Skip to main content

For women in Georgian and Victorian times, a day at the beach 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 of them in their bathing suits.

This was accomplished with the help of a new-fangled invention: the bathing machine. This small, two-door box on four wheels enabled people to put on their bathing suits and walk across the beach without having the opposite sex see them in clothing considered improper.

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 most people skinny-dipped because swimwear hadn’t been invented yet. But even after wearing modest bathing suits became proper etiquette, bathing machines were still in use, thanks to the straight-laced Victorians. 

At their peak in the 19th century, bathing machines were a necessary component of upholding seaside etiquette. They were mostly seen at resorts in Great Britain but also used at beaches in the United States, France, Mexico, and Germany. Men and women were usually separated, especially in Britain, so that people of the opposite sex could not see them in their bathing suits. 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 box would be wheeled out to sea by a horseman. Once deep enough in the water, a bather would emerge from the machine through the door facing away from the beach and any prying eyes and the “fun” would begin — 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. When the bather was finished, they would raise a small flag attached to the roof of the machine and would be rolled back to the beach. 

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 included most Victorian women wearing cumbersome swimwear, could request a “dipper” of the same sex, who would escort them out to sea and dip them into the water. When they had paddled around and splashed about for 10 to 15 minutes, the dipper would pull 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 at the turn of the 20th century and mixed-gender bathing was acceptable, bathing machines were no longer needed and began to disappear. A few of them survived as huts and beachside cabanas, 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.

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.

You might also like:

Great Moments in Swimsuit History

How Victorians Sent Secret Messages Through Flowers

Tussie-Mussies a Popular Victorian Fashion Accessory

Weekly Showcase

promo-image

MNT ART

Over 100 YEARS of Chinese History - Our pristine Jade Collection is extensive and beautiful!  Please visit our web site www.mntart.com to get an idea of how beautiful this collection is.