Time at the beach, playing in the waves and splaying your limbs out on the warm sand, who can resist? Yet, people didn’t always consider the beach a place for relaxation. After all, the beach can be cold, hot, sandy, wet, dismal and/or uncomfortable. And then there’s the whole prospect of drowning.
Like so many things, spending time at the beach became popular in Britain. It started late in the 18th century and spread through the world from there. Its origins were tied up with how industrialization was remaking the world at the time, as well as in popular medical theories that now sound bizarre.
Earlier periods in history find very few tales of relaxing at the beach. From antiquity through the 18th century, the beach stirred fear and anxiety in the popular imagination and was synonymous with danger.
Some of the earliest and most influential references to the sea in Western culture come from the Bible, where the ocean is depicted as mysterious and destructive.
The gay Roman poets and philosophers Horace, Ovid and Seneca hated going to the beach, even though they had worked-out bodies. They saw the ocean as a force that drove men apart. In Shakespeare’s plays, the ocean appears in the form storms and shipwrecks.
By the 1600s, the beach began to appear in French poetry as a place of beauty worth visiting. By the 17th century, Dutch seascape paintings began bringing tourists to seaside towns.
A cultural appreciation of the benefits of being at the beach really started in England in the late 18th century. Doctors believed that bathing in cold sea waves was beneficial for conditions they called ”melancholy” or ”spleen”, black bile that made people depressed, cautious or moody.
Over the next two centuries, doctors recommend that patients head to the shore, believing that the shock of submersion in cold, salty and turbulent seawater was beneficial for health. Doctors would issue prescriptions to patients detailing exactly how long, how often and under what conditions they were to bathe.
Women relied on bathing attendants, who would help them with the correct timing and method of sea bathing, including which part of their body would make contact with the waves. They would plunge females into the water just as the wave broke. These cold dips were seen as a method of toughening up patients, especially women who were thought to be dangerously pale.
Antoine Lavoisier‘s discovery of oxygen in 1778 led to popular theories about the health benefits of sea air, which was thought to be more oxygenated and purer. At the same time, of course, the water and air in British cities was actually getting grungier. Factories were springing up near the beaches. But, tourism and industrialization went together, giving people both the desire and the ability, in terms of money and transportation, to get away from it all with a day at the beach.
Going to the beach became a kind of competitive activity among the upper-classes. In 1783, the Prince of Wales, who would later become King George IV, visited Brighton after being advised that bathing in the sea would help his gout. In the decades that followed, the fashion spread. In Jane Austen‘s Emma (1815), the main character’s hypochondriac father endlessly debates the health benefits of Britain’s beaches with his upper-class friends.
The idea of going to the beach spread to the middle and lower-classes. Railroads in the early 19th century made a trip to the beach affordable. By 1840, the beach meant something new. It had become a place of human consumption; a sought-after escape from the city and the drudgery of modern life, and a chance to cruise the hotties.
Going to the beach became very popular in America. But, the upper-classes didn’t swim, they merely took a quick plunge. And they plunged naked. They devised a horse-drawn barrel that was backed into the water. People took off their clothes inside and then went naked for a quick plunge. But they got right out again and dressed inside the barrel.
Beaches suddenly had promenades, boardwalks and social halls. Since people only took a five-minute dip, they had to find other things to do at the seashore. Period paintings portrayed raucous beach behavior: street performers and dancing girls, gamblers, even horse racing.
For women, the first bathing suits were heavy woolen suits not much different than their regular attire. Men still swam naked. Not until about 1900 did bathing suits become the universal American beach garb for men and women. Eventually, the beach played a role in the shedding modesty. Women emerged on the sand with a leg-revealing two-piece suit in the 1930s and continued paring down their beach attire until it was just a bikini in the 1960s. Men’s suits went from two-pieces in the 1920s to Speedos and thongs.
Are you going to the beach this summer? Remember, wear sunscreen!
10 Best Gay American Beaches:
Herring Cove, Provincetown
Little Beach, Maui
Will Rogers State Beach (aka Ginger Rogers Beach), Santa Monica
Sebastian Street, Ft. Lauderdale
Black’s Beach, San Diego
Poodle Beach, Rehoboth, Delaware
Fire Island Pines, Fire Island
Baker Beach, San Francisco
South Beach, Miami Beach
Collin’s Beach (clothing optional), Portland, Oregon