Ah the Victorian Bathing Machine. The Victorian Era’s answer to beach cover-ups. There were so many rules of bathing etiquette to be upheld in both the 18th and 19th century, rules that kept women and their beach bodies under cover. Queen Victorian herself had a bathing machine stowed at her Seaside Retreat on the Isle of Wight. Beaches were segregated, with men in one area and women in the other.
The Bathing Machines were wooden carts, about six feet high and eight feet wide with a peaked roof and two doors or a canvas cover on either side that allowed female bathers (swimmers) to change out of their clothes and into their bathing suits without being seen by men.
The “machine” had a door behind and in front. The floor was about four feet above the ground and had to be reached by a step-ladder. It typically had a bench and some towels, plus a lined container for wet clothes. The only light was from an opening in the roof.
Men And Women Were Segregated On Beaches
Men were allowed to swim (bathe) in their under drawers, diving from small boats. Meanwhile, the vans and bathing-places for women were set far apart from those reserved for men, to protect the modest of women in their bathing costumes. (I’m guessing a few men might have been watching from the forbidden side of the beach.)
Bathing Machines Were Moved By Horses Or Humans
The four-wheeled boxes were rolled out to sea, usually by horses, but sometimes by humans and were hauled back to shore when the beachgoer raised a flag attached to the roof to signal the driver that they were done with their beach adventure.
“Dippers” Were Used By People Who Couldn’t Swim
Once deep enough in the surf, the bather would exit her cart using the door facing away from prying eyes on the beach. Inexperienced swimmers (which would have been many of the Victorian women), would enlist the service of a “dipper,” a strong person of the same sex who would escort the bather into the surf in the cart, push her into the water and then pull her out of the water when she was satisfied.
In the height of their popularity, bathing machines lined the beaches of Britain as well as France, Germany, the United States and Mexico.
Bathing Machines Lost Popularity When Beaches Were Desegregated
The machines declined in popularity when the legal gender separation of beaches occurred, beginning in 1901.
In our wonderful times of Brazilian/Italian bikinis (check out the amazing line at Lychee Swimwear), think twice the next time you use a changing cabin. Some of the bathing machines have survived to this day as beach huts in popular resorts.
Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History