In the 18th and 19th century, going swimming was not done in the same way as it was today. While it was considered ok to swim, the clothing was not considered appropriate, and so men and women were segregated during swimming. I don’t suppose going to the beach was as common, and so it problem might not have come up every day, but it came up enough to create a need for a “proper” way to accomplish an outing involving swimming. Enter the Bathing Machine. The bathing machine was basically a small room built on wheels that could be taken to the beach. People entered the machine while it was on the beach, wearing their street clothing. In the machine they changed into their bathing suit, although men were allowed to bathe nude until the 1860s. They then placed their street clothes into a raised compartment in the bathing machine, where they would remain safe and dry.
I believe that all bathing machines had small windows, but one writer in the Manchester Guardian of May 26, 1906 considered them “ill-lighted” and wondered why bathing machines were not improved with a skylight. Once the person had changed, the machine would be wheeled or slid into the water. The most common type of these machines had large wide wheels and were pulled in and out of the surf by a horse or a pair of horses with a driver, but there were some that were pushed in and out of the water by human power. Some resorts had wooden rails into the water for the wheels to roll on, and a few had bathing machines pulled in and out by cables propelled by a steam engine.
Once the machine was in the water, the occupants stepped out from the sea side, and proceeded down steps into the water. Many of the machines had doors front and back, but those with only one door would be backed into the sea or need to be turned around. The most essential element of the machines, was that it blocked any view of the bather from the shore. Some of the more luxurious machines were equipped with a canvas tent lowered from the seaside door, sometimes capable of being lowered to the water, giving the bather greater privacy. Bathing machines would often be equipped with a small flag which could be raised by the bather as a signal to the driver that they were ready to return to shore. Some resorts even employed a dipper, a strong person of the same sex who would assist the bather in and out of the sea. Some dippers were said to push bathers into the water, then yank them out, considered part of the experience. Wow!! I’m not sure I would like that much, but then, to me this whole process seems like it would make the idea of bathing a bit too much of an undertaking, not to mention the added cost to go swimming, because I don’t think anyone would operate a bathing machine for free.
Bathing machines were most commonly used in the United Kingdom and parts of the British Empire with a British population, but were also used in France, Germany, the United States, Mexico, and other nations. Legal segregation of bathing areas in Britain ended in 1901, and the bathing machine declined rapidly. By the start of the 1920s, bathing machines were almost extinct, even on beaches catering to an older clientele. For those of us who grew up in the modern era, this process would seem like a bit of insanity, but then that was simply a different time.