Sea-Side Etiquette: Bathing Machine


beachThe bathing machine, or van, was a necessary component of sea-side etiquette in the 19th century. Bathing machines were most common at the sea-side resorts of Great Britain but were also used at beaches in the United States, France and Germany. The use of this device was more strictly enforced for women who had to endure a variety of discomforts which far outweighed any possible compensation of a day at the sea.

The men had the best of it; they were allowed to bathe in drawers, and could plunge off one of the small boats that often patrolled along the front of the beach. Meanwhile, the vans and bathing-places for women were set far apart from those reserved for men, to guarantee that the modest woman in her bathing costume would not be seen by the opposite sex.  Nevertheless, they often were still open to the gaze of spectators on the beach, who were usually not fenced off from the female bathers.

 
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The bathing machine was like a sentry-box on wheels; it was about six feet in length and width, and about eight feet high, with a peaked roof.  Some had solid wooden walls; others had canvas walls over a wooden frame. Sometimes the windowless box was colored with the fantastic lavishness of a canal-boat, and sometimes the whole of the superficial space was covered with advertisements. The bathing machine had a door behind and in front, and as the floor was four feet above the ground, it had to be reached by a step-ladder.  The contents of the bathing machine consisted of a bench, a damp flannel gown, and two towels. The only light was from an unglazed opening in the roof; there was no mirror, and no fresh-water. The bathing machine was wheeled or slid down into the water; some were pulled in and out of the surf by a pair of horses with a driver and others by human power.

 
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Having left her "valuables" in the hands of the bathing-woman whose office was in a small wooden box, the female bather would closet herself and, in the privacy of the machine, would change into her bathing dress, placing her street garments into a raised compartment where the clothing would remain dry.  When (in the opinion of the bathing machine operator) she had ample time to disrobe, the van was lowered to the edge of the water, and generally shaking the occupant violently as it rolled over the pebbles.  

 
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The bather then entered the surf by the front door, descending by another step-ladder like the one behind; and if she could not swim, the portly and sunburned attendant encircled the bather’s waist with a strong cord, attaching the shore end to the van. beachThis precaution was very necessary at the British seaside, for often the slope of the beach was precipitous, and the water broke upon it with a sudden and vindictive force which often knocked down those who were weak. She, who fifteen minutes earlier had a smiling face with silken hair woven into obedient folds, stands in a line with half a dozen or more other bathers, each tied to a van. The shapeless bathing dress that covered her is all bedraggled; her hair is tangled and matted.  In the spirit of the moment, she dashes handfuls of water into her face, and paddles with her feet; and all the time she is preoccupied and fearful lest one of the violent waves should catch her unawares. When she has splashed for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, and is unspeakably disheveled, the bathing-woman hauls her in; thus completing her sea-side experience.

 

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