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Sea bathing is swimming in the sea or in sea water. Unlike bathing in a swimming pool, which is generally done for pleasure or exercise purposes, sea bathing was once thought to have curative or therapeutic value. It arose from the medieval practice of visiting spas for the beneficial effects of the waters. The practice of sea bathing dates back to the 17th century but became popular in the late 18th century. The development of the first swimsuits dates from the period as does the development of the bathing machine.

In the 19th century, the introduction of railways led to the further development of seaside resorts. The high death rate from people swimming in unsafe conditions led to the introduction of surf lifesaving in Australia and lifeguards throughout the world in the early 20th century. With scheduled air transport becoming popular in the latter half of the 20th century, the development of seaside resort areas such as Ibiza in Spain, the Queensland Gold Coast in Australia and the Florida Gold Coast in the US attract millions of visitors annually.


Bathing in the 18th and 19th century

Sea bathing evolves from visiting mineral springs such as Spa in Belgium, Bath in England and Aachen in Germany. Sea water was similarly believed to have medicinal benefits with William Buchan in his 1707 book Domestic Medicine advocating the practice. Sea bathing and sea water were advocated with winter considered to be the best time to follow the practice.

Scarborough was the first resort to introduce bathing machines with a John Setterington engraving showing machines in 1736. They were soon adopted in most of the aspiring English seaside resorts. Women would wear "bathing gowns" in the water while the men would wear long swimsuits. Some resorts such as Margate had modesty hoods or tilts which were canvas awnings attached to bathing machines allowing women to enter and leave the water in complete privacy.

In 1753, Dr. Charles Russel published "The Uses of Sea Water" recommended the use of sea water for healing various diseases. With this recommendation, people suddenly flocked the coasts. Marine hospitals started to open up in parts of France and England.

By the end of the 18th century, sea bathing became highly fashionable with George III visiting Weymouth for the first time with the bathing machines showing God Save the King. Fanny Burney recorded a humorous incident in her diaries.

"Nor is this all. Think but of the surprise of His Majesty when, the first time of his bathing, he had no sooner popped his royal head under water than a band of music, concealed in a neighbouring machine, struck up "God save great George our King". (1)

During this period, resorts sprang up along the English coast, such as Weymouth, Bournemouth, Blackpool and Scarborough. In 1771, Tobias Smollett recorded the use of bathing machines in The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. Jane Austen regularly visited seaside resorts and in her uncompleted novel Sanditon stated "The Sea air and Sea Bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every Disorder..." (2)

Resorts were set up throughout Europe in the late 18th century and early 19th century as far north as Scandinavia. In Victorian times, the railroad made the resorts both more accessible and therefore more popular. In the US, resorts such as Atlantic City became very popular while the French Riviera became popular not only amongst the French but with English visitors.

Dippers or guides were used with the bathing machines and they escorted visitors into the water. Some of the dippers became quite famous with Martha Gunn and Old Smoaker of Brighton both having worked for the Prince Regent. The role of the dipper was to ensure that the guest had enough dips with three immersions being the preferred treatment.

19th-century bathing attire, in a cartoon by George du Maurier

While the swimming costumes of the early nineteenth century were quite modest, it was very common for men to swim naked when away from women in the UK especially in lakes, streams and rivers but at the seaside as well. When Benjamin Disraeli said of Robert Peel in the House of Commons "The Right Hon. Gentleman caught the Whigs bathing, and walked away with their clothes" (3) about the switch to free trade, everyone understood the analogy.

However, the practice was eventually banned in the UK in 1860. In New South Wales and other parts of Australia, bathing in the ocean was banned during daylight between 1838 and 1902 because women's swimming costumes were considered indecent despite being neck to knee and men often swam nude. Bathing was segregated in the United Kingdom until 1901.

In the US, bathing beauty contests of women in bathing contests became popular from the 1880s. The first such pageant took place in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in 1880 with contestants from several states competing for the title of "Miss America" in the fall frolic in Atlantic City, New Jersey. However, such contests were deemed not to be respectable.

Bathing in the 20th and 21st century

Sea Baths in St Kilda, Victoria, established in the 1850s, rebuilt in the 1920s and recently restored

In the twentieth century, conditions for bathing gradually became less restrictive throughout the world. In 1903, Australian bathers were allowed to use public beaches in daylight hours. Throughout the world, some daring male bathers did not wear a top. Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer championed the use of a onepiece swimsuit and toured throughout the world as the "Australian mermaid" and the "diving Venus". Kellerman was arrested on a Boston beach for public indecency for wearing her trademark one-piece swimsuit but by the 1910s the style was becoming generally acceptable and Kellerman became a Hollywood star. Beauty contests became more respectable with the first modern "Miss America" contest being held in 1921 under the title "Inter City Beauty".

