What is the history of going to the beach?
If you live near the sea, then summer also means going to the beach and having a swim or getting a tan. This seems so natural for many of us during warm summer days. However, the beach was not always seen as a destination to relax or enjoy one's time. Things we do today at the beach would be seen as immodest and offensive not long ago. The origins of going to the beach as part of summer or even a holiday are somewhat unexpected and took time to develop into its modern form.
The Origins of Visiting a Beach
Informally, people have been swimming and visiting beaches for generations. However, beaches were not considered a place a large number of tourists, and certainly not families, would go visit during the summer months or even other times of the year. The beach was sometimes isolated from communities and even seen as dangerous. By the Medieval and early Modern Period, people would see the beach as possibly a nice place to look at but people would not swim since taking one's clothes to go for a swim would be seen as immodest, for both men and women. Even children taking their clothes off and changing to swimwear as mostly unheard of. Perhaps some of the earliest records of beach-side use come from the 18th century.
Interestingly, it was not the beach but nearby spas that attracted people closer to the beach. In Scarborough, in Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, the town was known to have a natural acidic water spring that ran from the cliffs to the beach area. The spa, seen as providing health benefits mostly by wealthy individuals, led to the development of resorts and hotels in the town for people to take advantage of the natural spa. Instead of swimming in the ocean to feel refreshed, people wanted to change and dip in the spa waters. At this time already, modesty expectations made changing into swimwear somewhat complex.
The first rolling bathing machines were introduced in 1735 as a way for people to change inside these areas into swimwear and then go for a swim in the spa waters by being rolled to the water (Figure 1). These box-like rooms could be rolled close to the beach so people would not have to be exposed too long in showing their swimwear, which even covered most of the peoples' bodies. By the mid-18th century, wealthy Europeans began to see the beach as a place that offered exercise and enabled experiencing the outdoors, which they increasingly saw as beneficial for health and nature began to be seen as less dangerous and more pleasurable. However, beach holidays did not exist outside of those for the very wealthy.
The beginnings of mass consumption of going to the beach can be traced to the reign of King George IV, who made Brighton in the 1820s a resort town, which it is still today, for Londoners wanting to escape urban life. Hotels and venues for leisure were beginning to be built at this time. The beach was now seen as part of the escape from the big city, but visiting the beach was still mainly an upper-class privilege. Landscape paintings by this time, and going into the early Victorian period in the 1840s, began to paint the beach as part of a picturesque landscape in enjoying nature's beauty. This helped attract people to beaches as beaches began to be seen for their beauty as a place to enjoy. However, most people would not swim and modesty rules of the day made bathing somewhat complex.
The next big change for the beach was the railway beginning in the 1840s and going through a boom period in the 1850s-1860s. Towns such as Blackpool in northwestern England began to transform as popular sea-side resort towns with large boardwalks built to accommodate the middle classes now visiting beaches. The railroad made accessing these towns not only easier but also affordable for many people. Queen Victoria popularized beaches by building her holiday home in the Isle of Wight, near a beach. Working conditions began to evolve with holiday periods given and factories beginning to institute one week in the year where they would close for maintenance. This created the opportunity for beach holidays to develop, although this mostly involved visiting a beach but often not swimming in it.
Most of the actual time spent at a beach town was not on the actual beach but rather the boardwalks or if people were on a beach other, non-swimming activities diverted people's attention. Fairs, carnivals, and showmen would all compete for people's money and time. At the beach, the bathing machines began to be installed on beaches along some of the towns. However, what prevented large numbers of people using the beach was that beach activity was usually considered not a family activity but rather the sexes were separated since it was considered immodest to swim in the presence of the other sex and in public. Women were often frowned upon for swimming in general, even with the bathing rolling machines and swimming was particularly seen as unacceptable for a married woman.
Laws in England, such as in Suffolk, stated that a woman could not bathe in “a place at which any person of the male sex, above the age of 12 years, maybe set down for the purpose of bathing." Swimwear, which covered nearly the entire body, was still considered immodest to see in view of the opposite sex. This made the beach less of family activity and more activity between friends or individuals wanting a swim (Figure 2).
Although the UK is not known for having the best beach weather, it was English love of the beach that started a trend of mass tourism where people began to create and visit beach resorts in Europe and later the United States and North America. In France, the French Riviera began to be developed as a popular beach area, particularly Nice. Interestingly, it was often visiting British in these towns rather than locals that led to the initial development of the French Rivera.
