Friday, April 5, 2019

Rise of the Beach Machines Part 2

DRAFT Photograph of a trade card of Amidas & Mary Surflen, bathing machines. C 1775. Courtesy of The British Museum

Rise of the Beach Machines Part 2 continues the practice of sea-bathing which began as a private way to bathe and swim unfettered by heavy clothing yet maintain modesty from prying eyes, and evolved into a successful, structured form of tourism. Although my research indicates that many people considered bathing machines to be unnecessary and laughable, it was still the only way a decent woman could take a swim in the sea without losing her respectability.

By the 1770's, seaside establishments were advertising new comfortable buildings that catered to women and men while they waited their turn to bathe, as well as personal water guides to ensure their experience was without drama.  According to this 1750 trade-card, the umbrello Machine allowed the woman seven square feet of space to change out of her street clothes, and then a ten-foot length under the umbrella to walk or swim without anyone seeing her. 

DRAFT Photograph of a trade card of Dunn, bathing machine maker, c 1750. Courtesy of The British Museum

(Note the use of "f" vs "s" in the 18th century ads.)

Margate, England, is a good example of the tourist trade that evolved at many beach locations in the UK, on the continent, and even as far as Australia and New Zealand over the next hundred or so years. In the image below, we can't tell if the bathing machines are for men or women, but they form a tight line to block the view of crowd, many of whom are waiting for their turn. Along with a puppet stage in the center of the picture, there is an onsite photographer with his wagon of samples and equipment. 

Margate, the beach. C 1890. Courtesy Digital Collections NYPL

Bathing machines are most often referred to as something for the privileged or higher classes due to the need for keeping their dignity while wearing clothing that stuck like a second skin when wet. However, the other reason was the cost. The use of a bathing machine was meted out in 30 minute segments. Sometimes the machine wasn't taken down to the water until the bather knocked on the wall that she, or he, was ready. Most times, however, the bather had to endure removing layers of clothing while on the move. Horses and men were both used in moving the machines and participants report the ride could be as smooth or jerky depending on the texture of the beach.

Valuable Hint by John Leech, Punch, 1849. Public Domain

In the 1817 book Isle of Thanet and the Cinque Ports by E. W. Brayley, the terms for use of a bathing machine for 30 minutes were:

The Bath and the Beach, or All About Bathing, published 1871 in Brighton and London, explains the rules of running a bathing machine establishment, which includes a number painted on the front and back of each bathing machine, as well as either, For Ladies, or, For Gentlemen, painted on a conspicuous part of each one. Surprisingly, machine owners were also required to provide free gowns or dresses for female bathers, and free bathing drawers or "other suitable covering as will prevent indecent exposure of a person" for the males. 

Bathers in rented gowns, Ostend, Belgium, ca 1910-1915. Courtesy LOC

The bathing machines were built in a similar fashion with smaller wheels in the front for turning and large ones at the back. Some machines had a front entry door as well as the back water exit, but other machines were positioned with the back to the shore and the same door used for both. It all depended on whether the machines were pulled into the water, or backed in and then walked out. Also, some bathing machines were kept in the water all day and the patrons were required to walk out to them. 

Bathing Machines, Ostend, Belgium, ca 1910-1915. Courtesy LOC

A life buoy was another requirement of the bathing machine, as well as a seventy-two foot minimum length safety rope attached to the front in case the machine needed to be pulled through heavy waves. Finally, there needed to be a twenty-four foot minimum length rope behind the machine for the use of the bathers.

The rope in this image taken from London's Marshall & Snelgrove Department Store advertising in the 1 August 1, 1887 issue of Lady's World may not be up to regulation length, but the bathing costumes are quite trendy. 

Bathing Costumes from Marshall & Snelgrove, Oxford, Lady's World, 1 August 1887. Public Domain

Twenty years prior, women's bathing costumes looked like these 'bathing dresses', as featured in Godey's Lady's Book, 1868. 

Bathing Dresses, Godey's Lady's book 1868. Courtesy Digital Collections NYPL
Apparently, the custom of using bathing machines took time to cross to North American shores and when it did, it appeared to be received as a novelty for entertainment and not its true intention of private bathing.

Evening public ledger. (Philadelphia [Pa.]), 15 July 1915. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

So, what do you think about the use of a beach machine? Necessary? Extravagant?

Check out Rise of the Beach Machines Part 1 for more history and photos of beach machines, including those of royalty.


Anita Mae Draper is a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who served twenty years on Air bases with her eyes on the skies. She uses her experience and love of history to pepper her stories of yesteryear's romance with hardship, faith, and joy. Anita Mae Draper's published stories appear in Barbour Publishing, WhiteFire Publishing, and Guideposts Books. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking out Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at


  1. It's hard for us here in this time and place to judge what was done in another century! Sometimes I wish some people HAD a bathing tent so I wouldn't have to see their skimpy attire! But I am glad that we don't have to wear those bathing costumes, I can't imagine getting that wet fabric wound around your legs if you were trying to swim! Thanks for the fun posts. Gives me an appetite for a good swim!

    1. Connie, I love your answer. Great points on all counts and food for thought. Thanks so much for stopping by. I look forward to your visits. :)

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  3. Anita, I learned bout these when I was researching for my historical series and found the concept to be very amusing. I'm now starting the next book in the series set around 1915 when ladies swimsuits were starting to look more like a one piece we're used to seeing. More coverage by today's standards, but finally women were able to really swim for exercise and not be bogged down by a flouncy swim dress and stockings.

    1. That's exciting, Pamela. I'll have to check it out. Thanks.