'Sanditon' serves as a cruel reminder of the prudish Brits and their weird 'bathing machines'

They were very popular devices right from the 18th century till the early 20th century. Essentially wheeled rooms, these devices allowed people to change out of their usual clothes into swimwear, and wade right into the ocean.


                            'Sanditon' serves as a cruel reminder of the prudish Brits and their weird 'bathing machines'
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‘Sanditon’, the 2019 ITV period drama that is being redistributed by PBS in the U.S., is based on Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscript of the same name. The first episode sees a chance encounter between Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) and businessman Tom Parker (Kris Marshall).

Parker then brings Heywood to the developing seaside resort of Sanditon. There she meets the town’s eclectic residents. The wide-eyed dame meets, among others, the devilishly handsome Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox), who (along with all the others) is a little too interested in sea bathing.

Obviously, Heywood’s curiosity is piqued and she wades into the freezing seawater. But not just like that, of course. She is wheeled into the sea in a  bathing machine. The men, on the other hand, just toss their clothes aside and plunge right into the water. Very nude and very visible to the women, who for some reason are clothed from head to toe in weird red gowns. Clearly, the bathing suit vogue in the 19th century was a tad bit different from what it is now.

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This brings us to the history of the so-called bathing machines.

They were very popular devices right from the 18th century till the early 20th century. Its invention is often credited to Benjamin Beale, a glove and breeches maker who lived in Margate, a coastal seaside resort in England. Some, however, dispute this claim.

But what were they?

Essentially wheeled rooms, these devices allowed people to change out of their usual clothes into swimwear, and wade right into the ocean. While the use of bathing machines was part of the etiquette for sea-bathing, it was more rigorously enforced upon women than men. Assuming historical accuracy on part of the creators of ‘Sanditon’, this biased enforcement was a little too stark.

It was a not-so-elegant approach to make sure prying eyes did not find women in a compromising position. That, however, thanks to the modest (and modest is a word being modestly used here) swimwear the women donned in those days, seems highly unnecessary.

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But modesty was perhaps more in vogue than any time ever in 19th-century England. As per Amusing Planet, some machines were equipped with a canvas tent that could be lowered into the water creating a private bathing area for the swimmer. Imagine, if you must, creating a private patch of water in the ocean. 

This quest for modesty did not end there, sadly. The lady swimmers were also usually escorted by a strong woman called the dipper, whose job was to assist them in getting in and out of the machine.

Bathing machines made their way into Great Britain around 1750. But the epidemic did not end there. They spread to the United States, France, and Germany soon enough. Thankfully, this is not a cherished tradition that has made its way to the second decade of the second millennium. As legal segregation of bathing areas finally ended in Britain in 1901, the machines too went out of vogue.

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‘Sanditon’, however, serves as a painful reminder of this relic of an extremely prude colonial Britain. The show airs on PBS on Sundays.