Seaside Resorts

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resort development
braving the waters
how to choose a resort

Seaside resorts developed first in Britain, during the early to mid-1700s, when the practice of taking the waters, hitherto confined to inland mineral spas, was extended to the coast. Doctors, inspired to examine the benefits of seawater by their observation of popular sea bathing and the tough constitution of fisherpeople, as well as the example of the ancients (Seneca and Pliny recorded cold bathing in their time), prescribed immersion in seawater as a treatment for conditions as varied as rabies, gout, melancholy, and hysteria. They imposed strict rules on bathing, with invalids submitting to rigorous, supervised, and timed dunking sessions over a period of days or weeks. This was not swimming as it is known today, nor was it meant to be pleasurable, although it would eventually become so for many.

The growing fashion for therapeutic bathing was not enough on its own to guarantee the development of seaside resorts. The 1700s and early 1800s brought a new appreciation of nature, in particular of the coasts and mountains, arising out of a convergence of scientific and intellectual discoveries. New theories about landscape formation encouraged natural theologians, poets, and artists to find beauty in wild, untamed landscapes, where hitherto only ugliness and waste had been seen. The sea, once regarded as the remnant of the Flood, a sign of God's wrath, and thus something to be shunned, came increasingly to be appreciated as impressive and dramatic, and the shore a site of spiritual enlightenment, and later—for the Romantics—self-discovery. Their ideas resonated with an educated public, and with urban growth and industrialization taking their toll on the lives of city-dwellers, visiting the seashore became an opportunity to clear the mind, purify the body, and reacquaint oneself with nature.

resort development

The number of cure-seeking bathers increased rapidly in the second half of the eighteenth century in Britain, and inhabitants of coastal towns adapted to new demands, expanding and improving accommodation, transportation, and related services: thus, the first seaside resorts emerged out of preexisting settlements. By 1789 sea bathing was firmly established in Britain in places like Brighton, Margate, and Scarborough, and the fashion was beginning to attract adherents across the Channel. Local entrepreneurs, municipal and occasionally national government bodies, and outside investors like railway companies came together in various configurations to drive the construction of bathing facilities, hotels, casinos, public gardens, piers, and fun parks. An "architecture of pleasure" developed, with fanciful villas and public buildings creating unique urban environments, particularly along the prized seafront; the view, of course, was paramount.

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars put a stop to most Continental resort development between 1789 and 1815, although in Germany the resorts of Doberan on the Baltic and Norderney on the North Sea emerged in 1794 and 1797. Over this period the British tended to frequent their own coastline, or took their Grand Tour further afield, to Greece—although this was in search of antiquities rather than bathing experiences—and Portugal, for example. After Waterloo (1815), Europeans could travel more freely, and there followed a surge in the number of mainland European seaside resorts, with the 1820s and 1830s a turning-point in France and Spain. The Duchesse de Berry is often credited with having relaunched the fashion for the seaside in 1824, with her famous swim at Dieppe in Amazonian dress.

braving the waters

Bathing practices varied according to region, but in many places men bathed naked, at least until the mid-1800s, while bourgeois women were expected to wear long gowns and pantaloons to preserve their modesty when they entered the water. Bathers feared the effects of sunlight, so exposure was kept to a minimum, with hats, veils, and parasols. Bathing machines—wooden huts or canvas tents on wheels designed to protect the bather's privacy—appeared in the 1730s in Britain, and soon spread elsewhere, though not to all resorts. The machine was towed by horsepower into the shallow water, and the bather, hidden from curious eyes, was immersed by a guide behind the cart. A simpler system was offered in some resorts: a rope, attached to dry land and extending across the beach into the water, to which fearful bathers could cling as they went under the waves. Changing tents and cabins also sprang up on beaches, though not all bathers were reassured: one nobleman complained that the interior of flimsy cabins on Arcachon's beach, on France's Atlantic Coast, resembled "a slab in the morgue"!

Manuals on bathing procedure proliferated in the 1800s, and the medical profession flourished in resorts, advertising in guidebooks and developing property. But the doctors' grip on bathing could never be complete. Their highly controlling approach coexisted uneasily with freer local practices, and as their patients became less fearful of the sea, pleasure took the upper hand. Many seaside municipalities tried to regulate behavior with bylaws prohibiting mixed and nude bathing, especially from the 1840s onward. At this time, sea bathing was attracting ever-increasing numbers of people from the middle and working classes, who did not always obey doctors' orders. Regulation would have limited success, however, because the beach, a liminal and ever-shifting zone, often overcrowded in summer, was notoriously difficult to police.

Bathing was never the only activity enjoyed (or endured) by the sea. Seaside resorts initially followed the design principles of inland spa towns, encouraging cultivated leisure in libraries, aquariums, games rooms, and (in larger resorts) attending the theater or casino, but outdoor pastimes triumphed: strolling on the sand and the pier, collecting shells, watching fisherpeople at work, riding, sailing, hunting and fishing, and socializing.

