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Initiation

In the summer of 1930, Frances and Mason Merrill crossed the Atlantic by ship to take a tour of Europe.  An acquaintance of theirs in Hamburg, to their shock and amazement, recommended a stay at the Freilichtpark of Klingberg, a nudist camp near the Baltic Sea operated by Paul Zimmermann.  With due consideration and a “when in Rome” attitude, they elected to give it a try.  The experience was a revelation, and upon returning home, they published an account of their journey in a book titled Among The Nudists.  Though a bit scandalous for the time, the work became a sensation and introduced many in America to the nudist idea.  It is fair to say that it played a foundational role in building awareness of the Movement in those early days.

Presented below is an excerpt from the book that describes the Merrill’s very first instance of stepping outside without clothes.  It marvelously captures the mixture of fear and trepidation which is followed by exhilaration and invigoration that people experience when they take their first step into Naturism.

Alone again, we silently frowned at each other a moment and then smiled mirthlessly.  We resolved to take the plunge, willy-nilly; and hastily, almost recklessly, stripping off chemise and underclothes, we stepped forth out of the shadow of the park-house into the warmth of the sun.

Timidly we started, hand in hand, across the clearing.  The sun fell warm upon our backs, and the light touch of the breeze upon our bare skins sent a delicious tingling along our spines.  It was as soothing as a warm bath when the body is numb with cold, but invigorating as the shock of a cold plunge when one is hot.  We were immediately stimulated, our beings vitalized; our bodies seemed suddenly light and filled with a new strength and a new energy; we felt capable of running with unheard-of swiftness and of leaping very high and far into the air.

From the sunny clearing we entered the cool shade of a wooded path.  Our bare feet felt the damp carpet of pine needles and we were suddenly aware to an entirely new degree of all the woodsy smell of the wet morning forest.  We were impelled to breathe the air deep into our lungs, to fill our beings with it and cleanse them.  We were intoxicated with an entirely new and utter joy of being alive.  We looked at our white bodies and limbs there in the dusky light of the forest, forgot our recent fears and shame, and wanted to run and leap and shout and laugh with our excess of happiness.

Enveloped by the cool damp air, we shivered delightfully and began to trot along our winding wood path, unaware and disdainful of where it led.  Low hanging branches showered us with dewdrops of the night before, at the chill shock of which we cried out exultantly and broke into a run.  As we raced, twigs of fir whipped our chests and arms, and when a bramble that grazed our thighs caught at the white flesh, the smart was like the thrill of an electric shock.

Suddenly we brought up at the margin of a clearing, the playground where all the guests had come.  We had forgotten that we were not alone in the park.  Our embarrassment returned; we remembered that we were naked, and, like our first parents, we were afraid.  But it was too late to flee; Mr. W had seen us. 1

1 Frances and Mason Merrill, Among The Nudists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), P. 34.

The Beginning

On Labor Day, September 2, 1929, the Nudist Movement began in America.  A group of German immigrants led by Kurt Barthel took an excursion to the Catskill Mountains to spend the day nude in nature.  They were seeking to replicate the life of “Freikorperkultur” to which they had become accustomed in their homeland.  They believed strongly that a person’s physical, mental and moral well-being was aided by exercise, proper diet, exposure to the sun, air and water and spending time in Nature among like-minded people in chaste social nudity.

The outing was a success, and on December 7, 1929, a core of this group decided to form an organization called The American League for Physical Culture.  They commenced regular activities including exercises and swims at a gymnasium on Manhattan’s upper west side, and membership grew.  In 1930, the League adopted the following statement of principles and standards:

Our goal is the healthy mind in the healthy body.  This is not only a creed but a way of life.  Sunlight and air are vital conditions of human wellbeing.  We believe these elements are insufficiently used in present day life, to the detriment of physical and moral health.  For the purpose of health and recreation and for the conditioning of man to his world we offer a new social practice, based on the known wholesome value of exposure to these elements and in the spirit of naturalness, cheerfulness, and cleanliness of body and mind that they symbolize.  We aim to make the fullest possible use of sun, light and air by a program of exercise and life in the open in such a way as will result in the maximum physical and mental benefit.

We believe in the essential wholesomeness of the human body, and all its functions.  We therefore regard the body neither as an object of shame nor as a subject for levity or erotic exploitation.  Any attitude or behavior inconsistent with this view is contrary to the whole spirit of the society and has no place among us.

The practice of our physical culture tends toward simplicity and integrity in all ways.  We counsel for our members the sane and hygienic life. We reserve the right to impose abstinence from intoxicants and stimulants at our meetings and on our grounds.

We invite to our membership persons of character of all ages and both sexes.  Our purposes are not exclusively physical or cultural or aesthetic but rather a normal union of all of these.  We make no tests of politics, religion, or opinion, provided that these are so held as not to obscure the purposes of the association.  It is intended that the association shall be thoroughly representative of the whole social order.

This was the beginning of organized nudism in America.  In 1932, the American League for Physical Culture furthered its success by acquiring a property in New Jersey to make it the first club in the country with its own grounds.  They called it Sky Farm, and it continues in operation to this day.