4 Reasons a Day at the Beach in Times Past Was No Day at the Beach

If you were a woman who wanted to go for a swim 200 years ago, you'd first have to hop in a bathing machine.
If you were a woman who wanted to go for a swim 200 years ago, you'd first have to hop in a bathing machine. / Shutterstock/Nana_Studio (stack of photos); Hulton Archive/The Print Collector/Getty Images (beach)

I’m not what you would call a beach person. In general, I agree with Jim Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Sand is overrated. It’s just tiny little rocks.” And those tiny little rocks find their way into all sorts of uncomfortable crevices.

The one upside: When I do go to the beach this summer, I’ll be grateful I'm going in the 21st century. Because a trip to beaches in the past was, well, no day at the beach. Here are four things that weren’t so fun about the beaches of yesteryear.

1. A swim in the ocean was a whole production.

Especially if you were a British woman in Victorian times. As a lady, you couldn’t just stroll into the waves wearing your bathing suit. Heaven forbid someone might see a square inch of your skin. Instead, women kept their reputation pure by using an elaborate contraption called a “Bathing Machine.” The Bathing Machine 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 (which was no bikini, as we will see later). Following that, a pair of horses would pull the whole portable closet out into the surf, 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.

2. Forget carefree frolicking in the water.

For many in 18th century Europe, going into the ocean was serious business—a doctor-prescribed cure that, as one article in The Atlantic put it, “resembled waterboarding far more than a spa treatment.” Resort doctors saw cold ocean water as a cure for everything: leprosy, ulcers, tumors, jaundice, scurvy, depression. Bathers were submerged repeatedly in the freezing water until near-suffocation by a specially trained employee called a “bathing woman” (or “dipper”), then reinvigorated with feet warmers and back rubs and tea. And this was during the Little Ice Age, when English waters were even colder than they are now. One dunkee wrote that the shock was so great that, according to Robert C. Ritchie in The Lure of the Beach, “she could not breathe or speak for a minute or two.” Oh, and you didn’t just swim in the ocean water. Some doctors prescribed that you drink it—though not more than one pint a day. Note: Mental Floss recommends drinking zero pints of seawater per day.

3. The bathing suits were even less comfortable than thongs.

Bathing outfits for women reached their zenith of discomfort in the 19th century. Women’s bathing suits were complicated affairs. According to Victoriana magazine, you’d wear 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 accoutrements: black stockings, caps, collars, puffed sleeves, ribbons, bows, and lace-up slippers. Some bathing suits used nine yards of fabric and had weights attached to the hem to keep the dress from rising when the woman entered the ocean. In other words, don’t expect a Victorian-themed Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue anytime soon.

4. The beach was a cesspool.

Before the invention of water treatment plants, raw sewage was a common sight at the beach. The beach in the British town of Blackpool, for instance, was home to 45 pipes emptying raw sewage directly into the water where people swam. Swimmers risked cholera and other diseases, not to mention having to put up with the horrid smell. Or consider the beaches at Coney Island, which were popular for New Yorkers in the 19th and early 20th century. The surf was famous for the local specialty, Coney Island whitefish … which was not actually a fish at all. Coney Island Whitefish was slang for used condoms that were routinely tossed into the sea.

In sum, swimming has gotten easier every decade. Consider this line from a 1920s article, which was a Roaring Twenties precursor to the article you just read: “Getting ready for a bath when George III ruled was not the simple act it is in the term of President Coolidge!”