#MyrtleMondays: Let’s Go Swimming!

Here in the US, it’s Memorial Day. Originally conceived to honor fallen soldiers, the holiday’s three-day weekend has become the unofficial kickoff to summer. Pool parties, summer camp, weekends at the lake, and holidays by the seaside… for many people, summer means swimming. Our 19th century ancestors were no different. Let’s have a look at how the Victorians enjoyed the water!

Read More: Saint Monday

Unlike many trends in history, we can more or less pinpoint the exact moment that “sea bathing” took off in England. In 1752, physician Richard Russel published a treatise on the health benefits of immersion in seawater—and it became an instant hit among health-conscious wealthy Georgians, who flocked to the coast.

“Mermaids at Brighton,” Thomas Heath, c1825

It did not take long for bathers to recognize that splashing about in the water was also¬†fun. The Prince Regent (the future King George IV) was so taken with the waters at Brighton, on England’s southern coast, that he built a castle there as a royal retreat in the early 1800s. From then on, the fashionable city became one of England’s premier seaside resorts.

A stately pleasure dome: Prince George’s Brighton Pavilion in 1826

But sea bathing wasn’t just for the wealthy. Unlike costlier sports like hockey and mountaineering, swimming was a pastime even people of modest means could enjoy. In the 1840s, railway travel made the seaside accessible to the masses, and towns all over coastal England capitalized on the public’s desire for healthy fresh air, Family Amusements, and splashing about in the surf, turning themselves into resort destinations.

Read More: All Aboard! Trains in Victorian England

Read More: Fun at the Victorian Seaside

This poster enticingly boasts Blackpool’s low death rate. Um.

Like everything in the Victorian era, swimming required elaborate specialized equipment and attire. The modesty of bathers was protected by bathing machines, caravans wheeled into the water by horses or donkeys (or people), in which beachgoers could change into their bathing costumes away from public view, and be deposited directly into the sea.

German bathers and their bathing machines. Many beaches were segregated by sex, to protect everyone’s Delicate Sensibilities.

Well-dressed Victorians sported the latest fashions in all their endeavors. This women’s bathing costume is from New Zealand.

Although I’m not much of a swimmer, that didn’t stop me from wanting my very own 1890s bathing costume with which to enjoy the summer! So, naturally, I inflicted this impulse on a perfectly innocent doll.

From the locker to the blanket…

For my version, I used some vintage blue-and-white seersucker, remnants from a sailor suit my grandmother made me when I was 10. Just like the original, there’s an integrated coverup (the little peplum overskirt) to wear when you’re not in the water.

From the blanket to the shore. (I don’t actually have a handy beach, so my front porch will have to do!)

Although the lighter, shorter bathing costume was fairly stripped down compared to the everyday layers of corset, petticoats, and heavy skirts, it was still cumbersome in the water. While men and boys took up more vigorous swimming techniques, forming clubs and competitions to enjoy the sport, girls and women typically stuck to wading and paddling in the shallows.

Members of the Brighton Swimming Club pose for their club photo in 1893. The organization was founded in the 1860s to promote sea bathing for men.

Photographs abound of our ancestors frolicking in the water, all throughout the 19th century.

(There’s always that one couple that doesn’t want to swim.)

…And fashion plates and illustrations celebrated the fun to be had.

Badvergnugen (bathing pleasure) by German illustrator Oscar Arthur Bluhm

Swimming style of the 1890s

In 1904, an American steamship accident claimed the lives of hundreds of girls and women in shallow waters, calling attention to the need for girls and women to learn basic water safety. A push to improve education and swimming attire took hold.

Popular fashion magazine The Delineator featured swimming instruction aimed at women. (Now, I’m a big fan of book learnin’, but I’m not sure this is really something you can master by reading.)

As more women took up the sport, the swimming costume evolved to become more streamlined.


The sport of women’s swimming grew so quickly that it was added to the Olympic Games in 1912 (Australia won gold).

1912 Olympic champions Fannie Durack, Mina Wylie, and Jennie Fletcher, in their practical competition suits.

Read More: The Victorian Olympic Spirit

My efforts to find diverse images of 19th century swimmers led me to the work of historian Kevin Dawson, who has traced the aquatic culture of Blacks throughout history, from roots in Africa and Melanesia, to enslavement in the Americas, and beyond. It’s an important and fascinating look at a lesser-known side of swimming history.

Swimmers and canoeists in Ghana, 1800s

It looks like it’s going to be another hot summer. Are you swimsuit ready?

I’ll be sticking to my striped-and-ruffled thing—but you do you!

And for more seaside holiday fun and intrigue, treat yourself to How to Get Away with Myrtle. Makes a perfect beach read!

3 Responses to “#MyrtleMondays: Let’s Go Swimming!”

  1. Laura Moore

    It’s amazing that more women and girls didn’t drown in those things! Were they all made of cotton? Seems like wool would dry faster, but be ITCHY!

    • Elizabeth C. Bunce

      They were commonly made of wool, especially the knitted jersey ones (like the men are wearing), although the stripey New Zealand one is cotton. Wool’s important quality here is that it’s warm even when wet—important when swimming somewhere chilly like the English coast! (Also cool when it’s hot, which is nice when the sun comes out.)