Monday, July 13, 2009

Vintage Beach Photos - Bathing Machines

Mermaids at Brighton
engraving by William Heath, 1829

Something I've never put any thought into, despite my love of all things beachy, is the history of beachgoers. Who was the first person to ever wade into the surf of a local beach? Obviously I'll never have the answer to that burning question, but as I've read recently, frolicking at the shore has not always been as easy as it is today.

Now I realize that things have changed, everything does, but I never knew how drastically going on an outing to the beach differed until I started collecting vintage beach photos. Of course, bathing suits have changed over the years, I knew that much. But the way in which people have looked at the beach, what they looked for in the whole beach experience, is what has captured my attention recently. The more I looked, the more I researched, the more intrigued I became. If your interested, read on, if not, just look at all the pretty pictures. Either way I hope you enjoy today's rather extensive post.

I'm sure that almost since the beginning of time, Man has had a connection with the sea. Whether as a source for food or a natural curiosity of the unknown, I'm sure we have been exploring the oceans for a very, very long time. My quest was to find out how we came to celebrate being able to spend a fun day at the beach. With this in mind, this post is what I have discovered on my journey. I want to thank all those who have so graciously provided information and photos online. I've visited too many websites and read too many vintage books to mention, this is not a scholarly piece and trying to site every single source would just be too much of an undertaking. This is a paraphrased version of all I have read and wish to share with others. Unless otherwise noted all images were found at the Library of Congress, New York Public Library and Bikini Science.

For purposes of this post I am going to begin in the 1700s, as this seems to be the turning point that ultimately got us to where we are today. What caught my attention were the illustrations, paintings and photos of a contraption labeled a bathing machine. Bathing machine? Sounds like a machine that bathes the bather, right? Wrong. Bathing machines, also called bathing wagons, are what allowed our modest ancestors access to our oceans. Allan Brodie from English Heritage said, “I have found descriptions of ‘bathing wagons’ in diaries of Liverpool people which date back to the 1730’s as well as references to organized visits to Crosby for sea bathing.

Images found at the Balnea Museum - a virtual museum of seabathing and seaside tourism

Seaside modesty

Remember at this point in history men and women were segregated on beaches and the bathing suits worn by women left everything to the imagination. (This was the law in England until 1901.) To allow women to change into their bathing suits in private and be able to enjoy the healing benefits of saltwater "without violating Victorian notions of modesty," the bathing machine was invented. According to the sources I've encountered, Benjamin Beale at Margate, Kent developed one of the first bathing machines sometime in the first half of the 1700s. An engraving by John Setterington dated 1736 (now located at the Scarorough Public Library) is the earliest known image of bathing machines.

Using a bathing machine

The best description I have come across that explains how these machines work is in the novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, by Tobias George Smollett published in London 1771.

"Betwixt the well and the harbour, the bathing machines are ranged along the beach, with all their proper utensils and attendants. You have never seen one of these machines. 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 be 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. The guides who attend the ladies in the water are of their own sex, and they and the female bathers have a dress of flannel for the sea: nay, they are provided with other conveniences for the support of decorum. A certain number of the machines are fitted with tilts, that project from the sea-ward ends of them, so as to screen the bathers from the view of all persons whatsoever."

The guides that Smollet refers to were called dippers and they were the same gender as the bathers they attended. Their job was to assist the bather in and out of the water and from what I understand some of them were purposely rather rough. There are numerous images depicting dippers, these are my favorites:

Nick Spurrier of The Knowledge Network reports, "Nude bathing for both sexes was quite common at least up until the Victorian age, so some privacy was probably justified, certainly for women, as the seaside was a happy hunting ground for peeping toms."

For many years the most famous Dipper was Martha Gunn (1776–1815), known as The Venerable Priestess of the Bath to the Morning Herald. She was very large and very strong, well known and respected by the townsfolk as well as the visitors, and appears in comic caricatures of the times.

Sea-bathing as a cure

In the mid-1700s doctors in England began prescribing sea-bathing as treatment for various ailments. When King George III went to Weymouth in 1789 under the advise of his doctors, sea-bathing machines caught on and spread worldwide.

On the BENEFIT said to be already received by his MAJESTY from SEA-BATHING.
By William Cowper, Esq.

Oh Sovereign of an Isle renown'd

For undisputed sway,
Whenever o'er yon gulph profound
Her Navies wing their way!

With juster claims she builds at length
Her glory on the Sea,
And well may boast the waver her strength,
Since they have strengthened thee.

These verses were written and published during Cowper's patriotic celebration of the King's recovery from madness in 1789. [Oxford Journals Online]

I found this photo of the very fancy bathing machine used by George III at The photo was taken in Weymouth, where the king's bathing machine is still preserved and on display.

"Think but of the surprise of His Majesty when, the first time of his bathing, he had no sooner popped his royal head under water than a band of music, concealed in a neighbouring machine, struck up "God save great George our King." [Fanny Burney - Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay Volume 5-6.]

