Drownproofing coverDrownproofing: The Original Explanation of This Revolutionary Water Safety and Survival Technique

​Submitter: We’d like to submit a lovely tome we unearthed in our library collection as we were shelf-browsing for kayak-related material.  This just solidifies that, after our rush of summer reading program activity, we need to focus on a systematic weeding intervention, and fast!  My staff all breathed a sigh of relief when we found out even “country kids” (as well as old ladies and fat men) could succeed in drownproofing themselves.  The illustrations are downright unsettling, the text is apparently meant for white people (who knew the color of your skin affected your ability to be drownproofed??), and there are even ethical discussions about, should you want to take up the yoke of drownproofing others, whether you believe it’s ok to tie people up in the water so they might have the true drownproofing experience.  Let’s start weeding!

​Holly:​ Yeah, very few of these techniques would be approved by the Red Cross or any other survival/safety association these days.  Mary – let’s tie you up like the guy in the last picture (below) and see if you drown! No? Weeder!

what downproofing means

blow method

technical aspects of swimming



  1. If you were to put some illuminated Latin lettering around those last two images, you’d have something from a handbook on medieval torture techniques.

  2. I’ve heard of drownproofing before — I think if you search, you’ll find there are a number of websites out there. It’s still got adherents (though I don’t think that the Red Cross, etc, endorse it — it’s still kind of fringe.)

    I think the idea is that swimming requires skill, presence of mind, energy, and strength. Just floating and managing your breathing properly requires less of all of those things, and so you may be able to keep it up for longer.

    I also don’t think the last picture has anything to do with how you’re supposed to practice or train people in the techniques. It looks to me like they’re illustrating the physics of floating. If you’re less dense than water (with your lungs full of air, especially, most people are) then you’ll float, and you could measure how much buoyant force was pushing you upward under water with the scale, rope, and pulley arrangement shown on the right (if you really wanted to.) If you are denser than water, though, you’ll sink, and the net force on you will still be downward, though it would be less than the downward force of gravity in air. You could measure how much less with scale and rope arrangement on the left (if you really wanted to.) The point is probably that some people just really don’t float well, and that’s a measurable, physical thing, not a lack of skill.

    Also, I have heard before that the percentage of black people in the U.S. who know how to swim is much lower than the percentage of white people (at least in part because historically black people weren’t allowed into many swimming pools) and it does sort of make sense to target black people specially in teaching water safety. And it seems like the text is claiming that black people are also more likely to have difficulty floating. It looks like black people on average have a slightly lower % body fat than white people, so on average this is probably true, though it may be a small effect. People with more body fat do float better, though.

    I don’t think this looks like an awful book… Just a little old fashioned. I bet you could find newer “drownproofing” materials out there.

  3. Isn’t the ability to float still a mystery? I have never been a good floater, though I have also never had a shortage of body fat. My grandfather, OTOH, floated very well, and he was thin. I had a swimming teacher tell me once that for some people, the natural floating position was feet up. Not a very good position for breathing, however.

    As for drownproofing, I remember hearing about it when it came out. It actually seemed like a simple enough technique — use your energy to rise out of the water and breathe when you are up, then allow yourself to sink back under. But not very useful long-term unless help is on the way.

  4. “who knew the color[sic] of your skin affected your ability to be drownproofed??”

    To be fair, anyone who’s seen swimming competitions knows that blacky can’t swim.
    Blacky can’t swim; whitey can’t sprint. This is factually accurate.

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