Bathing Belgians

Revealing Swimsuit? Meet the Chaste Charms of the Bathing Machine

It was the must-have beach accessory of the Victorian era.

For the gentlewoman of the Victorian age, modesty was prized above all else. So when it came to an afternoon's recreation in the ocean, a lady of manners would always don a proper beach costume, often a knee-length wool dress worn over bloomers and stockings. And she most certainly wouldn't change in the open air! No, that was where the so-called bathing machine came in — a now-defunct contraption that was once the hottest of beach accessories.

BORN OUT OF NECESSITY Hulton Archive/Getty Images BORN OUT OF NECESSITY Though popular in the 1800s and early 1900s, the bathing machine actually dates back to the mid-1700s and is often credited to a Quaker man named Benjamin Beale. (This provenance is somewhat in dispute, however, as depictions of the bathing machine can be found at least two decades earlier.) The "machine" — essentially a small hut on wheels — was meant to obscure the bather (especially the female bather) while both changing and frolicking in the surf. HOW IT WORKED Topical Press Agency/Getty Images HOW IT WORKED The bathing machine typically had two doors — a front and a back. A bather would enter the machine through the front while parked on the sand, change their clothes, and then be wheeled (either by horse or man power) out into the water where they'd exit through the back door and down a set of steps into the water. A HELPING HAND? Hulton Archive/Getty Images A HELPING HAND? Many bathers also employed an attendant (known as a "dipper," pictured above) who would help them out of the machine, and if they were anxious swimmers, would attach a cord around their waist ensuring they wouldn't be swept away by the tide. (Some accounts, however, are less flowery, describing the dipper roughly throwing patrons into the water as part of the "experience.") SEPARATION ANXIETY F. J. Mortimer/Getty Images SEPARATION ANXIETY The modesty a bathing machine provided to the user, post-disrobing, was likely illusory, as it didn't provide much shelter. A law was passed in England in 1832 dictating that men and women had to be at least 60 feet apart at the beach, but again, the privacy that provided was minimal. When segregated swimming came to an end in 1901 and "mixed bathing" was allowed, the bathing machine began to fall out of fashion. A LASTING RELIC Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images A LASTING RELIC Despite declining in popularity, beach machines would be used — in the U.K., France, Germany, the U.S., and other countries — into the early 1900s. Some were later converted into stationary beach huts, which would dot the shore. And today, one industrious man is even trying to restore the bathing machine to its former glory. HERE'S TO ALL THE BATHING BEAUTIES! Past Pix/SSPL via Getty Images HERE'S TO ALL THE BATHING BEAUTIES!