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Review: The Nudist Idea (1998) by Cec Cinder
Brett Marcus Cook dives into Cinder’s exhaustive book on the history of the nudist movement
There are a number of books on the history of nudism, but they can be difficult to come by and very expensive. So whenposted to Twitter last year that he had a few sealed hardcover copies of Cec Cinder’s The Nudist Idea available at a reasonable price, I jumped on it without even taking the time to actually look into who Cinder is or what his book is about. I was honestly a little stunned when my copy arrived and I saw just how big it is: at 678 pages altogether, it’s like a brick! Truth be told, my copy came in on August 31st, and I only just finished it in February, meaning it took me more than five months to get through!
Hopefully this review will be less challenging.
For anyone like me who’s unfamiliar with who he is, Cec Cinder was a founding member of the nudist activist group Beachfront USA, a director and vice president of the Western Sunbathing Association, a founding board member of the Western Nudist Research Library, and writer/editor for several nudist publications. He collected a vast amount of nudist materials, and built one of the largest private collections of magazines and books on the subject, a collection which was donated to WNRL in 2021. As a writer and editor he seems to have been most active during the 1960s, and his style and personality certainly reflect the countercultural sensibilities that were a part of that era.
In his preface, Cinder’s eccentric personality is made apparent as he spells out what you’re about to get into with the book, highlighting parts that he believes will be seen as controversial, as well as expressing how he’s almost completely omitted any movements based around social nudity from before the 20th century, including religious groups like the Adamites and Jainists. This is a history of nudism as we know it today, the social movement that was more or less born in 1906 with the self-publication of Richard Ungewitter’s book Die Nacktheit. After this preface comes the table of contents: the book is broken up into eight chapters, with a caesura (literal translation: a break) between each one, these being pieces he’d written for other publications in the past, as far as I can tell. They primarily work as a bridge between chapters, but there are a few that don’t quite seem to fit. Each chapter page opens with a quote from someone called Mister Six. I’m not sure who that is, though Evan theorizes it could be Marquis de Sade.
The first four chapters, comprising roughly 300 pages, are primarily set in Germany, where modern nudism was born and originally developed. These chapters were also the hardest to get through, admittedly. It takes time to adjust to Cinder’s meticulous writing style. Exhaustive really is the best word to describe this book. Cinder includes the full names of anyone involved, publications cited, and more. It’s a lot of information, clearly the result of years and years of research, making for a very dense read. And it’s not JUST about nudism either! In these chapters alone, Cinder covers Germany’s social and political history (including lengthy segments on the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s rise to power that are more detailed than any textbook I read in school), the development of heliotherapy and other similar studies of sunlight and health, dance, calisthenics, and more. Sometimes it can be hard to see just how everything connects, but it all assuredly does. Of particular note is a long rant against competitive sports, in which Cinder excruciatingly lists not only a whole host of horrific injuries sustained from boxing and football, but also the violent outbreaks that tend to happen when sports fans decide to fight and riot over the results of a ball game.
As a side note, there is no mention in this book of an editor, not that I can find. In the acknowledgements at the beginning, Cinder does mention his wife proofreading the book and being its first proper reader, which is the closest we get. A real editor would’ve been helpful in cutting things down a bit and making the book easier to get through, but some of Cinder’s charm would’ve probably been lost as well.
Chapters five and six chronicle nudism’s emergence in England. Things start to get a little more focused, but Cinder also gets very literary here, as large chunks of these chapters are focused on the work of several writers and correspondences between them. Oscar Wilde and his trials and imprisonment are brought up, as is the work of HG Wells and his associations with (and eventual split from) the Fabian Society. The most striking thing in these chapters, personally, is the correspondence between writer Edward Carpenter and an Englishman in India named Charles Crawford. Crawford and one or two friends had formed what they called the Fellowship of the Naked Trust in late 1889. They met privately in Bombay to hang out in the nude and had big plans for growing the Trust, with rules and badges that Crawford shared with Carpenter. It was never meant to be, though. No new members ever joined, no ground broken, and the ideals of the Trust never made it out of this little circle. It’s a sad thing, reminding me of school clubs I was in that promised big things but never lasted, one of many false starts that Cinder highlights.
Chapter seven brings the nudist idea to America, and here is where Cinder gives readers his own, personal definition of what true nudism is according to five criteria: nudity as a group activity including strangers (he states that family groups for example do not count), of mixed sex, absolutely complete (nothing covering the genitals), social (not political or religious), and self-conscious. Simply being nude or enjoying nudity isn’t enough by his strict standards. Having never been nude in mixed company with strangers, only with other friends, I guess I don’t fit the bill, but I think most folks would agree that nudism and naturism are more broadly defined than this.
Things do get fascinating in this chapter as Cinder writes at length about multiple experimental Utopian settlements in the 19th century that came close to approaching social nudity in different ways, some US history I’ve never read about before. He also mentions men known as oathists, part of the Apostles of the Newness, who casually worked profanity into everyday speech to break taboo. Most notable is Cinder’s account of the life of Reverend Ilsley Boone, a pioneer of American nudism who established the International Nudist League, later to be called the American Sunbathing Association and known today as the American Association for Nude Recreation, over which he shrewdly ruled almost single-handedly for years before being dramatically ousted in 1952. He also founded the first American nudist magazine, best known under the title Sunshine and Health, and battled the United States Postal Service in getting it distributed, taking the fight against censorship all the way to the US Supreme Court. His story is fascinating and told in incredible detail, a real highlight of the book.
The final chapter is on the free beach movement, focused largely in the United States on the west coast, where several legal battles took place in the 1970’s. It’s here where Cinder himself comes into the picture, having taken over as president of Beachfront USA in 1975. It is also because of his personal involvement that this chapter ends rather quickly and abruptly in 1976, as Cinder declares he can no longer write objectively about the subject. Following this sudden ending are an epilogue, an afterword in which Cinder circles back to write some about the Adamic sects which existed before the 20th century, a final caesura, three appendices, a long list of works cited, and an index which proved very useful for the purposes of this review.
This review really only scratches the surface of The Nudist Idea, and as densely packed as the book is, you can tell that even Cinder felt like he was only scratching the surface of the nudist idea himself. The fact that the book is focused almost entirely on the western world in the northern hemisphere is a little bit of a disappointment, actually. Cinder does explain how certain social and environmental criteria needed to be met for modern nudism to flourish, with the early roots of the movement being in part a reaction to the industrial revolution in heavily populated, sun-deprived urban areas, hence why Germany is where it all began. At the time Cinder was writing this, there may not have been much information out there on the subject in other parts of the world as well. Not to mention, adding any more to the book would have certainly made it even more unruly and challenging.
It’s a lengthy, exhausting read to be sure, but well worth it whether you agree with some of Cinder’s views or not. 🪐
Want to read it for yourself? Get it on AbeBooks.com.
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