Victorian Prudes and their Bizarre Beachside Bathing Machines

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15th Apr, 2014

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Picture that moment when you finally get to the beach after a long winter, excitedly peel off your clothes, run madly towards the water and crash into the salty waves without a care in the world…

This is not that.

If you were a beachgoer in Georgian or Victorian times, more specifically, a female beachgoer, your day at the seaside would’ve likely had all the fun sucked out of it by a little invention known as the bathing machine.

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At its peak of popularity, the purpose of the bathing machine was all about those crazy rules of bathing etiquette that they upheld in the 18th and 19th century, which kept women and their beach bodies out of sight (while the men frollicked freely on the beach, of course). The wooden carts with two doors on either sides allowed bathers to change out of their clothes and into their bathing suits without having to be seen by the opposite sex walking across the beach in ‘improper clothing’, which in those days, on the gender-segregated beaches of Europe, would have been the modern-day equivalent of the walk of shame. The four-wheeled box would be rolled out to sea, usually by horse or sometimes human power and hauled back in when the beachgoer signalled to the driver by raising a small flag attached to the roof. Some machines were equipped with a canvas tent lowered from the seaside door, capable of being lowered to the water, giving the bather greater privacy.

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Once deep enough in the surf, our bather would then exit the cart using the door facing away from prying eyes on the beach and proceed to paddle. For inexperienced swimmers (which would have been most Victorian women in their billowing swimwear), 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 and essentially push them into the water and yank them out when they were done. As long you as you didn’t drown, for the average Victorian, this sobering experience could be considered a successful day at the beach.

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L0017751 A woman diving off a bathing wagon in to the sea. Coloured e

She’s got the right idea! This early cartoon shows a female swimmer taking full advantage of the ‘privacy’ provided by a bathing machine.

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Bathing machines began popping up around the 1750s when swimwear hadn’t yet been invented and most people still swam naked, which would actually make for those of us who prefer to skip the nudist beaches. But even when early forms of swimwear did start being introduced, society conveniently decided that a ‘proper woman’ should not be seen on the beach in her bathing suit. Totally logical.

At their most popular, bathing machines lined the beaches of Britain and parts of the British Empire, as well as France, Germany, the United States and Mexico.

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An example of an early bathing machine, equipped with a canvas tent lowered from the seaside door for extra privacy. 

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An advertisement suggests an oh-so practical alternative to the bathing-machine.

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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 for the bathing machine. By the the 1920s, they were almost entirely extinct, only finding use catering to an elderly clientele.

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An excerpt from The Traveller’s Miscellany and Magazine of Entertainment, written in 1847 recalls the details of a luxury bathing machine…

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 form 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.

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In an era of Brazilian bikinis and topless beaches, you wouldn’t think to find any trace of the bygone bathing machines, but think twice the next time you go to the seaside and use the services of changing cabin. Some of the bathing machines have indeed survived to this day as beach huts. Those adorably photogenic and colourful little beach houses? They’re direct successors of the Georgian bathing machine! When they were no longer needed for being carted out to sea, many were simply stripped of their wheels and plonked permanently back on the beach– a little-known reminder of eccentric seaside history.

Perhaps worth bringing back today as playful seafaring picnic huts?!

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Images via Love is Speed 

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