The bathing machine was a device, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, to allow people to change out of their usual clothes, possibly change into swimwear and then wade in the ocean at beaches. Bathing machines were roofed and walled wooden carts rolled into the sea. Some had solid wooden walls; others had canvas walls over a wooden frame.
Especially in Britain, men and women were usually segregated, so nobody of the opposite sex might catch sight of them in their bathing suits, which (although extremely modest by modern standards) were not considered proper clothing in which to be seen.
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.
People entered the small room of the machine while it was on the beach, wearing their street clothing. In the machine they changed into their bathing suit, although men were allowed to bathe nude until the 1860s, placing their street clothes into a raised compartment where they would remain dry.
Probably all bathing machines had small windows, but one writer in the Manchester Guardian of May 26, 1906 considered them "ill-lighted" and wondered why bathing machines were not improved with a skylight. The machine would then be wheeled or slid into the water. The most common machines had large wide wheels and were propelled in and out of the surf by a horse or a pair of horses with a driver. Less common were machines pushed in and out of the water by human power. Some resorts had wooden rails into the water for the wheels to roll on; a few had bathing machines pulled in and out by cables propelled by a steam engine.
Once in the water, the occupants disembarked from the sea side down steps into the water. Many machines had doors front and back; those with only one door would be backed into the sea or need to be turned around. It was considered essential that the machine blocked any view of the bather from the shore. Some machines were equipped with a canvas tent lowered from the seaside door, sometimes capable of being lowered to the water, giving the bather greater privacy. Some resorts employed a dipper, a strong person of the same sex who would assist the bather in and out of the sea. Some dippers were said to push bathers into the water, then yank them out, considered part of the experience.
Bathing machines would often be equipped with a small flag which could be raised by the bather as a signal to the driver that they were ready to return to shore.
According to some sources, the bathing machine was developed circa 1750 in Margate, Kent, though this may relate primarily to the "modesty hood" (bathing costumes were not yet common and most people bathed naked). "Mr. Benjamin Beale, a Quaker, was the inventor of them. Their structure is simple, but quite convenient; and by means of the umbrella, the pleasures of bathing may be enjoyed in so private a manner, as to be consistent with the strictest delicacy." In Scarborough Public Library there is an engraving by John Setterington dated 1736 which shows people bathing and popularly believed to be first evidence for bathing machines, however Devon claims this a year earlier in 1735.
Bathing machines were most common in the United Kingdom and parts of the British Empire with a British population, but were also used in France, Germany, the United States, Mexico, and other nations. Legal segregation of bathing areas in Britain ended in 1901, and the bathing machine declined rapidly. By the start of the 1920s bathing machines were almost extinct, even on beaches catering to an older clientele.
The bathing machines remained in active use on English beaches until the 1890s, when they began to be parked on the beach. They were then used as stationary changing rooms for a number of years. Most of them had disappeared in the United Kingdom by 1914. However, they have survived to this day as bathing boxes in many parts around the world.
- Byrde, Penelope. "That Frightful Unbecoming Dress: Clothes for Spa Bathing at Bath, Costume, No 21, 1987
- Oulton, W. C. (1805) The Traveller's Guide; or, English Itinerary, Vol II, p. 245. Ivy-Lane, London: James Cundee.
- "Bathing - Jane Austen at the seaside". Jane Austen Society of Australia. 2007-03-26. Retrieved 2009-12-28. "Tobias Smollett in The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. ... on each side a little window above ... 1789: ... over all their windows ... Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, vol 5, pp. 35-6 ... men ... were able to bathe naked. ... make use of the bathing machines for changing ... Prudery did not win out until the 1860s."
- Kidwell, Claudia. Women’s Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968.
- Sharp, Evelyn (1906-05-26). "How to dress in the water". Manchester Guardian. Retrieved 2009-12-28. "ill-lighted"
- Walton, John K. The English Seaside Resort. A social history 1750-1914. Leicester University Press, 1983.
- Fisher, T. (1776). The Kentish Traveller's Companion. p. 119. Retrieved 25 Sep 2012.
- Library Etchings (archived) at Devon
- Manning-Sanders, Ruth. Seaside England. B T Batsford, 1951.
- Jane Austen Society of Australia page on bathing
- Ferry, Kathryn. Beach Huts and Bathing Machines, Shire Publications, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7478-0700-1
- Schaefer, Mary & David. Where Did You Change?, Mica Publishers, 2006.
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