Among all of the strange contraptions that the Victorians invented, bathing machines are amongst the most bizarre. Invented in the early to mid-18th century, at a time when men and women had to legally use separate parts of the beach and sea, bathing machines were designed to preserve a woman’s modesty at the seaside by acting as a changing room on wheels that could be dragged into the water.
At the height of their popularity, bathing machines were dotted across beaches in Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Mexico, and were used by everyone from ordinary beach-goers to Queen Victoria herself.
But who invented them, and when did they fall out of use?
They were possibly invented by a Quaker
It is unclear where, when and by whom bathing machines were invented. Some sources claim that they were invented by a Quaker called Benjamin Beale in 1750 in Margate in Kent, which was a popular seaside town at the time. However, Scarborough Public Library has an engraving by John Setterington which dates to 1736 and depicts people swimming and using bathing machines.
At this time, bathing machines were invented to hide the user until they were submerged and therefore covered by the water, since swimming costumes were not yet common at the time and most people bathed naked. Men also sometimes used bathing machines, though they were permitted to bathe naked until the 1860s and there was less emphasis on their modesty compared to women.
Bathing machines were raised off the ground
Bathing machines were wooden carts about 6 feet high and 8 feet wide with a peaked roof and a door or canvas cover on either side. It could only be entered through a step ladder, and normally contained a bench and a lined container for wet clothes. There was normally an opening in the roof to allow some light in.
The machines having a door or canvas on either end allowed female swimmers to enter from one side in their ‘normal’ clothes, privately change out of them inside, and exit into the water through the other door. Occasionally, bathing machines also had a canvas tent attached that could be lowered from the sea-side door, thus allowing for even more privacy.
The bathing machines would be rolled out to sea by either people or horses. Some were even rolled in and out of the sea on tracks. When bathing machine users were finished, they would raise a small flag attached to the roof to indicate that they wanted to be brought back to the beach.
‘Dippers’ were available for people who couldn’t swim
During the Victorian era, it was much less common to be able to swim compared to today, and women in particular were generally inexperienced swimmers, especially given the often extensive and billowing swimwear that was the fashion at the time.
Strong people of the same sex as the bather called ‘dippers’ were on hand to escort the bather into the surf in the cart, push them into the water and then pull them out when satisfied.
They could be luxurious
Bathing machines could be luxurious. King Alfonso of Spain (1886-1941) had a bathing machine that looked like an elaborately decorated little house and was rolled out to sea on tracks.
Similarly, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert used bathing machines to swim and sketch from at Osborne Beach next to their beloved Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Their machine was described as being “unusually ornate, with a front verandah and curtains which would conceal her until she had entered the water. The interior had a changing room and a plumbed-in WC”.
After Victoria died, her bathing machine was used as a chicken coop, but it was eventually restored in the 1950s and put on display in 2012.
In 1847, the Traveller’s Miscellany and Magazine of Entertainment described a luxurious bathing machine:
“The interior is all done in snow-white enamel paint, and one-half of the floor is pierced with many holes, to allow of free drainage from wet flannels. The other half of the little room is covered with a pretty green Japanese rug. In one corner is a big-mouthed green silk bag lined with rubber. Into this, the wet bathing-togs are tossed out of the way.
There are large bevel-edged mirrors let into either side of the room, and below one juts out a toilet shelf, on which is every appliance. There are pegs for towels and the bathrobe, and fixed in one corner is a little square seat that when turned up reveals a locker where clean towels, soap, perfumery, etc. are stowed. Ruffles of white muslin trimmed with lace and narrow green ribbons decorate every available space.”
They declined in popularity when segregation laws ended
Bathing machines were widely used on beaches until the 1890s. From then, changing ideas about modesty meant that they began to decline in use. From 1901, it was no longer illegal for genders to separate on public beaches. As a result, the use of bathing machines quickly declined, and by the start of the 1920s, they were almost completely unused, even by older members of the population.
The bathing machines remained in active use on English beaches until the 1890s, when they began to have their wheels removed and simply be parked on the beach. Though most had disappeared by 1914, many survived as the colourful stationary bathing boxes – or ‘beach huts’ – that are instantly recognisable and decorate shorelines around the world today.