Trivia

Hard

Bathing Machines Were An Integral Part Of What Victorian-Era Activity?

Ocean Swimming
Weekly Baths
Indoor Pools
Spa Cleanses
A woman stepping out of a bathing machine and into the ocean.
Wilhelm Dreesen/Wikimedia

Answer: Ocean Swimming

Remember your last trip to the ocean where you rode out into the ocean in a wagon with a tiny house on it? No? Well, you just failed the “Am I a Victorian-Era Beachgoer?” test and are presumably not a time traveler or a supercentenarian. As such, we’ll need to fill you in on the very curious practice of the tiny houses on wheels or, as the Victorians would have known them, bathing machines.

The degree to which Victorians would work to maintain modesty, especially female modesty, was truly boundless and, when it came to matters such as swimming (where all sorts of immodesty like mingling genders and exposed kneecaps could occur), their skill at overly complicating a rather simple process really stood out.

Starting in the 1750s and continuing until the early 20th century, beaches in England, France, Germany, Mexico, and the United States featured bathing machines. The machines were wagons, typically drawn by horses (but some locations had steam-driven units), with a cabin-like structure atop them. The bather would enter into the machine while on land (and dressed in their appropriate street clothes) and the wagon would be drawn out into the ocean until it was sufficiently deep such that the structure atop the wagon was close to the water like a low-lying dock.

The bather would change inside the structure and then exit via the door facing the ocean (away from the beach) where they could swim with the bathing machine shielding their bodies from the shoreline where someone might catch a glimpse of them in an immodest swimsuit (a suit, we might add, that more closely resembled a modern full-body wetsuit than a bikini). When the swimmer was done with their carefully structured visit with the ocean, the horse and handler would return and bring them back into shore where they would reverse the process and emerge from the bathing machine in their full and modest street clothes.

So the next time you go to the beach and walk right down to the surf line, sand between your toes, with your bathing suit as modest or immodest as you like, be happy you don’t have to wait for a wagon team to drag you out to sea to enjoy the simple pleasures of a beach visit.

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