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.

Queen Victoria's fancy bathing machine, which has been restored.

Queen Victoria's fancy bathing machine, which has been restored.

This 1870 illustration from the magazine Punch sums up the social foible of opposite-sex encounters at the beach: "AWKWARD. Modest Old Gentleman (who has swum out to sea and whose bathing-machine has, in the meanwhile, been walked off by mistake). 'Ahem! Pray Excuse me, Madam, My Bathing-Machine I think.'"

This 1870 illustration from the magazine, Punch, captures the awkward faux pas of opposite-sex encounters at the beach: "Ahem! Pray Excuse me, Madam, My Bathing-Machine I think."

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.

Emerging from a bathing machine in 1893, this woman only needs to take a few steps before reaching the water, and hopefully also be away from any prying eyes.

Emerging from a bathing machine in 1893, this woman only needs to take a few steps before reaching the water, and hopefully also be far away from any prying eyes.

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.

A horseman pulls a machine into the water, 1895.

A horseman pulls a machine into the water, 1895.

A view of the seafront at Bognor Regis, West Sussex, and all of the wheeled bathing machines, circa 1905.

A view of the seafront at Bognor Regis, West Sussex, and all of the wheeled bathing machines, circa 1905.

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.

A couple of dippers helping a woman.

A couple of dippers helping an inexperienced swimmer.

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.

An example of an early bathing machine, equipped with a canvas tent lowered from the seaside door for extra privacy.

An example of an early bathing machine, equipped with a canvas tent lowered from the seaside door for extra privacy.

Bathing machines pack a Belgian beach in Ostend, circa 1928. The cabins eventually became stationary, and eventually the wheels were taken off and they became permanent structures for the summer. They are still in use today.

Bathing machines pack a Belgian beach in Ostend, circa 1928. The cabins eventually became stationary when the wheels were taken off and they became permanent structures for the summer. They are still in use today.

When mixed-gender bathing became acceptable, men and women could hang out at their bathing machines without causing a scandal, as they are here in June 1913, although the chap at left seems to still be feeling a bit modest.

When mixed-gender bathing became acceptable, men and women could hang out at their bathing machines without causing a scandal, as they are here in June 1913, although the chap at left seems to still be feeling a bit modest.

More beachside cavorting in mixed company, circa 1910.

More beachside cavorting in mixed company, circa 1910.

Continental bathing costumes reach American shores, July 1915.

Continental bathing costumes reach American shores, July 1915. We wonder if they were also going to see how many people could be stuffed into a bathing machine like the 1950s' fad of phone-booth stuffing.

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