If the 1960s were the pool industry’s early years, the 1970s were its adolescence — a time of shifting extremes, and strange new challenges.
People and companies that would shape the coming decades entered the scene for the first time. Cultural roles shifted. Novel ideas were weighed and debated. Sexuality was celebrated and explored, and some relationships were ended, while new ones were formed.
In short, this was the decade when the industry came to know itself.
In fact, nearly everyone seemed to be looking inward in those days, inspiring journalist Tom Wolfe to label the ’70s “The ‘Me’ Decade.”
As he put it, the dream of the era was “changing one’s personality — remaking, remodeling, elevating and polishing one’s very self.” And after its freewheeling youth in the ’60s, the pool industry had plenty of polishing to do.
Companies and politics
It was in the ’70s, for example, that pool building, which was perceived strictly as a construction trade during the ’60s, was rapidly being seen as an area with profound contributions to the field of design.
As consumers around the world were starting to realize, swimming pools had the potential to be far more than backyard playgrounds as builders began to introduce more artistic and landscaping elements into their projects. Many started competing for industry honors such as the National Swimming Pool Institute Design Awards.
As the scale of the pool industry grew, organizations such as NSPI, the Associated Swimming Pool Industries of Florida (ASPI) and the Independent Pool Servicemen’s Association (IPSA, as it was then called) struggled with internal politics more than ever before. Splinter groups broke off from many regional NSPI chapters, while city-level industry groups in markets such as Dallas and Miami debated the merits of joining forces with one association or another. By the closing years of the decade, it became clear that the majority were choosing to align with NSPI.
As in many industries, the question of clean energy prompted wave after wave of debate. Champions of gas heaters arose to defend their low-cost devices, while supporters of solar heating (the new kid on the block) trumpeted the benefits of long-term energy savings and renewable power. As early as July 1970, Pool News editor Faye Coupe urged industry professionals to “do something about [air] pollution,” but it wasn’t until later in the decade that the issue gained serious attention.
In the midst of the recession and energy crisis of the late ’70s, city, county and state lawmakers across the nation flirted with the idea of banning gas heaters altogether, or making solar heating mandatory on all new pools.
As the decade drew to a close, though, no state had kept a ban or a mandate on any type of heating system on the books for longer than several months.
The pool industry’s attitude toward women saw a major shift as the ’70s progressed. As in many other fields, women were stepping away from the secretary’s desk and into the executive office on a scale never before seen. Still, as late as June 1976, Jandy’s sales manager could boast that as far as he knew, Jandy was “the first manufacturer in [the pool] industry to put a woman customer relations person in the field.”
As the popular concept of the demure housewife gave way to that of the empowered woman, male and female responses were mixed. Some could only summon the sort of backhanded respect that was common throughout the early 20th century: Women might be better than men at certain tasks — especially those involving organization and social niceties — but the real decision-making was best left to men.
“Men are defined by women,” said the president of one pool supply company in a January 1974 article — before adding, “a king isn’t a king unless his subjects agree to it.”
Others shrugged at the shift in roles, saying that it would be up to women to prove themselves in the male-dominated workplace. “Small businesses desperately need someone … who will watch costs, employees, supplies [and] customer service,” Coupe said in June 1975. “A competent wife may well fill this bill.”
A few, however, guessed that women might bring some unique insights to the office and the field. “Wives not only are capable bookkeepers, but can also handle a man’s job — or whatever used to be a man’s job — with unbelievable efficiency,” said the female president of a pool supply company in a September 1974 interview.
The pool industry’s developments in gender equality paralleled the evolution of its attitude toward women in general. But advertising throughout the ’70s was saturated with models dressed in tiny bikinis — or even less.
Ads for spas, especially, targeted the erotic aspect of aquatic recreation; many featured self-assured men reclining in hot tubs, surrounded by harems of adoring eye candy. In one Riviera Spas ad, a tiger lounged in a spa while a bikini-clad woman relaxed (or tried to) by his side. In case any ambiguity remained, the company’s executive vice president helpfully clarified the message in a September 1978 interview: “A tiger,” he explained, “connotes sex.”
The verbal side of advertising was sometimes even less subtle. An ad for FreeStyle chemicals, featuring a model lounging among barrels of chlorine and algaecide, opened with the words, “Take advantage of our girl. She won’t mind. Really.”
This sort of chauvinism seemed to be par for the course in those days — but as the decade drew to a close, a backlash was brewing. An article in an April 1979 issue of Pool & Spa News noted that raunchy ads were a hard sell for many spa makers, especially in more conservative regions of the country.
“If the hot tub industry is to expand beyond the market of young innovators,” one manufacturer noted, “it must appeal to a more conservative mentality.”
But as more women proved themselves in the workplace, they made it clear that their objections to risqué advertising were based on progressive ideals rather than a stick-in-the-mud mentality.
“They were not objecting [to the ads] on moral grounds,” Coupe said of some young women she polled in 1979, “but because they found [the ads’ imagery] demeaning to women.”
Century Pool Covers decided to capitalize on this conflict. Throughout 1979, the manufacturer ran a series of ads depicting a no-nonsense grandmother who quipped, “When you’ve got a great product, you don’t need skimpy bikinis to sell it,” and, “If you’ve come to this ad looking for cheap thrills, you’ve come to the wrong place, sonny.”
The granny even made an appearance at that year’s NSPI Convention-Exposition in Chicago, where she cracked wise at any vixen foolish enough to strut past her rocking chair.
As it turned out, this reaction was just one facet of a much larger shift in the industry’s perception of itself. For the first time, it was becoming apparent that the real growth and influence lay in the health and family-oriented markets.
Manufacturers and dealers began to emphasize the therapeutic benefits of hot tubs — a Pool & Spa News article in February 1979 went so far as to discuss spa soaking as a possible “substitute for the psychiatric couch.”
That September, another article noted that “more and more [spa] dealers [were] opting for the therapeutic sell” as the “sexy sell … bombed out” in most markets.
By the end of the year, many ads were touting pools and spas as central to backyard cookouts and other family gatherings.
These shifts in attitude would continue to define the industry for decades to come, but it was in the ’70s that many of them saw their birth — and many were pushed to extremes, until other cultural forces pushed back.
As the decade drew to a close, the industry was more energy-conscious, gender-equal and professional in demeanor than ever before — but it could never have arrived at maturity if it hadn’t first sown some wild oats.