Beaches and Bathing Machines!

Beaches and Bathing Machines!

For much of my life, the arrival of June meant family vacations at the beaches of Alabama or Florida. Even now, when the calendar rolls over to the first of that month, I feel as though I can finally unwind and relax. A holdover, I am certain, from all the years spent waiting for the school year to end so we could take a well-needed break from our daily lives.

I cannot help but consider how a trip to the beach today compares to one in the early 1800’s. I confess that I cringe when I watch the scenes in Persuasion where the women are walking along the seashore and the bottoms of their gowns get wet. Washing clothes in that period was not an easy task, made more difficult because of the length of their gowns. Furthermore, I cannot fathom how stifling the heat must have been in the summer months when one was wearing all those clothes. Heat stroke, anyone?

Still, had a woman wished to ‘take to the water’ in order to cool themselves, they would likely have used an invention known as the bathing machine. The purpose of this invention was to keep women and their bodies out of sight, while the men were allowed to frolic freely, if on a separate section of the beach.

Mermaids at Brighton by William Heath 1829
Mermaids at Brighton by William Heath 1829

The bathing machines in use in  Margate, Kent were described in 1805 as “four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”

Bognor, UK West Beach
Bognor, UK West Beach

Bathing machines began popping up around the 1750s as four-wheeled carts with two doors on either side that were normally rolled out to sea by a horse. Swimwear hadn’t yet been invented and most people still swam naked. Later, when early forms of swimwear were introduced, society declared that a proper woman should not be seen on the beach in her bathing suit. The bathing machine allowed bathers to change out of their clothes and into their bathing suits without being seen or having to cross the beach in improper clothing. The machine would simply be rolled out to sea and hauled back in when the beachgoer raised a small flag attached to the roof.


Once deep enough in the surf, the bather would exit the cart using the door facing the water. For inexperienced swimmers, some beach resorts offered the service of a “dipper,” a strong person of the same sex, who would escort the bather out to sea in the cart, essentially push them into the water and yank them out when they were done. As long you as you didn’t drown, this was considered a successful day at the beach.

At their most popular, bathing machines lined the beaches of Britain and other parts of the British Empire, as well as France, Germany, the United States and Mexico. Below is a panoramic view of a beach in France.


The following excerpt from The Traveller’s Miscellany and Magazine of Entertainment written in 1847 recalls the details of a luxury bathing machine. Along with the excerpt, I have included a picture of Queen Victoria’s bathing machine. I can just imagine the interior may well have rivaled the description given in the magazine.

“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.  

Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine
Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine

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.”

The bathing machines remained in active use on English beaches until the 1890s, when they began to be parked on the beach and used as stationary changing rooms. When legal segregation of bathing areas in Britain ended in 1901 and it finally became acceptable for both genders to bathe together, it was the beginning of the end of the bathing machine. Most of them had disappeared in the United Kingdom by 1914, and by the 1920s, they were almost entirely extinct, except for those used by the elderly.

Brighton Walks
Brighton Walks


Still, even in this era of bikinis and topless beaches, some of the bathing machines are still in service, having been divested of their wheels to become changing cabins. The adorably photogenic and colorful little beach houses, pictured above, are the direct successors of the Georgian bathing machine and a little-known reminder of seaside history. Who knew?

Now, my question to you is this: Had you lived in that era, do you think you would have dared to take advantage of a bathing machine? Better still, would you have dared to appear in one of those bathing costumes?

