You’d be surprised at how many words can be written about not wearing clothes. At the American Nudist Research Library in Kissimmee, Florida, there are thousands and thousands of items related to the culture and history of being naked, spanning everything from to travel guides, to cookbooks.One of four physical nudist libraries in the United States, and the oldest, the ANRL sits inside the Cypress Cove Nudist Resort, a 300-acre vacation facility that includes a lake with kayaking and pedal boats, multiple pools, restaurants, and even a hair and nail salon. All of these amenities are clothing-optional, making the resort something of an entire naked town unto itself. Cypress Cove has been owned and operated by the Hadley family since it opened 1964; according to its website, its aim is to “promote family oriented nudism, which should be wholesome and respectful.”
VICE got a tour of the library from its president, Paul LeValley, a scholar of nudist history and former college and high school teacher who has been overseeing the collection since he retired to Cypress Cove six years ago. We spoke about the history of nudism, the backlash it has faced in America, and why he believes society will be more nudist in the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: What would you say is the biggest misconception Americans have about people that enjoy being nude? Paul LeValley: Well, you still always have to explain that it has nothing to do with sex. And also you have to explain it has nothing to do with your eyes—with seeing naked people. It has entirely to do with your skin. Feeling the sun and the breeze as it tickles the hairs on your arms and everywhere else. The very freedom of the soul.How did nudism take off in this country? Nudism really took off in America in the 1930s. It was mostly German immigrants who started it. So it was already an established thing in Germany? Yeah, around 1900 in Germany. What does the library contain? Anything that has to do with nonsexual nudity. If people are getting nude for sex, that’s not one of our topics, but anything else is fair game. We have approximately 1,000 books, 12,000 magazines, 7,000 newsletters from various clubs, and about 1,000 club files, 900 videos, and 200 audio tapes. Our oldest book is in German, from 1907.
Why do you think it’s important to archive this history? Much of it is magazines—and they’re falling apart. In the 60s and 70s, after it became legal to send [nude images] through the mail, there was an explosion of nudist magazines. People used to collect them; they had a box in the closet, or under the bed, and when they died, their heirs didn't know what to do with them and pitched them out. That was the main reason the library was formed: to collect [those materials]. The file cabinets [in here] are full of little brochures and flyers; this is very important history that would [otherwise] be lost, because the materials are so peripheral. The magazines eventually died out, and today, there are just two in the US. How long have you been involved with organized nudism? Since the mid-80s. I grew up skinny-dipping on the family farm. I traveled all over the world and skinny-dipped in a dozen different countries before ever walking into a nudist resort. I was doing my dissertation research on the gymnosophists, the naked philosophers that Alexander the Great met in India, and I made arrangements to come down here [to research].How would you describe the current status of nudism in the U.S.? There used to be more families with young children than there are now. For years and years, we justified the resorts and the beaches by saying, “This is family activities, not crazy sex people.” [People] have tried to establish anti-nudity ordinances in cities and counties and states. Some of them want to close down resorts like this. Others would be happy if they could just close down the beaches.
Do you think that’s likely to happen? No. But that’s because we have to fight back. And part of the argument is how historical it is. For instance, there’s been a whole lot of fuss in the last few decades about [Florida beach town] Cape Canaveral and the national seashore there. One of the points we have made is that we have engravings from the early 1500s of American Indians going nude at Cape Canaveral. We have complaints from a Catholic priest in the early 1700s about everybody going nude at Cape Canaveral. This is history. This is why it’s important to preserve this history—to establish the precedent that this is a natural right that has been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s not in our Bill of Rights, because nobody assumed there would ever be any danger for bathing nude. Benjamin Franklin was a nudist. It just never occurred to [people of that era that that right] was something that needed to be protected. Are there other historical figures that people might be surprised to learn spent a lot of time naked? Oh yeah: Teddy Roosevelt, John Quincy Adams, George Bernard Shaw, Henry David Thoreau—lots and lots of them. St. Francis.How popular is nudism right now? What’s the demographic? Some of the young adults [at this resort] have now become middle-aged adults, and they failed to recruit younger people. Right now, there are only two clubs in Florida—out of about 30 [nudist groups in the state]—that are actively recruiting young people.
The anti-nudist activism you mentioned aside, how would you say public perception of nudism has changed over time? It was controversial. Now it’s much less controversial. Several polls have been done over the years [showing that] more and more people are perfectly OK with nude beaches. [In the early years of organized nudism,] nudists generally were in hiding. They would go far off in the woods, where they wouldn’t offend anybody. That attitude still largely prevails, [but] the idea in Miami of having [a public nude beach like] Haulover Beach, near where the people are, is [something] new.What do you think the future holds for nudism in this country? Well, I expect it will become more and more mainstream, as the polls show. Fads come and go; I expect that it will become a real hip thing for young people again at some point. And people will start taking pride in who they are. Do you think if society does eventually become completely fine with nudity, places like this resort will cease to exist? That would be an ideal world. [But] I don’t expect we’ll ever be able to walk down Main Street and go to the mall nude.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Paul LeValley’s last name. We regret the error.