist activities were more satisfied with their lives and content with their bodies, but he also found that such overall satisfaction was increased the more frequently these activities occurred! It seems the more often people strip down together, the more comfortable they feel with themselves.” I’ve noted more about that here.
- That Feeling of Becoming One with Nature
The point is that “there’s no better way to re-establish a strong connection to the natural world than through nudist recreation. It’s a beautiful sensation to have the warm sun and a light breeze accentuate your nudity as you traipse along a backwoods trail or open stretch of beach.” Here’s a video where New Zealand naturists talk about he idea.
People who haven’t tried naturism or even considered it generally enjoy the pleasure of nudity, at least when alone. As one New Zealander thinking about naturism remarked, “I like being naked. Who doesn’t? … there’s an innate sense of freedom and joy that comes with being starkers.” But actually going naked when strangers can see you is almost always scary – even if the others are naturists and used to nudity. But people who haven’t been raised in a naturist family have probably been taught that exposing too much to others just isn’t OK.
A young New Zealander relates how she and a friend decided to be brave and try going naked on a local clothing-optional beach. Having a friend along helps with needed self-confidence, even if the friend doesn’t get naked. The result: both became comfortable being naked fairly soon. Although not all nude beaches (or other naturist environments) are devoid of people who don’t know proper naturist behavior, the best way to find out is to visit them. If the atmosphere doesn’t seem right, then just leave without getting naked. If all seems OK after surveying the situation, the best advice is just “Try it, you’ll like it!”
After a few years of the Me-too movement, women are generally more hesitant about getting into naturism than at any other time in the past half-century. And they certainly have good reasons for that. Even aside from Me-too, the writer of this article, Kelly, explains, “As a woman, being nude in general used to be hard for me considering all the hang-ups I used to have over my body.” But even after getting beyond that, “Once I started to get comfortable in my own skin, I was still on the fence about nudity out in public.” Kelly also cites “A layer of insecurity that was built upon years of ingesting all forms of media with women who had perfectly curated bodies – all the things in all the right places and no flaw in sight.”
However, after dealing with all that, gathering together enough courage and actually visiting a naturist location like a nude beach, the result is: “That first time, and every time since then, when I get nude at the beach, the world doesn’t stop. The people around me just carry on with their lives, you’re just another nude body amongst a sea of people embracing themselves – flaws and all. People of all shapes and sizes boldly deciding to not be a prisoner to cultural programming that makes nudity out to be a sin, hyper-sexual, or something only reserved for people with movie screen bodies.”
Kelly then offers several pieces of advice that include: (1) Experience being naked at home; (2) Invite an open-minded friend to accompany you in a nude experience; (3) Proceed slowly, one step at a time; (4) Get to know experienced naturists for support and advice.
People beyond middle age can have significantly different feelings about being naked around others. Many in that category have mostly stopped giving a damn about fears of social nudity. If there’s a suitable opportunity and desire to be naked, they “just do it”. But for others – women especially – the fears can be turned way up. Few in the upper age group still have bodies much like they had in their 20s. While many simply don’t care how others see them, many others do care – a lot.
The writer, Ashley, visited a popular California hot springs with a friend who “felt a radical transformation in herself and her comfort within her own body” after a relatively early experience with social nudity. The friend explained: “It’s like anything—the more you do it, the easier it gets… Especially as women, we can feel guarded, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve also realized this body won’t be around forever. Why not enjoy it while it’s still there?”
Initially, Ashley (although still relatively young) feared going beyond simply topfree. But later she encountered a group of older women, mostly in their late 60s, who were “sprawled out on the concrete, completely nude, sharing blankets and a picnic lunch of fruit and sandwiches.” On returning to her friend, she removed her bikini bottom and tossed it aside. She “didn’t even check to see if anyone had noticed.”
