For female beachgoers in Georgian and Victorian times, a day at the seaside wasn’t a carefree one spent freely frolicking in the waves at will. Certain bathing etiquette had to be followed to uphold modesty standards, including not letting anyone get a gander at you in your bathing suit.
This was accomplished with the help of a new-fangled invention: the bathing machine, a small, two-door box on wheels. They allowed bathers to change out of their clothes and into their bathing suits without having to be seen by the opposite sex walking across the beach in “improper clothing.”
Even Queen Victoria had her own deluxe bathing machine and personal “dipper,” an escort of the same sex.
Bathing machines began showing up around 1750, when swimwear hadn’t yet been invented and most people skinny dipped. But even after rather modest bathing getups became de rigueur, the bathing machine stuck around, thanks to the famously conservative Victorians. In their heyday in the 19th century, bathing machines were a necessary component of upholding seaside etiquette and most common at resorts in Great Britain, but also used at beaches in the United States, France, Mexico and Germany. Men and women were usually segregated, especially in Britain, so that people of the opposite sex could not see them in their bathing suits, which were not considered proper clothing to be seen wearing in public. Although bathing machines were used by both men and women, who wished to behave respectably, their use was more strictly enforced for women.
The four-wheeled box would be rolled out to sea by horse or human power, and hauled back in when the beachgoer was done and signaled to the driver by raising a small flag attached to the roof. Some machines were equipped with a canvas tent that could be lowered from the seaside door, and further lowered to the water, giving the bather greater privacy.
Once deep enough in the surf, a bather would then exit the cart using the door facing away from prying eyes on the beach and begin the fun — and many early etchings and cartoons make the experience look about as fun as bathing a cat. And we are not sure how you would be able to clean every nook and cranny while wearing especially conservative bathing suits.
Inexperienced swimmers, which would have been most Victorian women in their billowing swimwear, could request the service of a dipper, who would escort them out to sea in the cart and essentially push them into the water. When a bather had paddled around and splashed about for 10 to 15 minutes, the dipper would yank them out of the water and haul them back to shore — thus completing their seaside experience.
When ideas of modesty became more relaxed around the turn of the 20th century and mixed-gender bathing became acceptable, bathing machines were no longer needed and began to disappear. A few of them survived as beachside cabanas and huts, but for the most part, bathing machines were stripped of their wheels and plopped permanently back on the beach to become a footnote in eccentric seaside history.