The information in this post is from and

34 Responses to Beaches and Bathing Machines!

  1. We never went to the ocean while I was growing up. But we did visit a Bible Camp on the Chesapeake Bay and in the Poconos. The latter one had a pool. As parents we used to take our babies, then children, to the ocean for a week every summer until summer sports took over. We did have a pool membership so the family did a lot of swimming, both recreational and competitive. I was a very poor swimmer as we had no exposure to that growing up. We did go into local creeks and rivers until a man sliced his foot on broken glass in the one creek where water was dammed up so it was deeper and the bottom unseen. Would i have used a bathing machine? If we could have afforded such I am sure I would have…no air conditioning would make the water all the more enticing. I still remember as a young adult the “changing booths” on the beaches when I went to the shore in college. I stay out of the sun now so don’t go into a pool even. I do have one sitting a few yards from our front door, but I don’t use it. I’m the one who stays with the babies while they nap and the parents go on the beach…when we vacation with my daughter and her family.

  2. I remember reading about the performance involved in Sharon Lathans book and thought how much easier it was for the men swimming nude (although hopefully there weren’t any crabs nearby!!) I can imagine how heavy the costumes would get when full of water – nice! I used to swim in the sea but am afraid it has to be a pool nowadays – Jaws has a lot to answer for! Thanks for all the info and the pics – how on earth did they get all the machines on that French beach? and what happened when the tide came in?

    • I agree Glynis! The man had it so easy and I could see the women being drowning from being pulled under by their bathing costumes. I have to smile at JAWS keeping you out of the sea, for I often warn my family of that same thing. heh heh I could not believe they had so many bathing machines on that French beach and that is one reason I posted the picture. Can you say traffic jam!

  3. Fascinating post, Brenda. It’s been many years since I last swam in the sea but is something I always used to enjoy on family holidays growing up. Of course, here in the UK, we’re never truly far from the sea wherever we may be. Would I have wanted to try it in the days of bathing machines? Yes, I would! Would I have been able to is the more important question. My Mum was afraid of the sea and never actually learned to swim so it was always Dad who took us in. That wouldn’t have worked out in the days of segregated beaches. My sister and I always wanted Mum and Dad to hire a beach hut but they were quite expensive and although Dad’s income enabled us to have holidays, money was still quite tight. So, we had to do our changing under towels and behind wind breaks!

    The photo of the beach huts in Brighton reminds me of some I took in Norfolk a couple of years back. There’s a place called Wells-next-the-Sea (honestly!) and there is a row of beautifully coloured and well maintained huts on the edge of the sand dunes there.

    • My mother was like yours Anji, so my dad was the swimmer who took us into the water, too. I like to think that I would have jumped on the bathing machine wagon if I had lived back then. I did enjoy frolicking in the ocean/sea when I was younger. Now that I am older, swimming pools are my ‘water’ of choice! Thanks for sharing your memories with us. I would love to see a picture fo the huts in Norfolk!

  4. Thanks for this delightful post, Brenda! My, oh, my, bathing was truly an operation of military proportions! So fascinating, all the details, and the lovely images too! It was such a shock to see them in photos at first. I thought that bathing machines, like dinosaurs, disappeared long before the age of photography. Thanks for sharing this with us, it’s so much more enjoyable now to read all those stories about Regency ladies at the seaside!

    • I enjoyed sharing this information as I was just fascinated by the bathing machines. I cannot imagine the logistics of so many on the beach at one time, like in the picture taken in France. 🙂 It is fun to look at old pictures of things we have read about in our regency stories, isn’t it? Thank you for always being so supportive.

  5. Thank you for the informative post. I only like getting my feet wet, so am not sure if I would’ve used them. (I nearly drowned in a lake when I was 6 so I need to see the bottom. Stupid needing to see the bottom….so pools are better.) I love the colorful changing cabins.

    • Actually Deborah, I don’t swim now unless it is in a pool. I, too, want to see what is on the bottom. That comes from too many ski trips at the lake where I saw lots of snakes in the water! Yuck!

    • I am glad you enjoyed it Jeanna. Yes, bathing machines could work into a lot of stories. I can’t wait to see to you use one in the future.

  6. When I first learned of bathing machines I have to admit I found the idea ingenious. In a day when modesty was SO vital, the idea that a woman could enjoy the freedom of swimming in the ocean is fantastic. Plus, I was able to use the concept for a romantic encounter for my married Darcy and Lizzy. 😉

    Great article, Brenda. Wonderful pics. Most I have never seen!

