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The ’70s Swingers Club and the Secret Archive It Left Behind

04-09-2017


Illustration by Jun Cen

The most unorthodox aspect of Minneapolis’s Silver Chain club wasn’t the partner-swapping—it was the notes that two members kept....................................................

By Jack El-Hai from GQ

In the early ’70s, four satiated but dissatisfied couples on their way home to Minnesota from a social event in a distant state reignited a conversation they’d been having about their gripe. Having to pack up and travel to meet like-minded people was a big bother. Surely there was a way to meet more people like them close to home. Other swingers.

The Swinger's Club: The Complete Series

So they made a plan. If they combined efforts, they thought, they could start their own swingers club and create a scene right in their own town. They could swing more often and with more people. These couples called themselves the Executive Committee of their new outfit. They didn’t yet suspect what it would be like to herd swingers and guard their privacy.


The group they started, the Silver Chain Social Club, brought to life the hopeful vision of its eight founders, along with a grave concern for the secrecy of its conventional-seeming, suburban members. Club activities—events like bowling dates, costume parties, panel discussions, and support groups—were for socializing only, and members were supposed to swap partners and have sex on their own time. (“We wanted the club to operate on a high plane—first class always,” a founder reminisced.) The founders hoped that members could quietly recognize each other in public by displaying the jewelry that gave the club its name. The Executive Committee really wanted those trademark silver chains to have “77” pendants—honoring a favorite sexual position (69) plus eight (ate) more. (Get it?)—but the plan fell through. “Our efforts to find a manufacturer at a reasonable cost have been fruitless,” ended the dream.




I know this much about the Silver Chain’s meetings, hundreds of members, and guiding principles because these materials, which span from 1974 to 1978, are available for viewing in the sedate, high-ceilinged reading room of the Minnesota Historical Society. Two members preserved by-laws, newsletters, correspondence, and, perhaps dangerously, dating-app-esque profiles (with a first name but only a last initial). In the early 1990s, the records were found in a safe deposit box at First Bloomington Lake National Bank, and the papers made their way to the state’s historical agency via a Minnesota law that gives the Society first claim to abandoned historic materials. They may be the only such records preserved anywhere in the world in a historical archive, and they give a rare look into the sometimes mundane, often unexpected workings of a swingers club just trying to keep track of its sexy ongoings.

The Swinger's Club: The Complete Series

The early ’70s were free love, suburban suffocation, and feminism on the rise. All over America, people were reexamining relationships and marriage. Swinging might have spun out of the organized partner swapping of U.S. military pilots who flew in World War II and the Korean Conflict. It blossomed during the decade along with communal living, gay liberation, and extra-legal domestic partnerships—all attempts to break the numbing shackles of button-down lifestyles. Studies from the era (most flawed and unreliable, to be fair) put the number of swingers in the American population at 2 to 4 percent, but only a small number of them tried to take on the role of a sexual community board to organize fellow believers.




By 1974, the Silver Chain’s Executive Committee had drawn up a playful set of rules and regulations that laid out the club’s purpose: to allow members to meet, mingle, and share “general good times.” Couples over 21 could join by invitation only with the good word of an established member who could vouch for their dedication to swinging. No spectators allowed. No single members, either. While many “straight” people—that’s swinger parlance for “non-swingers”—imagined “wife swapping” (as it was then sometimes called) as a sordid, hormone-charged activity for perverts, Silver Chain members went out of their way to emphasize courtesy and deference in their relationships. It was swinging infused with Minnesota Nice.

The Swinger's Club: The Complete Series


“Respect for other members, their property and feelings, must be uppermost in everyone’s mind at all times,” the by-laws dictated. “If you do not wish to socialize with any particular member, merely mention that you would rather not at this time, and leave it at that. Those who are turned down should accept the turndown gracefully, and move on to socialize with others.” Drunkenness and use of foul language could lead to expulsion from the club.




Much of the Silver Chain’s crowd—many of them churchgoers—had one great fear: that their families, reputations, and jobs would be ruined if their swinging secrets got out.


It was all about building close and intimate friendships, beginning with social events at such local hotspots as Bloomington’s faux-American-Indian Thunderbird Motel and the red-sauce-ladling Venetian Inn in the suburb of Little Canada. These Silver Chainers were dedicated: When the club celebrated its third anniversary in 1976, about 90 couples showed up with the outdoor temperature close to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.