Scott had considered himself a “part-time home nudist” since he was in middle school (so probably a pre-teen). Yet he never attempted to visit a nudist resort until 30 years later. He was single at that point and also considered himself an introvert. He was also aware that, at least until fairly recently, many clubs didn’t welcome single males – especially in many parts of the U.S. Those factors almost certainly accounted for waiting so long to seek involvement in organized naturism. Most men like Scott probably are quite hesitant for the same reasons. Consequently, a large proportion of men who enjoy nonsexual nudity either never participate in organized naturism or at best delay doing so for decades.
After coming across an AANR article urging clubs to be more welcoming towards people like himself, Scott agreed to be interviewed about his experience. He offered suggestions for specific things clubs should do to be more welcoming – basically the same simple policies any business or organization should follow to make prospective “customers” feel comfortable and appreciated.
Additionally, he suggested that introverts “should be willing to take some initiative and step outside their comfort zone”. (That should apply to women as well as men.) Participating in naturist activities of any sort – nude beaches, hot springs, life modeling, naturist Meetup groups, naked yoga classes, online naturist events, etc. – provides conversational material when getting to know other naturists. That’s an important step to help reduce anxieties about socializing with naturists. Becoming familiar with the policies and available activities at a particular club before visiting would make embarrassing missteps less likely.
Here’s an even more egregious case of a naturist club turning away prospective members – a typical married couple in this case – for no apparent reason. David and Kassie “were confused and crushed. How could they reject us? We had been perfect nudists, always had been. We abided by all the AANR ethics in a social nudity scenario or situation. We knew how to act. We loved being nude. We loved nudists.” They lived in the Jacksonville, Florida area but don’t identify the rejecting club. Quite possibly the club was a smaller one where most members knew each other well, and their action strongly resembles the behavior of cliquish high school “cool kids”. That shouldn’t happen in the naturist world, but of course it does.
The AANR article mentioned in the previous item clearly discourages that sort of thing. The couple should have complained to AANR, even if they weren’t actually AANR members. But perhaps the offending club wasn’t even an AANR affiliate. There’s a happy ending to the story though. They had no trouble visiting other clubs in their area, including the Suwannee Valley Resort, which claims to be “North Florida’s Premier Clothing Optional Resort”.
The couple decided they “needed a club that was inclusive, whether you are straight or gay or bisexual or lesbian, married, single, or married and solo, without regard to race or religion.” So they started the First Coast Naturists, a Meetup.com based non-landed club. It was founded in 2013. and became an AANR-charted club in 2015. This is a great success story. However, Florida teems with naturists, and starting a naturist club in many parts of the U.S. that lack the climate and population density of Florida can be a much more difficult task.
Very recently I summarized an article about the demise in 2000 of a once-popular naturist club, Elysium Fields, in southern California. It was just one of four naturist places in the area that had folded since 1995. Another one of those was the similarly-named Elysian Fields (usually called Elysia). Its story is recounted in the present article.
Elysia was about 40 miles from Los Angeles’ outskirts and nine miles west of Lake Elsinore. The permanent location of the 139-acre camp actually straddled the border between Orange and Riverside counties. At the time both were ultra-conservative areas, and still are to some extent. The location was chosen in the hope of avoiding law enforcement from either county (as long as both didn’t come simultaneously).
The original owners were Hobart Glassey, a nudist who’d moved to California from New Jersey (where other very early naturist places were located), and Irish-born Peter McConville. Their partnership foundered in 1935, after only two years. McConville remained in control and renamed the camp Olympic Fields. In 1954 Wally and Flo Nilson, frequent visitors to the camp, bought it from McConville, who was in poor health, and named the place in his honor.
Unfortunately, according to the article, “the era of nudism as a radical statement and the camp’s lack of amenities, including electricity, caused membership to decline. In 2000, Flo renamed the camp Mystic Oaks, and changed the camp from strictly nude to nude optional. However, membership continued to sink.” The camp closed in 2007, not long after two other troubled naturist places in southern California also succumbed (and it was followed in 2008 by Swallows Sun Island).
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