Victorian Beach Life: Photos of 19th Century Bathing Machines in Operation
Back in the 18th and 19th century, recreational swimming kickstarted a service industry of aids for decent beach life etiquette. These tools of maintaining dignity were perhaps unsurprisingly mostly aimed at women. Among innovations of this time was the Bathing Machine, or the Bathing Van, which helped bathers change into to their bathing attire right next to the water.
Bathing machines became a thing around all of Great Britain’s empire starting ca. 1750 and spread to the at least the United States, France, Germany and Mexico to serve the greater goal of common decency at beaches. These bathing machines faced steep decline after 1901 when gender segregation no longer was a legal requirement on beaches around Britain. On some beaches, bathing machines had already been permanently parked as stationary changing rooms during the preceding decades.
The gist of the blessing bathing machines brought life in the budding modern industrial era is fairly simple. The passenger enters a horse or human drawn carriage, which is transported some distance out into the water. The van’s human cargo changes into whatever shapeless sack was deemed suitable at the time. The mechanics of it all are unsurprisingly not that glamorous and worth exploring in further detail.
You might imagine these contraptions adding more of a hassle than a day at the beach is worth. But as you can see in the photos we’ve collected below, users of bathing vans did seem to enjoy having some to refreshing dips in the sea.