Sea bathing has not always been a desirable activity, especially in the colder climes such as England. The wide open waters were frightening and strange debris washing onto the beaches raised alarm. Merely walking upon the sand was, in certain places and periods of time, considered a risky undertaking. By the 18th century, however, as the upper classes became preoccupied with frail health and disease – and with an increased focus on nature and natural elements as a positive force sweeping the country – outdoor activities in the fresh air were looked upon in a new light as a way to restore a healthy balance. In many cases a simple change of lifestyle or relocation to a different climate was viewed as a cure-all. This attitude gave rise to the age of spas with their warm, medicinal mineral springs and therapeutic bathing. By the mid-18th century, medical men began recommending cold baths as well, and thus the leap to bathing in the salty ocean, a natural place, made perfect sense.
The first seaside resort to combine warm and cold sea bathing was Scarborough, in Yorkshire, a prominent spa town already boasting warm mineral springs. Located on the coast, it was natural for the town to add cold sea bathing to the prescribed engagements. The etching above, from 1735, depicts an elaborate scene of hotels and cottages, boats and huts, trails to the water, and sea bathers. Nevertheless, the references to bathing in the ocean, such as in the poem below, were scant during these early decades, revealing a slowly emerging fad.
Your prudent grandmammas, ye modern belles,
Content with Bristol, Bath, and Tunbridge Wells,
When health required it, would consent to roam,
Else more attached to pleasures found at home;
But now alike, gay widow, virgin, wife,
Ingenious to diversify dull life,
In coaches, chaises, caravans, and hoys,
Fly to the coast for daily, nightly joys,
And all, impatient of dry land, agree
With on consent to rush into the sea.
~Beau Nash’s Life, in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1730~
The big sea bathing burst happened in 1752. Dr. Richard Russell published A Dissertation on the Use of Sea-Water in the Diseases of the Glands in 1752. He wasn’t the first person to preach on the benefits of seawater, hence the emerging coastal spas like Scarborough, but Russell’s catchy slogan, “The Sea washes away all the Evils of Mankind” caught on and garnered tons of publicity. The activity rapidly became all the rage amongst the upper classes. Folks searched the coastline for the best beaches — smooth and firm, free of debris, edged by cliffs, less prone to storms and winds, etc. — while business-minded people built resorts. Others created devices to aid in the bathing process so that everyone could enjoy the experience.
Men, it seems, had no compunction about frolicking in the surf in the nude or wearing only their smallclothes. Apparently, by looking at the 1813 drawing above, women bathed in the buff too! Whether willing to be naked or not, the dilemma of how to allow modest females to bath without destroying their dignity or reputations needed a solution. Huts erected on the beach provided a private place for ladies to remove their clothing, but without specific bathing garments — those not evolving until well into the late 1800s — they still had to walk to the water wearing sheer undergarments, or nothing at all. This probably worked in isolate locales and when the beaches weren’t crowded. What to do when sea bathing popularity escalated?
Enter the Bathing Machine!
“I was terribly frightened, & really thought I should never have recovered from the Plunge. I had not Breath enough to speak for a minute or two, the shock was beyond expression great-but after I got back to the machine, I presently felt myself in a Glow that was delightful. It is the finest feeling in the World, & will induce me to Bathe as often as will be safe” ~Fanny Burney
It is unknown the precise inventor of this remarkable solution to a nagging problem. The sketch at the top of this post, from 1735, shows bathers utilizing the device at Scarborough, so the concept of a changing hut on wheels must have been around for a while. Demand lead to quick replications, and in short order they were found everywhere throughout the UK, as well as in France, America, and as far away as Mexico. In 1750 Benjamin Beale is credited with the addition of a “tilt” or large canvas hood that extended off the rear of the machine for increased protection from prying eyes.
So how did the bathing machine work? This description by Tobias Smollett in his 1771 novel The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker is excellent:
“Image to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below – The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end –
The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water – After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up – Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off and on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people.”
Although sometimes utilized by men, the machines were primarily for the safety and modesty of women bathers. It became the standard procedure at most resorts to have segregated areas and/or times for the male and female bathers. The general attitude was that a proper, demure, naturally innocent female would never think to observe a nude or partially nude man. Heaven forbid! Conversely, we all know that men are inherently lecherous and untrustworthy, so the fragile, guileless lady needed to be protected. *insert snort here
With this universally understood truth in mind, resort bathing machines came with accompanying “dippers” to assist the female bathers. These professional dippers were also female, but strong and stout. They were skilled swimmers who knew the whims of the surf and were familiar with the particular beach’s terrain. Their job was to assist the uninitiated female to the joys of sea bathing while ensuring her safety. Male dippers did exist to help novice male bathers, or those who were “taking the waters” as a cure for an infirmity. In fact, the Prince Regent had a personal dipper at Brighton named Old Smoaker.
This fascinating history, stumbled upon ages ago while researching for my novels, inspired me to write a seaside holiday for the newly married Darcys. In My Dearest Mr. Darcy, what was intended to be one or two chapters at a resort in Norfolk ended up being six! Amongst their adventures (magic lantern show, balloon flight, horse racing) Darcy and Elizabeth discovered the invigorating thrill, and romance, of bathing in the sea… together. Oh yeah!