Concerns about exposure to polio were the impetus behind the university’s nude-swimming rule for male students. The Red Gym’s showers were also stocked with a strong soap to prevent the spread of germs. The other reason had more (or less, depending on your perspective) to do with plumbing. Residue from the cotton swimsuits of the time had a tendency to clog the pool’s sand and gravel filtration system, much to the irritation of university plumbers who filled the 20 by 60-foot pool with Lake Mendota “clear blue” water.
Tough economic times during the 1950s made it difficult for some students to cover the bare necessities. A UW towel cost 60 cents, though swimmers netted free laundry service — a bargain considering thousands of students learned how to swim at a university surrounded by water.
Male students continued to swim in the buff until 1967, when some unfettered females joined them for an equal opportunity lap swim. From then on, all swimmers, male and female, wore swimsuits at the Red Gym, the NAT and the SERF.