Diving into deep shaded waters becomes a recurring fantasy in the heat of the summer. With temperatures and humidity soaring into triple digits, the desire for the relief of water is constant. Our love for swimming has a long history, with references as far back as 10,000-year-old Egyptian cave paintings depicting swimmers.

The Cave of Swimmers, Egypt

The “Great Bath” is widely considered the first swimming pool and is located in the site of Mohenjo-Daro in modern day Pakistan. Most ancient civilizations shared public bathing facilities, including the Romans and Egyptians.

The “Great Bath” at the site of Mohenjo-Daro in modern day Pakistan

Ancient Ruins Used as Public Baths, Hubert Robert, 1798

An artist imagines what Egyptian baths might have looked like

The baths of Caracalla, 1899

Trajan Baths

The Roman Bath in England is a Roman bath dating back 2,000 years. The water still flows to it through the original Roman channel. It was once the centrepiece of the Roman public bathing complex.

The Great Bath in England

Public bathing fell out of favor for a time, and the modern public swimming era didn’t emerge again until the 1830’s in England. St. George’s Bath House was one of the earliest modern covered pools, 1 of 6 in London that gave rise to swimming as a competitive sport and brought back public bathing.

St. George’s Bath House, East London, 1828

In Germany, lavish pools were being built. In Berlin in 1914, the meticulously designed Neukölln Municipal Baths were built using Roman baths as examples. They were designed with a generous area for sports as well as hygienic, medicinal, and spiritual areas.

Neukölln Municipal Baths, Berlin, Sauna detail

Neukölln Municipal Baths, Berlin, front view of the large swimming pool

Neukölln Municipal Baths, Berlin, small swimming pool (female pool)

Swimming and pools spread around the world and by the 1920’s-1930’s there was an explosion of private pool construction. One famous set of pools was at Hearst castle, modeled after the pools of antiquities.

The interior pool at Hearst Castle

The exterior pool at Hearst Castle

In another part of the world,  the contemporary home of Saudi architect Dr. Sami Angawi in Jeddah is a study of western Saudi Arabia’s traditional Hijazi architecture and has a very romantic pool framed by hanging vines. With his wife, an interior designer, they defy the law against home museums in Saudi Arabia and open the house to the public as a “museum”.

Home of Saudi architect Dr. Sami Angawi

Swimming and pools are associated with luxury, and they were depicted early on as luxurious – largely the property of the upper class. Media coverage would further this reputation, notably in films and the work the work of the photographer Slim Aarons in the 1960’s-1970’s.

Slim Aarons, Armandos Beach Club

Slim Aarons

Another way that the idea of glamour became associated with pools and swimming was through the movies. Esther Williams was a movie mermaid who started out as a record-setting teen swimmer. She made a series of films in the 1940’s-1950’s called “aquamusicals” which popularized synchronized swimming.

Esther Williams, Million Dollar Mermaid, 1952

Esther Williams, the singing mermaid!

Of course, before the Technicolor days of Williams was the film Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in 1948. The movie was filmed at Weeki Wachee springs, home of a real mermaid show and a roadside attraction in Florida that is still popular to this day.

William Powell and Ann Blyth in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid

The set for Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid at the springs

A “mermaid” at Weeki Wachee springs

The underground amphitheater at Weeki Wachee

Closer to home for those of us in San Antonio, the Hot Wells pool and spa was a destination drawing stars and elite society to its covered pools and healing waters.

In addition to private baths, public bathing houses also embodied luxury. Such was the case in the California bathing house in Ocean Park where the bathhouse took on Moorish influences.

The Surf and Bath House in Ocean Park, CA


According to the National Swimming Pool Foundation, there are now more than 10 million swimming pools across the USA alone. Still associated with luxury, they can be large or quite small but still offer an escape from the heat and the sun – evoking luxury and relaxation and perhaps glimpses of grottos, ruins, and mermaids.

One of the offices projects in Alys Beach, a modern pool–luxurious even in a small footprint

Penthouse, Slim Aarons