Wednesday, July 2, 2014

18th Century Sea Bathing Machines... Machines? Really?

Mermaids at Brighton, 1829, by William Heath
‘Tis summer and many a hot and bothered person longs to take a plunge into the invigorating chill of ocean waves. How about our 18th century relations? Did they do likewise? It seems our ancestors were more inclined to take to the sea for medicinal purposes rather than recreational ones. A
Dr. Russell's book
Advertisement for Bathing Machines at Margate, England, 1791

book published in 1752, A Dissertation on the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands
by Dr. Richard Russell, trumpeted the benefits of dipping into the salt water and greatly increased the popularity of the practice. So for their health’s sake, men and women, alike, braved the seas (albeit separately.)

Enter the Bathing Machine, an invention which showed up on beaches in the first half of the 1700s; a contrivance with which people could take a dip into the sea without risking their modest virtue. The machine was basically a dressing room on wheels that was pulled into the ocean by a horse. Although there were variations, most followed this basic routine: individuals entered the beached machines, fully dressed, by climbing a set of steps and disappearing into the privacy of the wooden box. There was usually a window set high in the machine to let in light but not allow prying eyes to view the bather. Once inside, bathers would remove
their street clothes and don their bathing togs (although bathing in the nude was often the norm, at least for men, until 1862,) then signal their guide to take them out to sea. 

Once in place, the horse was unhitched and led ashore to pull out another machine or retrieve a bather ready to come back to dry land. An attendant, of the same sex as the bather, was at the ready to assist the bather as necessary to descend the steps leading down from the end of the machine facing out to sea. Since many 
bathers could not swim the attendant, also known as a “Dipper,” would either help keep
Dipper, Martha Gunn, 1790, Artist unknown
them afloat or actually push them under the water and lift them back up again, three plunges being the norm for health benefits. Dippers were usually very sturdy folk. A portrait of Brighton Beach's most famous Dipper, Martha Gunn, speaks to that asset. In 1750, an English Quaker glove and breeches maker by the name of Benjamin Beale invented a canvas hood, covering the seaward steps, that could be lowered and completely conceal the bathers until they were under the protection of the water’s surface. Some even remained beneath the hood during the entire bathing experience thus avoiding any chance of being seen.

Bathing Machine with Benjamin Beal's Modesty Hood, artist unknown
When the bathing session was over, bathers would climb back into their machines and signal (sometimes by raising flags) their desire to return to the beach. Once back inside the privacy of their bathing machines, they would dry off and dress back into their street wear. Returned to the beach, bathers would descend the steps in the clothes in which they arrived. Mission accomplished, reputations intact, thank you very much.

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! (Don't forget the water wings and sunscreen!)


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