A distinctive feature of resort life was the coming together of different social groups on the beach, particularly as the number of people with the means to take vacations increased. Even resorts with an identifiable "tone" were never entirely monocultural. The shore was the site of unexpected, exciting, and for some, threatening, exposure to people one would never meet at home. This became increasingly problematic for status-conscious upper-class and bourgeois resort-goers, as working hours dropped and paid holidays were extended to more and more professions and trades in the late 1800s, leading to a more mixed social scene.

how to choose a resort

In the nineteenth century, colder northern waters were preferred to the Mediterranean Sea, as doctors considered the sharp shock of immersion and bracing air to be most beneficial. For this reason, Ostend in Belgium, Scheveningen in Holland, and the Normandy, Brittany, and Atlantic coastal resorts in France (Dinard, Dieppe, Biarritz, Royan, and La Teste-Arcachon, to name a few) prospered before their southern counterparts. In Germany, Travemünde drew bathers from 1800 (about which Thomas Mann wrote his Buddenbrooks, a century later), and Swinemünde in 1822. San Sebastian and Santander on the Gulf of Gascony were the first successful Spanish resorts, flourishing from the 1830s, long before the Costa Brava. Air quality (mild or bracing), water temperature, and surrounding landscape determined a resort's appeal, with the most successful able to offer both winter and summer seasons.

The villages on the French and Italian Riviera, though long on the Grand Tour itinerary, were considered pestilential in summer, so Nice, Cannes, and San Remo became winter retreats, drawing British and Russian visitors. Rough roads and political instability kept large numbers from coming to this region, ensuring its exclusivity for a wealthy clientele, at least until the arrival of the railway from Marseilles in the 1860s. Even though this stimulated growth, the Mediterranean coast remained a haven for the rich until the 1920s. Wealthy Parisians increasingly adopted the seaside resorts of the Norman coast, painted by the impressionists, and Adriatic and Amalfi resorts developed as well.

Improvements in transport were an important factor in resort growth. The building of a new road or railway could turn a small fishing village into a crowded coastal metropolis in summer. This often led to a change in the social fabric of resorts, as the wealthy, who had more time and money, would travel further afield in search of tranquility. For example, the British royal family abandoned Brighton in 1841, in part because the railway brought a new breed of bather in large numbers.

Royal patronage could ensure a resort's success or rediscovery. For example, the linking of the British royals to Brighton, the Spanish king and queen to San Sebastian, the king of Prussia to Swinemünde, and the empress Eugénie to Biarritz, boosted the public image of these towns, allowing them to draw on a wider potential visitor base than other resorts. Other promotional techniques included railway posters and cheap return Sunday fares (which catered to poorer bathers, who came in the thousands and became known in Britain as "day-trippers"), collectible postcard series, and locally sponsored guidebooks.

Newcomers attached therapeutic and moral values to an existing, communal work space, and their expectation of cleanliness, fresh air, uncluttered spaces, and "respectable" behavior changed the beach forever. This "reinvention" of the shore was not achieved without a struggle, however, for even if the morphology of the site satisfied the medical ideal (softly sloping fine sand and gentle waves), the continued occupation of the shore by fishing communities repairing their nets and touting for business, combined with the behavior of unruly day-trippers, tended to undermine the wished-for paradise.

World War I closed many resorts temporarily, with hotels converted to military hospitals, the shore a no-go zone, and leisure pursuits considered inappropriate, but with peace restored, seaside tourism resumed in unprecedented fashion, with the suntan and skimpier swimsuits appearing, and bathing for pleasure overtaking the medical model once and for all.

See alsoBourgeoisie; Leisure; Popular and Elite Culture; Railroads; Tourism.


Corbin, Alain. The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Sea in the Western World, 1750–1840. Translated by Jocelyn Phelps. Cambridge, U.K., 1994. A ground-breaking history of Europeans' changing attitudes toward the sea.

Garner, Alice. A Shifting Shore: Locals, Outsiders, and the Transformation of a French Fishing Town, 1823–2000. Ithaca, N.Y., 2005. An analysis of conflicting understandings of the seaside in a fishing community-turned-resort.

Herbert, Robert L. Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867–1886. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Towner, John. An Historical Geography of Recreation and Tourism in the Western World, 1540–1940. Chichester, U.K., 1996.

Urbain, Jean-Didier. At the Beach. Translated by Catherine Porter. Minneapolis, 2003. An innovative sociological study of the reinvention of the European beach over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Walton, John K. The English Seaside Resort: A Social History, 1750–1914. Leicester, U.K., 1983. Walton is a pioneer in the history of seaside resorts; see also his work on Spain.

——. "The Seaside Resorts of Western Europe, 1750–1939." In Recreation and the Sea, edited by Stephen Fisher. Exeter, U.K., 1997. A useful overview.

Alice Garner