The Swinger's Club: The Complete Series


Silver Chain members believed that their tight group placed them at the vanguard of people seeking connection at the dawning of a new age of sexual freedom, when recognizing and giving in to personal fantasies could lead to less distrust and frustration in marriage. And Silver Chain surveys, though unscientific, supported the belief that swinging was good for marriage. In one, with a majority of the members describing themselves as married with kids, a strong majority of both men and women members said swinging boosted their marriages.

The Swinger's Club: The Complete Series

Not that Silver Chain members were in it just for the kink. “Sex was a very secondary thing,” one club member wrote. “The people, the fun, and the tender loving care were so far out front of everything else.” Members were welcomed into swingers groups around the country. One local swinger, in an interview with the Star Tribune, somewhat unsexily compared swinging to being a Mason. “It’s a brotherhood in a way,” he said. Another member published in the Silver Chain newsletter a “swingers creed” that promoted tolerance for the hang-ups of others and an exaltation of the emotional involvement “properly reserved for a spouse.”




Despite (or maybe because of) such high-minded sentiments, actually getting down to the business of swinging sometimes proved a problem. The Executive Committee pleaded with members to quiet down and pay attention at events during the reading of announcements. One Silver Chainer complained in the newsletter that sex too infrequently followed the partying. At one event, members tried to break the impasse by stripping others of their clothing. Even though not everyone was completely naked and some hadn’t disrobed at all, it helped.

The Swinger's Club: The Complete Series

Meanwhile, Silver Chain’s women built solidarity by exploring the intersection of swinging and women’s liberation. They held discussions, group readings, and rap sessions on feminism. None of this stopped the Executive Committee from monthly and annually electing Silver Chain “personalities” who were featured in the newsletter like Playboy Playmates (though they got to keep their clothes on). One honoree from 1976 declared in a newsletter that the choice “has made me THE PROUDEST WOMAN IN MINNESOTA!”




The Silver Chain’s archival file, a 139-page file in a single folder, covers a fleeting five years during the mid-’70s. The final item in the file, a newsletter from June 1978, lays out a busy summer of activities: campouts, softball games, and a picnic. What happened later, no one recorded.


But we do know that the Executive Committee reserved for itself the right to “cease activities whenever its organizers decide to do so.” Maybe after a decade or so of swinging, the four founding couples decided to get out of the game. Maybe the growing AIDS epidemic spooked them. Maybe the club carried on. Or maybe living this life in shadows stopped having an allure for the Silver Chain gang.

The Swinger's Club: The Complete Series

The grand irony of the Silver Chain’s experiment with open relationships was that everyone involved was, understandably, obsessed with keeping secrets. Although the Executive Committee “kept in strictest confidence” a full record of the names and other identifying information, members usually addressed each other by first name only. Much of the Silver Chain’s crowd—many of them churchgoers—had one great fear: that their families, reputations, and jobs would be ruined if their swinging secrets got out. Most discussed their swinging sides only with other club members, and certainly not with neighbors, relatives, or children.


The possibility of exposure to their kids so terrified some members that a contributor to the newsletter covered it at length. When calling another member on the phone, be sure you’re talking to the right person. Though maybe, the writer noted, a child’s accidental discovery that mom and dad were swingers wouldn’t be the end of the world: “If there is genuine love between the parents and the children can see no deterioration of this loving relationship, but instead can detect a new closeness, a happiness, and a glow that they can associate with their parents’ new chosen lifestyle, they will probably accept this relationship as no threat to the family.”



Most living members from the club’s peak years would now be sexagenarians or older. I could track down only one of them, a former club officer.* Disabled by illness, she has difficulty speaking, according to a family member. Though she and the others concealed their second lives well, they bravely challenged cultural norms to express themselves and enjoy a passion that, if it ever came out, could have wrecked their lives. On top of that, two mysterious members recorded what they were doing, preserved it, celebrated it.

The Swinger's Club: The Complete Series

*Though names in the Silver Chain archive are technically public, we've chosen not to out any members.


They probably never expected their archive to be dusted off and opened up to the world, but it’s a humanizing glimpse into a purposeful way of life that was lived in the dark. And who knows what other secrets still survive as coiled chains in dusty jewelry boxes?

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