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Posts Tagged ‘Bathing machines’

Inquiring reader, in honor of this week’s tepid heat wave in Richmond, I continue my coverage of all things seaside during the Regency era. To our moderns eyes, Regency fashions by the seashore covered as much of the body as ordinary clothes, and were as complicated as regular fashions. Let’s take a closer look.

Becky Sharpe (Natasha Little) in bathing costume, Vanity Fair 1998

Becky Sharpe (Natasha Little) in bathing costume, Vanity Fair 1998

I question this image from 1998’s Vanity Fair, in which Natasha Little as Becky Sharpe looks more like a Victorian seaside gamboller than a proper Regency lady. In addition, she would have changed into this bathing costume inside the bathing machine and gone into the water largely unnoticed. She is shown in full view of both men and women on the beach wearing this outfit, which was clearly meant for swimming.

This Belle Assemblee fashion plate depicts a more demure approach to seaside fashion. The muslin gowns are rather plain, meant for the day, but it is only 1810 after all, when dress silhouettes were still classically severe. These dresses could be worn in full view of other vacationers on the beach. One sees the “wrapping” in the style of the turbans and pelisse and cape. A seaside outing was meant to be bracing and restorative, and therefore people would venture to the beach regardless of the weather.
1810_October sea beach costume

The women are sitting, or else the length of the dress would become obvious. The length of dresses meant to be worn when walking along the shore were cut a little higher, one supposes to accommodate a walk along the beach when sand and waves would wreak havoc with delicate hems. The lady in the illustration is dressed for the evening, perhaps for a fete on a public pier, who knows? Either way, she is dressed to be seen in high style, even if the tiered lacy hems of her bloomers are showing.

Bathing place evening dress, 1810

Bathing place evening dress, 1810

Famed illustrator James Gillray showed seaside fashion in all its glory. From the high tide hem of the lady in the center, to the completely covered up garb of the women sitting on the beach. This lovely illustration from 1810, “The Calm,” shows the seashore on a calm day, with our fashionable miss as exposed as she can decently be – her arms and neck bare, her head covered by a small straw bonnet, and her tiny parasol barely protecting her delicate skin from Sol’s harmful rays.a calm 1810 gilray
This illustration shows the sea shore on a raw day that many Britons will recognize, with the winds whipping up waves, woolen capes, and muslin skirts. Even covered up, this lady exposes more to prying eyes than was appropriate!

A squall, Gilray 1810

A squall, Gilray 1810

Taking cold dips in the ocean and drinking foul-tasting spa water were two of the health benefits derived from visiting a seaside resort. Inhaling the fresh sea air was another. These fashions again show how thoroughly one covered up before venturing out of doors.

Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813

Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813

Regardless of their location in or out of the water, non-swimmers remained covered up. It is ironic that once in the water, so many men and women would swim completely naked, but there you have it: Seaside, Regency style.

Steps to the sea, Vanity Fair, 1998

Steps to the sea, Vanity Fair, 1998

On a side note, a dog lover like myself will find the Gilray prints and the Scarborough print quite interesting, for dogs are prominently displayed as realistic touches.

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Bathing machine

Some historians attibute the invention of the bathing machine to Benjamin Beale, a Quaker and a glove and breeches maker who lived in Margate, a coastal seaside resort in England, during the 18th century. This was not so. Beale’s actual contribution in 1750 was the invention of an awning attached to the rear of the bathing machine. The cloth hood became popularly known as a modesty hood. It could be lowered in front of the machine down to the water and provide a private bathing area for the modest swimmer. There were variations to the hood, such as a  canvas awning called a lift, which could be extended over the back of the cart like a tent and completely hide the bather from view. An additional benefit of the hood was that it also protected delicate skin from the sun.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, people did not bathe in the sea for pleasure but for their health. After the publication of the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands by Dr Richard Russell in 1752, sea bathing became more fashionable.

Ramsgate bathing machines off the High Street

Ramsgate bathing machines off the High Street

The engraving above is an early version of the of the lower High Street in Margate in Benjamin Beale’s time before the Bathing rooms were constructed. The view from the bay shows how the Bathing Machines were accessed from the lower High Street.

Woman swimming in the sea; the need for privacy in such a situation is acute

Woman swimming in the sea; the need for privacy in such a situation is acute

It was considered inappropriate for the upper and middle classes to swim in the waves together, thus bathing machines became popular. Modesty and decorum dictated that the opposite sex should bathe in isolation from each other, for nude bathing for both sexes was common until the Victorian age.  “It is believed that naked bathing continued until 1862, when a law was passed stating that male and female bathers were to be segregated by not less than 60 feet, and that all owners of bathing machines would provide gowns or dresses to female bathers and drawers or similar to male bathers.”  After swimming, bathers would re-enter the bathing machine, dry off, and change back to their street clothing. The bathing machine would be wheeled back to the beach and the bather would emerge fully dressed. “The hiring charge for a bathing machine in 1770 varied from 9d for two or more gentlemen bathing themselves to 1/6d for a gentleman taking a machine with a guide.”*

Bathing machine and attendants

Bathing machine and attendants

Imagine to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below – The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, til the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressingroom, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end – The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water – After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up – Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off and on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people. – The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771

Beale bathing machine

Beale bathing machine

Beale did not get rich off his invention, and he was reduced to poverty after his machines were destroyed in storms.

“The public are obliged to Benjamin Beale, one of the people called Quakers, for the invention,” writes the author of A Short Description of the Isle of Thanet, published in 1796. But it was the old story; the public became grateful after the inventor had been ruined by his enterprise. His successors had reaped the harvest. Old Benjamin Beale’s widow could remember in her last days the first family that ever resorted to Margate for the purpose of bathing being carried into the sea in a covered cart. In 1803 Beale’s machines were one of the institutions of Margate. It was alarmingly claimed for them that “they may be driven to any depth into the sea by careful guides.” – New York Times, August 11, 1906

southsea_common from a lithograph from A. Pernell 1865

The design of the bathing machine changed little in 150 years, and most, except those built for the rich, remained nothing more than damp wooden boxes on wheels. In the 1865 lithograph of the Southsea above, Beale bathing machines can be seen with their awnings fully unfurled to the water.

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