As public bathing became more popular, there were risks as inexperienced swimmers went out into unfamiliar waters. In the US, lifeguards were often paid employees of local governments employed when bathing was most popular. In Australia, the Surf Bathing Association of NSW was formed in 1907 to coordinate voluntary surf lifesaving on beaches throughout Sydney. This organisation became the Surf Lifesaving Association of Australia in 1923. This organisation proved its worth on February 6 1938 on Bondi Beach when hundreds of bathers were saved when they were taken out to sea in a freak rip on what became known as Black Sunday. Lifesaving organisations were established in other countries such as Canada and the UK. As a result of the development of such organisations, lifesaving techniques became standardised and competitions between competing clubs were established becoming popular.

As modern airline transport made warmer locations more accessible, new areas were developed for their access to good beaches for bathing. In Australia, the Gold Coast became a popular destination with the population growing from 33,716 in 1961 to 135,437 in 1981 and growing rapidly thereafter. (4) More recently, the population of Queensland has continued to have the fastest growth in the nation with 12.8% growth between 1991 and 1996 as compared to almost stationery populations in South Australia and Tasmania. The fastest growing regional areas in Australia Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast - Tweed and Cairns all having good beaches for bathing, warm weather and growth rates in excess of twenty per cent. (5)

In the US, the Gold Coast (Florida) enjoyed similar growth as first the railroad and then aircraft brought tourists to its beaches for bathing. By 2000, the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas had a total population of just under 4 million. Tourism is one of the areas largest employees with tourists from around the world travelling to Florida's beaches. Due to population growth, Florida went from having 21 electoral college votes in 1981 to 27 in 2001.

In Europe, the presence of good beaches for bathing, a warm climate and favourable exchange rates led to the rapid growth of tourism in Spain. By 1974, tourism had become Spain's leading industry and Spain is currently the world's second most popular tourism destination after France. Similarly, the popularity of Greek beaches was a major factor in Tourism in Greece accounting for a quarter of Greece's export earnings.

As sea bathing and sun bathing became increasingly popular and a sign that the individual was wealthy enough to go on holidays overseas or to a warmer climate, sun tanning became increasingly popular. As a result, beach fashions that have allowed the wearer to gain an all over tan such as the bikini, monokini, string bikini and G-string have become increasingly popular on beaches. This fashion has met with considerable resistance from more conservative people. In the 1950s, beach inspectors banned women wearing shortish bikinis from Bondi Beach in Sydney while g-strings are banned from many beaches in the US.

There has been some reversal of this trend with excessive exposure to the sun being linked with the development of melanoma. In Australia, the "Slip, Slop, Slap" campaign developed by Phillip Adams encouraged people to slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat. This resulted from Australia having the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. (6)

Though no longer widely considered to actually cure disease, shades of the supposed curative properties of sea water can still be noted with the trend of bath products containing Dead Sea salt, which is claimed to provide some relief from certain skin diseases.




  1. Fanny Burney Diary and Letters of Madame D'ArblayVolume 5-6 pages 35-36 reprinted in Jane Austen Society of Australia article on bathing
  2. Jane Austen, Sanditon pages 329-330 op cit
  3. Benjamin Disraeli, House of Commons 28 February 1845
  4. Australians - A History Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates 1987
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book of Australia 1998 Population Distribution
  6. Australian Associated Press, "Slip, Slop, Slap message getting through" 18 November 2002


Further reading

  • Orvar Lofgren, On Holiday, University of California Press July 1, 2002 ISBN 0-520-23464-2
  • Douglas Booth, Australian Beach Cultures: The History of Sun, Sand and Surf Routledge UK 2001 ISBN 0-7146-5167-2
  • Stephen V Ward, Selling Places: The Marketing and Promotion of Towns 1850-2000 Spon Press UK ISBN 0-419-20610-8
  • Anthony Hern, The Seaside Holiday Cresset Press UK 1967
  • Ruth Manning-Sanders, Seaside England BT Batsford 1951
  • John K. Walton, The English Seaside Resort - A Social History 1750-1914, Leicester University Press 1983
  • John K. Walton, The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the 20th century, Manchester University Press 2000 ISBN 0-7190-5170-3

External links


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