However, in the 1870s, more people began to see the beauty and fun of going to the beach and throughout Europe beach towns began to develop. Monte Carlo, the famed gambling place, developed as a town visited by tourists in the 1870s to enjoy the seaside views and beach with gambling developed as an alternative diversion. Interestingly, it was continental Europeans who began to also influence bathing and swimming culture. In Europe, attitudes towards nudity and exposing one self were far more lax than in Britain.
The idea of stripping to minimal clothing or even being nude in going for a swim developed already by the 1870s, although this was not universal and many frowned upon this even in Europe. In the United States, the late 19th century also began the trend of seaside towns and resorts. Florida, New Jersey, and other coastal places began to develop resort towns. In England alone, there were 100 resort towns with more than 50,000 people by the end of the 19th century. The seaside holiday and spending time on a beach now became part of the normal holiday cycle, although swimming was not common for many people at the beach and sunbathing on a beach was frowned upon all together.
The Modern Beach
The modern beach began to form as the bathing rolling machines began to diminish and swimming by both sexes together became more acceptable, allowing also families to enjoy time together either sitting at the beach or swimming. In 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.
Nevertheless, councilors as late as the 1930s attempted to ban mixed swimming, arguing in some cases that it prevented the marriage and made women have loose morals. What probably helped change public attitudes were people becoming increasingly health conscious, not only for men but also women. The Olympics of 1912 were influential in public swimming, as that was the first time women were allowed to compete in a swimming competition. This helped to make the public seeing swimming by women more acceptable, including at the beach. Swimming was now seen as part of an exercise for a healthy life and both sexes were now taught how to swim in formal lessons and classes.
People in the 1930s, particularly as the Depression made other activities more expensive, began to see the beach as a pleasurable and affordable place to visit, with movements against any more socially conservative attempts to prohibit the mixing of sexes in using the beach. 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.
Given the relatively lax attitudes in mainland Europe towards public swimming and particularly women swimming and having relatively less clothing, it might not be surprising that in 1946 the bikini made its public debut in France, with Micheline Bernardini modeling the first bikini with the design developed by Jacques Heim. Throughout the 1950s, continental Europe began to embrace the bikini, although there was resistance by the Catholic church, with the Pope calling the bikini and some other swimwear as sinful.
Nevertheless, as the church continued to lose influence in Europe, and social norms became more liberal, foreigners, as well as Europeans, began to encounter the bikini more commonly in beaches. In particular, Brigitte Bardot wearing a bikini in the 1953 Cannes film festival did much to popularize the bikini in Europe and the United States. Films began to feature more women and men in beaches together, with male swimwear also becoming more revealing in the 1950s. Once again, French designers influenced this, with simple one-piece and much shorter swimwear developed and by 1960 the minimal Speedo was even developed, although this proved unpopular outside of Europe. What the clothing did was enable public bathing to become more socially acceptable throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, paritcularly as the clothing could be easily worn underneath common clothes or changed into.
However, outside of Europe and the United States, attitudes tended to be more conservative, with many other countries not developing resorts and beaches until the 1970s and later. Today, rules for using beaches are very diverse around the world, reflecting that public swimming and what it entails is still diverse in many areas around the world.
Today the beach is so popular that we have so-called 'fake' beaches, with artificial sand placed in some areas to create a beach-like atmosphere. Additionally, sports such as surfing, beach volleyball, all of which became popular from the 1960s and later, began to make the beach more diverse in the type of activities it offered. Swimwear and public attitudes towards health and swimming shifted, allowing both sexes to feel more free in publicly swimming, particularly in Britain and the United States.
- For more on the early history of visiting beaches, see: Brodie, Allan, and Matthew Whitfield. 2014. Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage. Historic England
- For more on how the British developed the idea of visiting a beach for the masses, see: Jenkinson, Jo. 2015. The Lure of the Beach: A History of Public Bathing in Brighton. Brighton Historical Society (Vic.).
- For more on activities at a beach in the Victorian period, see: Ferry, Kathryn. 2009. The British Seaside Holiday. Shire History 4. Oxford: Shire.
- For more on the spread of seaside towns and resorts in Europe, and its wider influence, see: Borsay, Peter, and Jan Hein Furnée, eds. 2016. Leisure Cultures in Urban Europe, c. 1700-1870: A Transnational Perspective. Edited by Peter Borsay and Jan Hein Furnée. Studies in Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- For more on the changing attitudes toward public bathing and swimming, particularly in the UK, see: Parr, Susie. 2011. The Story of Swimming. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Media.
- For more on the history of swimwear and how that shaped attitudes about the beach, see: Kennedy, Sarah. 2010. The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashions. London: Carlton Books.