With public swimming options limited because of the pandemic, this backyard classic is finally getting its due.
The Briley family lived on a cul-de-sac full of nondescript taupe ranch homes, and when I was growing up, every kid within a one-mile radius knew three things about the Brileys. We knew that Bear, their ancient dog, had only one testicle; we knew that their grandmother might flick a cigarette at us if she was in a bad mood; and we knew that they had a highly coveted aboveground pool.
If you rode your bike past the house on any given summer Sunday, you were likely to hear Molly Hatchet blaring through a tiny boom box and find Mr. Briley, a locksmith by trade, in that pool, bald head bobbing up and down like a fishing lure, Motörhead-style mustacheturned to the sky, smiling. Staring at him from the hot pavement was the first time I ever saw an adult look truly relaxed (what can I say, I come from fretful people), and witnessing the sight made me long for whatever magic by osmosis the aboveground pool provided to reach such a state of bliss.
Where I’m from in Kentucky, nothing really says “backyard oasis” quite like having an aboveground-pool, bourgeois in-ground versions be damned. A conspicuous small-town and suburban point of pride — or just an excuse to drink with friends and turn wrinkly — aboveground pools have been a way to trumpet an appreciation for, and accessibility to, leisure time for the working and middle class, long before they became the hot-ticket item for summer 2020.
With social-distancing recommendations in place for the foreseeable future and typical summer cooling-off spaces — like public pools and water parks — either shuttered or severely restricted, the home pool has become a much-celebrated and desirable yard accessory. Even for those who weren’t pool-heads prior to the pandemic, the urge to feel something refreshing — not just the stale bite of recirculated air-conditioning — has reached a fever pitch, and aboveground pools have cannonballed into the spotlight.
For decades, though, aboveground pools have been largely scoffed at by snobbier sects as massive plastic cauldrons of chlorine that stick out like blemishes on an otherwise pristine landscape, whether it be rural, urban, or suburban. If you wanted to swim and didn’t have an in-ground pool? Lifestyle magazines would suggest simply breezing your way into a ritzy hotel pool, finding a friend of a friend with a lap pool, or making plans for a weekend jaunt to some beach that’s saltwater-sticky. But finding your aquatic retreat in a pool in which the water is contained above ground? Oh, no — never that. The stigmatization, and subsequent snubbing, of aboveground pools reflects the long-advertised notion that if you’re not capable of “doing leisure” in the most expensive, high-end way possible, then leisure shouldn’t be accessible to you at all.
But this summer, oh, how the tune has changed. Aboveground pools are now perched at the top of everyone’s wish list — and sold out all over.
“Were people really that desperate?” questioned a New York Timesarticle from May 2020 about the ultrarich suddenly searching for aboveground pools as summer plans dried up. “An aboveground pool in Westport is like a bag of SunChips on a table at Per Se.”
Unnecessary dig at delicious SunChips aside, this tone reflects one of the main reasons why aboveground pools have been looked down on by so-called tastemakers: the laws of supply and demand, of exclusivity and trend. If everyone can have it, we don’t want it. But when we can’t have it, it’s worth having, the warped logic seems to go, whether they’re talking about a summer swimming hole or the latest pricey capsule wardrobe. Nothing in the design, stylings, or overall function of the aboveground pool has changed between last summer and this summer — save for maybe a filter upgrade from a company or two — but now that the resource is scarce, it’s fashionable.
The first aboveground pool was crafted in 1907 for the Racquet Club of Philadelphia and was designed by noted bridge builders Roebling & Sons Co. (Even today, you can see similarities between the girdlelike metal ring that holds up aboveground pools and the steel bridges that connect cities — only one version hems water in and the other is lifting above it.) By 1947, mass-marketed aboveground pool kits flooded onto Astroturf lawns as the post–World War II sprawl saw the rise of “me time” for middle-class parents and their kids. Soon, aboveground pools were as common as trampolines, and by 1978, there were at least 150,000 aboveground pools on Long Island alone, according to a 1978 Times feature.
Then and now, aboveground pools leave a lot of room for DIY decorative customization, as owners often swag out their pools as a way to either make them stand out from, or blend into, their yard. I’ve seen dozens of aboveground pools surrounded by potted tropical plants (classic vacation vibes), sponge-painted wooden latticework circling a pool’s perimeter (shabby-chic style), and even the sides of a pool painted haphazardly by children (summer-camp luxe). Others opt for custom-built decks around their aboveground pools, creating a more faux-in-ground feeling. (I know a former local firefighter who recently quit his job to make this kind of built-to-fit decking full time.)
If I were a more responsible person, I’d try to hunt down an aboveground pool for myself (and believe me, I’ve considered it), but I know I wouldn’t give it the proper attention — cleaning, filter changes, chemical treatments — that it deserves. Longtime aboveground-pool lovers treat these aquatic wonderlands like a member of the family, or at least a serious part of the household dynamic, right up there with landscaping and patios. And because aboveground pools last upwards of 15 years with diligent care, they know their investment will more than pay off in summer-after-summer’s worth of memories on a budget.
Of course, now that we’re a few beers deep into the Summer of the Aboveground Pool, influencers have already felt the need to not only co-opt them but pretend that they themselves are the originators (or, at least, the discoverers) of the aboveground pool. Like so many other cultural touchstones ripped away from working-class communities (and communities of color), we’re now seeing the aboveground pool become something that the most privileged among us want to flaunt as inaccessible and, weirdest of all, wholly new. Boutique metal-washtub aboveground mini-pools are the latest wannabe-country fad in Austin, while Instagram darlings and bloggers in Joshua Tree have, for several years now, been decorating their spin on aboveground pools with custom-made fire-tile clay. If a group of models is frolicking in a couture aboveground pool for a Gucci photo shoot by 2021, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Fortunately, for the majority of veteran aboveground-pool owners, these extremely rarefied-air developments don’t matter all that much. When I hoisted myself over the side of a friend’s decade-old aboveground pool last summer and plunked down into the gooseflesh-inducing water, I pretended (as I always do) that I’d actually managed to climb inside the belly of an old water tower for a swim. No longer tethered to the earth, my make-believe aboveground pool in the sky quickly became a sensory-deprivation tank and reprieve — I was Mr. Briley, minus the mustache! — until my infant daughter splashed me in the face, giggling. But no bother. I’m thankful to be brought back down to earth by a new generation who will appreciate the aboveground pool, even when the hype is washed out to sea.
All Rights Reserved for Sarah Baird