To modern eyes, the bathing suits of the past may seem excessively, even hilariously, modest. But more than 100 years ago, these getups were scandalous. So scandalous, in fact, that clever folks in the 18th century figured out a way for female bathers to get into the water without ever being seen in their bathing suit at all. It all involved an ingenious little device called the bathing machine.
Here's how it worked: the bathing machine was a little hut on wheels, with entrances on either side. A swimmer would enter the bathing machine while it was parked on the beach, and change into their bathing suit. Then the bathing machine would be dragged out into deeper water, either by horse or human power. Once the machine had gone far enough into the water, the swimmer would emerge from the opposite door and dive into the ocean, far away from the prying eyes of those on the beach. When done swimming, they could re-enter the bathing machine and raise a little flag to signal that they were ready to return to the beach.
It all seems a bit absurd now, but according to the folks at Messy Nessy Chic, when they debuted in the 1750s, bathing machines did serve a bit of a purpose: bathing suits hadn't yet been invented, and almost everyone swam nude. But even after rather modest bathing getups became de rigeur, the bathing machine stuck around, thanks to the famously conservative Victorians. In their heyday in the 19th century, bathing machines crowded beaches in Europe, the United States, and Mexico.
Around the turn of the 20th century, bathing machines began to disappear, victims of more relaxed ideas about modesty. A few of them survived as beachside cabanas and huts, but for the most part, the bathing machine became a sort of footnote in history, a testament to the bizarre lengths that people will go to to protect themselves from the dangerous temptations of the female body.
All photos (except the last one) are via Messy Nessy Chic. Check out their article about bathing machines to see many more photos of these odd little devices in action.