Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Victorian Seaside

As summer fast approaches I have found myself spending more and more time at the seaside.  And while I love the modern concept of a day at the beach, to me, few things are more iconic of the Victorian era than those amazing black and white photographs of sunbathers and seaside goers, decked out in their swimming "costumes" and ready to enjoy that newfangled thing called a vacation.  It evokes images of red and white striped changing cabanas, vintage postcards, and all manner of seaside nostalgia.  So today, in honor of summer, I bring you a short but nonetheless fascinating look at the Victorian Seaside and how the concept of a day at the beach came into being.
(Marine Palace Pier in Brighton, England circa 1905)

(Victorian Swimwear)
Did you know that the concept of a seaside holiday was invented by Victorian era individuals?  A trip to the beach has actually been the traditional holiday of choice since the mid-1800s.  With the advent of widespread industrialization and the expansion of cities, seaside vacations became a popular way for those who could afford to take time away from work back in the 1840s and 1850s to escape the sweltering city and enjoy the newly recognized healing powers of ocean water.  Those numbers grew as the railroads expanded across England and the United States and offered access to previously secluded sleepy fishing towns.  Not only was a trip to the sea a way to escape the stress of work, it was an outlet that allowed these somewhat stifled ladies and gentlemen to escape some of the confines of society.  They were able to leave a certain amount of etiquette at home and enjoy such things as greasy hand-held food (fish and chips were a favorite along the British seaside), "skimpy" and sometimes scandalous clothing, and coed sports.  They were also able to enjoy many of the finer things that Victorian society had to offer thanks to the rise in seaside resorts in the late 1800s.  
As seaside vacations became more popular, so did destinations.  Large hotels popped up across both English and American shorelines in places like Brighton and Staten Island.  Victorian vacationers came to be entertained as well as to relax.  Elaborate piers and packed boardwalks were a way to get close to the water without having to get wet as well as fashionable places to see and be seen.   Carnivals, fairs and large music halls and theaters were permanent fixtures in many seaside holiday towns, both large and small.   In addition to the calming effects of the sea, the carnivals offered the fun of games, arcades, novelties like cotton candy and ice cream and even some of the first roller coasters.  
(A cumbersome bathing box to preserve modesty)
While I do not long to be constrained by a three-layer cotton swimming costume (complete with stockings and a bonnet), nor do I wish to enjoy the ocean from the confines of a wooden Bathing Box on wheels, I do wish for a bit of the romance that accompanied those days at the Victorian seaside.  Call me nostalgic but bring on the cotton candy, fancy piers, and brass bands.  We owe the Victorians a huge debt of gratitude for creating the modern seaside tourism industry.  The European and American middle classes continue to enjoy treks to the beach once or twice a year for their well-earned holidays and we have the Victorians to thank for paving the way, literally and figuratively. 


  1. Ugh I love vintage fashion. Like, I would NOT want to be wearing any of those things to the beach, but they're all so lovely! Someone needs to invent a time machine!

  2. I would so totally wear the sailor dress to the beach!