A bathing machine is a device, a contraption, a service, but not in any sense is it what we think of as a machine. Long outmoded and discarded, bathing machines were found at every seaside resort in England and also at select places in Australia. The fashion for bathing machines reached its height in the late nineteenth century, at the height of Victorian prudishness.
Description of a Bathing Machine
A bathing machine is in essence a wooden hut on wheels, smaller but not dissimilar to the covered wagon of American homesteaders. The bathing machine was carried by horses to the edge of the water or even into it if the waves and tide permitted it. When the machine stopped the bathers inside could enter the water hidden from the view of others. Inside the customer could change into their bathing costume and emerge through a doorway from the back of the machine directly into the water.
Some variations of bathing machines had a canvas awning called a lift which could be extended over the back of the cart and provide a sort of tent in which the bather would be completely hidden from view while in the water. This also served the purpose of sun protection, a not inconsequential benefit in an era when upper- and middle-class women dreaded the thought of getting a tanned skin, which might make them look like field workers.
After they had had enough time in the water they could re-enter the bathing machine, change back to their street clothing, and be wheeled back to the rental establishment on the beach, emerging fully dressed and avoiding the stares of the crowd.
Bathing machines were rented out by concessionaires whose livelihood depended on the renting of bathing machines, deck chairs, bathing suits and other beachfront paraphernalia. Their target market was the newly rising middle class and upper lower class vacationers, who now had the time and the transportation to go to the seaside once a year, but not money enough to spend on a luxury resorts or private homes on the shore.
The Reasons for the Popularity of Bathing Machines
The confluence of a number of historic and social events was necessary to create the demand and the market for bathing machines:
- the rise of a middle class with both the money and the ability to spend time at leisure pursuits
- the increasing rise of Victorian prudishness among the middle class (at least in outward appearances) in an effort to attain the perceived gentility of the upper classes and distance themselves from the rude behaviour of the lower classes
- the building of the transportation infrastructure (railways) to take these new leisure consumers quickly from their city homes to the places such as the seaside where they could indulge in leisure pursuits
History of the Bathing Machine
There is some controversy about when and by whom bathing machines were invented and several English towns claim ownership of the invention. Many sources credit Benjamin Beale of Margate, Kent with inventing it in 1750. Other sources cite the true inventor to be from Brighton or Ramsgate or a few other towns based on different definitions of what constitutes a true bathing machine. When one is not overly concerned with the fine details of design or manufacture a 1736 engraving of bathing machines at the seaside at Scarborough seems to settle the matter. It does not really matter who in particular invented it. It was Railroad Time for that major invention and it was Bathing Machine Time for that slightly less significant one.
One thing that confuses the 21st century mind is that the definition of sea bathing has changed, When we go to the sea there is movement and swimming and games in the water. From the late 18th century to the mid 19th century sea bathing was a more serious business, having to do with the beneficial health effects of sea water. Sea water cures consisted of drinking quantities of sea water each day and sea bathing was a brief plunge into the ocean from one to three times in the morning. This was assisted by servants called dippers (men for male bathers and women for female bathers) who plunged the bather’s head underwater for the requisite one to three dips and also served to keep them from harm from the waves.
One notes that rank does indeed have its privileges. A contemporary description of George III bathing at Weymouth in 1789 describes the king’s dippers thusly:
The bathing-machines make it [‘God Save the King’] their motto over all their windows; and those bathers that belong to the royal dippers wear it in bandeaus on their bonnets, to go into the sea; and have it again, in large letters, round their waists, to encounter the waves. Flannel dresses, tucked up, and no shoes or stockings, with bandeaus and girdles, have a most singular appearance; and when first I surveyed these loyal nymphs it was with some difficulty I kept my features in order.
Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, vol 5, pp. 35-6
Another thing that modern readers do not understand is that bathing machines evolved in their use. It is easy enough for the modern reader to feel somewhat disdainful of the Victorian use of these machines, for keeping women bathers who were clad from head to toe in bulky swimming costumes protected from the eyes of the crowd. What many fail to recognize is that at the time the bathing machine was invented both men and women bathed in the sea in the nude, and that the bathing machine served a real function in modesty protection.
Dress and Undress in Bathing
It is ingenious how many ways men can contrive to follow the fashions and mores of the day. During Medieval times, bathing was discouraged, if not actively frowned upon, in western Europe, whether in the sea or in a tub at home. A great deal of this attitude had to do with the perceived (and real) licentiousness of the public baths of Rome and the mixed bathing houses of the western Europeans in the early middle ages.
This attitude changed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly among the English. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, after all, and sea bathing was perceived as a Good Thing starting in Regency times. Descriptions of the smell of London streets and Paris salons of the day give ample evidence why the English, lacking French perfume technology, embraced bathing in self defense.
A habit had grown during Regency times to practice nude sea bathing for its health-giving and odour-reducing benefits. Its popularity rose even more when the Prince Regent himself took up the habit and made it not only acceptable but fashionable. As an aside, it should be pointed out that the Regent actually enjoyed swimming as opposed to a brief dunk in the water, though this did not become fashionable until late Victorian times.
As time passed from the Regency to Victorian period the fashion of both sexes bathing in the nude started to crumble under the onslaught of Victorian probity. First some women started to change into ankle length flannel shifts in the bathing machines before venturing into the water. Then more and more clothes were added to go into the sea until, one imagines, the dippers served a real safety purpose in keeping their charges from being dragged underwater by the weight of their wet clothes.
Men continued to bathe in the nude in decreasing numbers until the last vestiges of this deemed immorality were legislated out of existence in 1880. By the late 1800s the bathing machine was going out of fashion because of its increasing superfluity due to the ever-expanding nature of bathing costume, first for women and then for men. The last of the bathing machines went out of business about 1910 or 1913, another victim of changing taste and style.