For much of my life, the arrival of June meant family vacations at the beaches of Alabama or Florida. Even now, when the calendar rolls over to the first of that month, I feel as though I can finally unwind and relax. A holdover, I am certain, from all the years spent waiting for the school year to end so we could take a well-needed break from our daily lives.
I cannot help but consider how a trip to the beach today compares to one in the early 1800’s. I confess that I cringe when I watch the scenes in Persuasion where the women are walking along the seashore and the bottoms of their gowns get wet. Washing clothes in that period was not an easy task, made more difficult because of the length of their gowns. Furthermore, I cannot fathom how stifling the heat must have been in the summer months when one was wearing all those clothes. Heat stroke, anyone?
Still, had a woman wished to ‘take to the water’ in order to cool themselves, they would likely have used an invention known as the bathing machine. The purpose of this invention was to keep women and their bodies out of sight, while the men were allowed to frolic freely, if on a separate section of the beach.
The bathing machines in use in Margate, Kent were described in 1805 as “four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”
Bathing machines began popping up around the 1750s as four-wheeled carts with two doors on either side that were normally rolled out to sea by a horse. Swimwear hadn’t yet been invented and most people still swam naked. Later, when early forms of swimwear were introduced, society declared that a proper woman should not be seen on the beach in her bathing suit. The bathing machine allowed bathers to change out of their clothes and into their bathing suits without being seen or having to cross the beach in improper clothing. The machine would simply be rolled out to sea and hauled back in when the beachgoer raised a small flag attached to the roof.
Once deep enough in the surf, the bather would exit the cart using the door facing the water. For inexperienced swimmers, some beach resorts offered the service of a “dipper,” a strong person of the same sex, who would escort the bather out to sea in the cart, essentially push them into the water and yank them out when they were done. As long you as you didn’t drown, this was considered a successful day at the beach.
At their most popular, bathing machines lined the beaches of Britain and other parts of the British Empire, as well as France, Germany, the United States and Mexico. Below is a panoramic view of a beach in France.
The following excerpt from The Traveller’s Miscellany and Magazine of Entertainment written in 1847 recalls the details of a luxury bathing machine. Along with the excerpt, I have included a picture of Queen Victoria’s bathing machine. I can just imagine the interior may well have rivaled the description given in the magazine.
“The interior is all done in snow-white enamel paint, and one-half of the floor is pierced with many holes, to allow of free drainage from wet flannels. The other half of the little room is covered with a pretty green Japanese rug.
In one corner is a big-mouthed green silk bag lined with rubber. Into this the wet bathing-togs are tossed out of the way. There are large bevel-edged mirrors let into either side of the room, and below one juts out a toilet shelf, on which is every appliance. There are pegs for towels and the bathrobe, and fixed in one corner is a little square seat that when turned up reveals a locker where clean towels, soap, perfumery, etc. are stowed. Ruffles of white muslin trimmed with lace and narrow green ribbons decorate every available space.”
The bathing machines remained in active use on English beaches until the 1890s, when they began to be parked on the beach and used as stationary changing rooms. When legal segregation of bathing areas in Britain ended in 1901 and it finally became acceptable for both genders to bathe together, it was the beginning of the end of the bathing machine. Most of them had disappeared in the United Kingdom by 1914, and by the 1920s, they were almost entirely extinct, except for those used by the elderly.
Still, even in this era of bikinis and topless beaches, some of the bathing machines are still in service, having been divested of their wheels to become changing cabins. The adorably photogenic and colorful little beach houses, pictured above, are the direct successors of the Georgian bathing machine and a little-known reminder of seaside history. Who knew?
Now, my question to you is this: Had you lived in that era, do you think you would have dared to take advantage of a bathing machine? Better still, would you have dared to appear in one of those bathing costumes?