A Day at the Beach – 130 Years Ago

Going to the beach is always a fun time. If you live near one, you can just go anytime. If you do live many miles away, it would take some planning and a drive, but still easy.

However, our ancestors 130 years ago (19th century) did not have it that easy. Not just a fully covering bathing suit but also a ‘Bathing Machine’ which was a large wooden box with wheels and curtained doors in the front and back. When the bathing machine was parked on the sand, the woman would enter fully clothed. Then, inside, she would change into her swimwear. Next, a pair of horses would pull the whole portable closet wagon out into the ocean shoreline at which point the lady would descend some steps into the ocean. They were even more shielded from prying eyes if the machine had a canvas canopy. This was done more in England than America, but even in the USA, the ladies could not show their skin and also had a full swimsuit.

Bathing outfits for women reached their zenith of discomfort in the 19th century. Women’s bathing suits were complicated affairs. Ladies wore a long wool dress as well as a pair of pants (or, as they were called then, Bloomers). That’s not to mention your other swimming accouterments such as black stockings, caps, collars, puffed sleeves, ribbons, bows, and lace-up slippers. Some bathing suits used 9 yards of fabric and believe this even had weights attached to the hem to keep the dress from rising when the woman entered the ocean.

Oceans and large bodies of water were used by the community as their dumping grounds – inclining sewage. Even in small communities such as Stuart, FL, residents dumped their sewage and trash in the St. Lucie River and thought nothing of swimming in that same river.

Seaside resorts in the NY City area started to develop in the late 1820s. Areas such as Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach and Rockaway. Hotels developed near the oceans and railroad had stops to bring visitors. It was not acceptable to have women and men swimming near each other in the ocean.

By the early 1900s, people began to accept women and men could swim together or at least swim at the same time and on the same beach. Bathing rolling machines became less popular and soon began to disappear. Clothing still covered most of the body, for men and women, but attitudes in England and the United States began to relax, with continental Europe already having been relaxed about swimming decades earlier.

The 1920s had begun to loosen swimwear rules for women as well, where it became more acceptable for women to expose themselves somewhat more than they could publicly in the 1800s. However, arrests were still common through the 1920s and early 1930s for indecency even when women and men wore long, by modern standards, single-piece swimsuits. Your ancestors had to make sure they wore acceptable swimsuits.

So it was an ordeal to prepare and be at the beach years ago. Oh, how things have changed.

Photo: 19th century Bathing Machine and swimwear for ladies.

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

An Ancestor’s Unique Talent

Summer Picnics

Victorian Ladies in the Summer

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