The little “cabana on wheels” in this postcard, from Fannie Leonard’s collection, intrigued me when I first saw it. Sidetracked by other topics, I did not pursue it for very long. Today, however, I ran across a small book at the Rehoboth Art League gift shop with this very same postcard on its front cover. The title of the book is Where did you change – a light look at Bathing Machines, and the authors are Mary and David Schaefer. Finally, here was a name associated with this contraption!
According to the authors and the Wikipedia, the “bathing machine” – a small changing room on wheels – was invented in Victorian England around 1875, but may have actually originated in the mid-18th century. Although it was just a closet on wheels, it was called a “machine,” as anything with wheels in Victorian times was called a machine. Its use quickly spread to continental Europe and the U. S. Until the early 20th century, it was not acceptable for either sex to appear on the beach in a bathing suit, modest as the typical costumes were at the time, and most beaches were sectioned off by gender. The “bathing machine” allowed one to enter in street clothes from one end, change while the “machine” was hauled out into the water (usually by a horse, but sometimes by human power), and then step off into the water at the other end, in bathing costume, just as the young lady in the postcard is doing. Theoretically, the bather would not be visible to people on shore if she entered into the water directly in front of the steps.
There are a number of “bathing machine” photographs on the Web, but all I have been able to find where taken on British and European beaches. Ostend, in Belgium, is the location of a surprising number of these photographs.
As the rules of modesty relaxed somewhat in the early 20th century, the “bathing machine” gradually disappeared from use and was replaced by the beachside cabana.