Margate became one of the pre-eminent places for sea-bathing in 1791 with the opening of the Sea Bathing Hospital where sea air and sea water were used as a cure for tuberculosis.

Bathing machines throughout the world

Bathing machines were most common in the United Kingdom, but France, Holland, Scotland, Mexico and the United States were some of the other nations who employed their use.

Brighton Beach, England c. 1890–1900
West Pier, Brighton designed by Eugenius Birch. 1866.
Note the bathing wagons near water's edge.

Les Cabines de Bains Trouville, France c. 1845
Note the row of bathing wagons and beach tents arrayed on the beach.

Portobello Beach, Scotland 1905

Once a haunt of seamen and smugglers, the lands making up Portobello (originally Figgate) were sold in 1763 and eventually developed into a fashionable bathing resort. In 1807 new salt-water baths were erected and in the mid-1800s a railway station provided easy access for visitors. Actor Sean Connery worked here as a lifeguard at a large swimming pool.

Sea Bathing Scene at Coney Island, New York 1856
Wood engraving in Frank Leslie's
Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 20, 1856.

Overton's 1883 "Coney Island Directory" laid down the rules for bathing:

"The dress should consist essentially of two parts - a pair of pantaloons and a blouse; the latter should not fit too tightly, the sleeves fastened loosely at the wrist and slits cut in the garment just below the armpits; a belt attached to the blouse to retain it at the waist. The pantaloons should not be buttoned too tightly to the ankles, as circulation would thereby be impeded."

Interesting to note that there are no bathing machines depicted in this illustration of Coney Island dated some forty years prior to those from England, France and Scotland. Though there were bathing machines in the United States, they were never as popular as they were in other countries.

Beaches around the world filled with happy beachgoers

Bathing machines in the art world

As seen below, bathing machines were often depicted in the paintings of French Impressionist Eugene Boudin (1824-1898).

On the Beach At Sunset 1865

Beach Scene 1862

Approaching Storm 1864

Bathing Time at Deauville 1865

Sur La Plage De Trouville, 1863
A lady with her parasol stands by a bathing wagon at the beach.
She waits while a wet-nurse tends to her infant

Trouville, France, 1881
Mother and daughter stand in the surf, with bathing wagons in the background

The following are wonderful vintage postcards from the Southwold seafront on the Suffolk coast of England. To earn more about the history of this area visit their website.

Southwold from the pier showing some wonderful bathing machines

Southwold South Beach with bathing machines

North Parade, beach huts, boats and bathing machines

Aldrich's Tea Hut on Southwold Beach c.1904–1910


We've seen the bathing machines, now let's take a closer look at the bathers:

Don't Be Afraid c. 1910
Scanned from period postcard with U.S. postmark of August, 1912.

Women in bathing suits at a bathing machine door.
From a 1902 stereopticon card

Girls bathing c.1910s

Brighton As It Is 1836 - A guide book to fashionable Brighton, published 1836 and containing coloured aquatints and extensive text descriptions of the town's history and attractions. You can read this book in its entirety online at The Regency Town House. Page 90 contains the fares charged for various beach activities, including bath machines.

Bathing Machines.
For every person .......................................1s. 0d.
For two persons.........................................1s. 6d.
For each person above two ..............................0s 6d.
Children under twelve years of age......................0s. 6d.

My curiosity, of course, led me to determine just how much this translated to in U.S. money. A modern day converter does not work for old British money, so I searched and found that 1s. is equal to 12 cents and each d is a pence, or a penny as we call them. So, for one person the cost was 12 cents and for two it was 18 cents. (Aren't you impressed with my math skills?)

No matter when, where or how, people have flocked to the shore. I understand this attraction and except for very brief periods of my life, I have never lived more than 30 minutes from a beach. The scene depicted below of Atlantic City in 1870 is no less crowded than the popular tourists spots today. For myself, I prefer the isolated beaches that can still be found if you look hard enough.

As times changed so did the methods men and women alike enjoyed their time at the shore. Bathing machines were replaced with beach huts and changing tents, men and women cavorted in the water together and by the time the 1920s rolled around you'd be hard-pressed to find one for rent. Did they all disappear save the one used by the king?
No! Here is one saved from distinction and restored by some folks in England.

The sign reads: Rescued from a garden allotment and restored in 2000, No. 49 is the last of hundreds of bathing machines. Now restored to full working order it was originally operated on Eastbourne Beach in the late 19th century by Mr. Hounsom. Sea bathing became popular following a royal example, and bathing from machines declined when segregated bathing ended in 1900.

