Saturday, January 23, 2010

Taking the Waters

I have been thoroughly enjoying myself these past weeks with writing fun blogs as part of the book tour for My Dearest Mr. Darcy. As we all know, occasionally we are given interview questions or a specific topic to touch upon. That is nice for a fried brain, but I like it when I have free reign! Since history is such a huge part of my novels, I inevitably veer toward enlightening on some intriguing slice of the past. I thought I would do that again, so am going to share what I learned about seaside bathing in the Regency.

For centuries the touted benefits of breathing deeply of sea air and “taking the waters” were loudly proclaimed. Whether it was cold ocean water or warm mineral spas, bathing in and drinking of the water was deemed wise and downright miraculous. Personally, the thought of diving into the frigid waters surrounding England sounds insane! These people must have been tough.

Mineral spas, such as in Matlock and Bath, were typically designed with private rooms for those wishing to immerse themselves into the water. Bathing in the ocean was a bit more problematic. Men tended to be braver. They would find a nice secluded cove, strip down to their underwear or lily-white skin, and launch into the waves to frolic at their leisure.

Modest, demure, impressionable women who would never dream of seeing a naked man swimming or have one see her in a wet, clinging shift needed special accommodations.

Enter the Bathing Machine. It is unknown the precise inventor of this remarkable solution to a nagging problem, but the first recording was in 1736. The above sketch by John Setterington shows bathers utilizing the device at the beach in Scarborough in 1776. In short order they were found everywhere throughout the UK, as well as in France, America, and as far away as Mexico. In 1750 Benjamin Beale is credited with the addition of a ‘tilt’ or large canvas hood that extended off the rear of the machine for increased protection from prying eyes.

This description by Tobias Smollett in his 1771 novel The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker is excellent:

"Image 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, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, 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."

A man and woman bathing together was not completely unheard of (as long as they were married), but uncommon. Each resort decided upon regulations, so naturally I chose to have Caister-on-Sea allow married couples to bathe together. Imagine the fun that could be had! I sure did.

“Dippers” were same-sex assistants who accompanied the bathers partly to ensure safety in the surf, but primarily to administer the prescribed number of “dips” for whatever ailment was to be cured. The dips completely immersed the bather and would be done in allotted intervals throughout the day. Eventually the need for dippers disappeared as more women began to enjoy swimming as a pastime rather than a health treatment.

Over time the wild claims of seawater as a cure-all would wane. But the joy of holidays at the beach and swimming in the ocean has never gone away. Strict rules on mixed sex bathing and costumes to be worn would vary over the decades, but it wasn’t until well into the mid-1900s that all restrictions were gone.

There is your history lesson for the day! Don’t you feel smarter already? LOL! If interested in more fascinating history from the Regency, buy my novels! In the meantime you can come to my website where I have a glossary and loads of historical info. Sharon Lathan's Darcy Saga


  1. I love history, and truly enjoyed your history lesson, Sharon! I can't wait to read about the bathing your couples did together! :) Well, and the rest of the story too. Of course. Yes. :) That's just the icing on the already delicious cake! I loved reading about the Roman baths, and hot springs all over the world where couples would is definitely good for the health. :)

    Thanks for the super history blog, Sharon!

  2. I have never been to glad to live in the times that I do. After that great history lesson, I don't see how the human race survived the times! I know underneath we Humans are a wild bunch...but at times we carry things too far. This was one of those times.

  3. Thanks for the more comprehensive description of bathing machines. I have read of them, but had a hard time visualizing how they worked.

    I am indeed enlightened now!

    Side note: When I was a child I remember seeing a wool bathing costume circa 1930, worn by a grandmother. Wool! In July in the South! I itch just thinking of it.

  4. I remember when I was a little kids with ear infections and sinus infections, my doctor used to tell me to go swimming every day in the Gulf and it did work. Saltwater is very healing. It was kind of a drag in the winter, but I survived.

  5. Great blog! Even though I have tons of Regency knowledge, I never get tired of learning about it, especially when the teacher makes it so interesting. Thanks!

  6. "Co-mingling" - yeah, I like that, Terry! Fabulous euphemism! And I know all that co-mingling has been VERY good for Darcy and Lizzy's health. ;-)

    Boy, you got that right, Jessica! I so enjoy writing a historical novel, and am frequently amazed at how advanced the people were in some areas, but give me indoor plumbing and hot water!

    Mary Margret, I had to stare at a number of photos before I could totally grasp the idea of bathing machines. I never did find one that perfectly illustrated the canopy thingy that some supposedly had. I can imagine what it must have looked like, but a drawing would help clarify it. A very odd contraption, but given the dilemma of private bathing, it is fairly ingenious!

  7. Robin, my husband surfed all his life until a few years ago and can tell you all about the virtues of saltwater. And he surfed in Santa Cruz, CA - way north where the water is very cold. AND he surfed in the days before Jack O'Neill (a friend and fellow surf bud of my hubby) invented the wet suit! Can you imagine? Not me.

    Thanks ShanaGalen. I love all the historical stuff. In fact, I can get so lost in it! I don't think I will ever know it all, for sure. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. The historical facts mingled in with your stories are an extra bonus for the readers. Just wanted to say thanks again for guest blogging yesterday.

  9. Wow, Sharon!
    I DO feel smarter! :-) I'd never heard of the bathing machine, or if I did, I certainly didn't know what it was. VERY interesting!


  10. I've heard of the bathing machines,etc. And maybe why one of my favorite historical spots is Sutro's Palace since they had the baths there.

  11. Very interesting Sharon living here in Australia and the heat we have had in the last few days the beaches have been packed I could never imagine not being able to go swimming when I felt like it LOL.
    I gotta say though I still think a swim in the surf is good for you.
    Thanks again for the history lesson loved it

    Have Fun

  12. Fun facts, Sharon!!

    Ha! I can't imagine using one of those bathing machines. They look small. I don't like closed in things. lol Then if you put my huge hubby in there, too, we'd need a stick of butter to grease our way out! *wink wink*

    As always, your post was highly entertaining and made learning fun!((hugs!))

  13. Hi again. sorry for the hiatus, but I worked last night so had to sleep for a while.

    Mason, thanks for the invite to Thoughts in Progress. It is going well and your readers seem pleased. :)

    Whoa, I knew something the world jet-setting Aunty Cindy did not know. Awesome! :) I am so happy I enhanced your mental power, my friend. LOL!

  14. Linda, that is awesome. After gazing at so many photos and drawings, it would be incredible to see any of the ancient baths up close and personal. Man, that is my dream.

    Hi Helen! Yes, I suppose OZ beaches are warm all the time! I remember enjoying the beach from where I grew up in Southern CA. But when I moved north and touched that freezing water? No way. But there is no doubt it is good exercise, especially dodging all those sharks. ;-)

    Sarah, you crack me up!! OMG! Your poor hubby. Then again, maybe getting stuck and all greased up would lead to some nice "co-mingling" - there is a hint for a future Simas novel!

  15. Well I've got one for the record books...I've seen one of those bathing machines in action. I just could not remember where. Then it hit me, Gerry Butler's first movie...Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown... Judi Dench played Queen Victoria and made use of one of the bathing machines in the movie. I may be slow, but like the tortoise, I get there...eventually!!! lol ;)

  16. Gerald Butler in a bathing machine? Wet? Nice! I will have to look that one up! :)

  17. Great post, Sharon! I remember first seeing one of those bathing machines in The Ghost and Mrs Muir. We've come a long way, haven't we?

  18. Wonderful info Sharon! I love historical research...although I have a tendency to tweak it a bit with magic. :}