    • I knew I had read about bathing machines or trips to the beaches in a story and it was most likely yours! I loved looking at all the pictures. It was hard choosing just a few as some were so funny with people in their bathing costumes.

  7. I definitely would have taken advantage of the bathing machines. I love being outdoors! My idea of a good time is to go kayaking! (I am currently sitting outside on our patio with my laptop!)

    • You would definitely been a proficient Wendy! You have the right attitude. 🙂 Kayaking is so not me, for though I swim I am afraid of being trapped underwater. You have my admiration. 🙂

  8. This was very entertaining. I always wondered about those little changing cabins. I never knew about the bathing machines. I probably would have been one to use one. I love swimming.

    • Thank you, Rebecca. I love swimming too, but I think I would have opted for ponds and lakes, versus the sea. 🙂

  9. This is exactly the scene I get in my mind when Mrs Bennet says “A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.” in response to Lydia’s begging to go to Brighton. It’s kind of crazy to think that these things were still in use just over 100 years ago – and now we have nude beaches and people don’t think twice about bikini bathing suits. When I go to the beach, the thing that drives me nuts isn’t getting a little salt on me, it is the wet sand that works it’s way into every nook and cranny. I suppose that would be one advantage of riding what is essentially a cart back out of the surf when you’re done. You’re up and out of the water at the edge where the sand is churning. The pictures are fantastic, especially that one of the crowded beach in France where there were far too many of those bathing machines to be workable from a traffic perspective. Sigh. Now I want to go to the beach. A little sea-bathing would set me up forever!

    • Oh no! I have created a Mrs. Bennet with my post! heh heh Yes, I thought of her when I read about bathing machines, Diana. Can you imagine how forward Lydia would have acted in a bathing costume on the beach. I fear she would not hide in a bathing machine. 🙂 It is hard to imagine how things have changed in 100 years, as compared to centuries before that. And, I am with you, the sand is the worst thing for me.

  10. What an interesting time that was.. I don’t think I’d go swimming in the ocean, just like Jen I’d just stick my feet in the water. thanks for sharing this interesting tidbit with us.

  11. The title of this post definitely capture my attention. I had never heard of “bathing machines”. Thank you for sharing this VERY interesting post.

    • I don’t think most of us have Carylkane; I know I hadn’t until I read an article about them. I love to share things that we might not be familiar with. 🙂

  12. Brenda, I love this article. I’ve read several stories that talk of sea bathing and could never visualize it until now. Personally, I think that those little machines would make me feel claustrophobic. I probably would be more inclined to sneak down the beach with no one around and take my shoes and socks off and try wading. But then, I probably would belong to the working class so maybe I could get away with it. Better still, I’d probably look for the old swimming hole. Having swum in the ocean, there is another aspect to consider and that is the feel of salt water on your skin. It usually leaves you feeling kind of sticky. I wonder if they carried much fresh water for cleaning off. Like a shower’s worth? Great fun! Thanks so much for sharing. Jen

    • I thought that the salt water would feel really yucky with those bathing costumes. And it never mentioned having fresh water to wash off with before donning your clothes again (in the bathing machine). I imagine going from salt water to your clothes without a bath/shower would be really uncomfortable. 🙂

  13. Brenda, This post is absolutely fascinating. This is first time I have ever heard of bathing machines. What an awful lot of work for one day of fun. Thank you for researching this intriguing bit of history. I cannot imagine going through all that effort. The fish must have been in hysterics watching the silly humans. 🙂

    • I am so glad that you found it interesting Barbara. I remember the first time I read about them and I was just as fascinated! 🙂 I think the fish and everyone else must have laughed at the women’s bathing costumes. As for the men, they were used to swimming nude anyway and who cared about the men anyway?? (Unless it was Mr. Darcy!) heh heh

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