"The Hounsom's No. 49 machine originates from Eastbourne and is very similar in design to the machines used at Bognor. No. 49 was discovered in an allotment slowly rotting away. Staff at the Langham Hotel, Julian Martyr and family (pictured) plus a host of others set about restoring the machine to its original condition. Throughout the restoration every effort was made to use the original wood and only replace wood where essential. The end result was the beautiful machine proudly displayed by Julian Martyr at this years Sands of Time (2000). The bathing machine can normally be found at Eastbourne and is open most weekends. Further information is available from the Langham Hotel - 01323 731451." More information on this event can be found at Sands of Time.

Nick Spurrier of The Knowledge Network had this to say on the demise of bathing machines:

"Beach huts and bathing tents of lath and canvas replaced them, while some people learnt the intricacies of undressing and dressing under a towel.

Bathing machines were not among Britain’s greatest inventions, though the Beale ones, which became a standard, were exported as far away as the East and West Indies.

Beale himself, however, was reduced to poverty after his machines were destroyed in storms. It is said that at low tide at Margate the ruts made by the bathing machine wheels can still be seen. The ghost of Benjamin Beale, however, has not been spotted."

From the website where I found the postcards from Southwold I learned that, "As it gradually became more acceptable for people to be seen on the beach in their bathing costumes, villages of stripy changing tents were erected on the Edwardian sands and enterprising people made use of the abandoned bathing machines by removing the wheels and turning them into beach huts." If you've read my blog previously, you know how much I love beach huts. So, along with my newly found knowledge of bathing machines, I believe I have also discovered the early history of beach huts!

I was fascinated with my study of the bathing machines and it made me wonder what it would have been like at the beach in those days. I guess I'll never know and for now I depend on my own little horse(power)-driven bathing machine to get me to the beach. Here she is in front of Ron Jon's Surf Shop in Cocoa, Beach Florida. I've changed her name from Betsy to Betsy the Bathing Machine!

14 Thoughtful Comments:

Shellbelle said...

Hi everyone, I know my vintage photo post went up a day late, but if you read it I'm sure you'll understand why. I had tons and tons of info on these wonderful machines and had to sort through what I was and wasn't going to include. This obviously still made for a long posting, but I hope you enjoyed learning about bathing machines as much as I did.

See you at the hut!

Country Wings in Phoenix said...

Oh Rhonda!
I just loved the post. So interesting. I had no idea. We sure do take our liberties for granted today don't we? Thanks so much for sharing. I love to come and visit. Happy Tuesday. Country Hugs, Sherry

Maya said...

Ah..., here they are!!! The beach huts on wheels..., called bathing machines, what an unattractive name, right. So great. Thanks for this!!! Live it.

Maya said...

Oh, these spelling mistakes just keep happening, sorry. LOVE it.

Signing Out said...

What an interesting post! I had never heard of bathing machines until now.


Completely Coastal said...

Regarding... you know what... I absolutely love the CA coastline, especially northern CA, would live there in a heart beat. I'll be participating too in OW!!! See you then (and thanks!!!).

Laura @ the shorehouse. said...

What a fascinating post! I knew nothing of these "machines" so this was quite a good history lesson for me. And...this:

"...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. ..."

Kind of sounds like torture, no? :-)

The Quintessential Magpie said...

Rhonda, this is fascinating. I'm going to send this link to my friend Adelaide because I know she would find it fascinating, too! Thanks for all of this research. Loved reading it...


Sheila :-)

Anonymous said...

Loved this post. You give so much information. I think I will still stick to my bar of Safeguard and a nice warm bath tub...

Happy week to you and those at the hut!

Fifi Flowers said...

AMAZING! Times have definitely changed! Great vintage beach posts!

The Ishiis said...

Very well done. I too love beach going and was interested to learn some of the history. Thanks for putting this together.

dmarts said...

Sorry for the massive thread resurrection...

Found your blog through Google, great article. I found it when looking for picture of The Langham Hotel Hounsom's No. 49 Bathing Machine, which was restored by my dad! In the picture above he's waving his hat and I'm wearing the red scarf and blue jacket.

So I thought you might like to know that we looked through your article as a family last week at his birthday and had a laugh about the time we spent learning woodwork on a historical allotment shed, and the time we dressed up like Victorians.

Ah, the power of the internet...


Kim Conway said...

Hi Rhonda:)
Thanks so much for this fascinating blog! I have just opened a traditional seaside portrait studio, like in the victorian times, in Margate (my home town). I am presently situated in a converted fishing hut on the harbour arm but my intention is to build a replica bathing hut and use that as the portrait studio on the beach:)

Best wishes and thanks again


Unknown said...

Hi Rhonda what an interesting post! I am trying to source where some of your images came from, would you be able to help ? Many thanks

I love the beach and everything that goes with it! I love the waves lapping at my feet. I love the feel of the sand between my toes. I love the roar of the Pacific and the gentle waves of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. Let's talk about beaches around the world, bonfires, building sandcastles, swaying palm trees, flamingos, clambakes, sunrises and sunsets. If it's tropical, it fits this blog!


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