We spend our vacations at the beach, sunbathing, playing and rarely wondering what a seaside holiday would have been like a hundred or so years ago.
Recently a Swiss friend handed me a diary that her great aunt had written in 1860. In her impeccable gothic script, 14-year old Ada keeps track of her experiences at the Dutch seaside resort of Scheveningen.
Like many vacationers in the 1980s, she and her older sister Helen took walks along the beach, collected seashells, and went to evening concerts at the promenade. But unlike modern vacationers, they arranged their lives around a single event -- the daily dip in the ocean. At that time, bathing was an elaborate and hazardous undertaking to be indulged in only under the auspices of the stern resort physician Dr. Mess and the burly bathing attendant Marie: Wednesday, July 4, 1860
Today we bathed in the sea for the first time . . . We took our oil-cloth caps and bath towels and crossed the sand on wooden planks until we reached a small booth. There we received our bath tickets and proceeded to the beach proper. Papa, who had swum in the ocean before, went to the section for gentlemen on the other side. We handed our tickets to Marie, the bath attendant (she understands but does not speak German), whereupon she assigned us a cart for going to the water.
These carts are pulled by horses and have a seat for the driver in the front. The sidewalls are made of cloth, and in back, steps lead to a small entrance door. Inside, one finds a rather small bench and a mirror above it. On both sides is a small window covered by red-and-white curtains. On one side is a shelf for chemisettes, sleeves, etc.
Meanwhile the horse had been harnessed and the driver banged a stick against the wall. This meant that we should hold tight because we were leaving. Finally the cart stopped in the ocean, and Marie (the bath attendant) asked whether we were coming. We weren't ready yet. The doctor had suggested that we swim without our underwear, so I felt a little embarrassed in front of the woman. However that proved to be unnecessary because all she sees the entire day is people in the nude.
She gave me her hand to hold on to and led me to the water where, with my free hand, I seized an iron pole. I had hardly had time to look around when a wave rolled over my head, water entering nose and ears. I was gasping for breath when a second wave broke . . . into my mouth. "Down!" called the attendant and pressed down my head.
We had been told to stay in the water for three minutes, but of course the bath attendant didn't have a watch along and therefore didn't know the time. I could have stayed in forever it was so wonderful. Thursday, July 5
Helen did not feel quite well and was not allowed to bathe . . . Mama and I undressed so quickly that, this time, we had to wait for the bath attendant. She had to attend to several carts before us. It is really annoying to have only so few attendants here, only two or three women to take care of all the bathers. What makes it worse is that the proper bath time for most people is between 11 and 1 o'clock. Monday, July 9
Today the waves were very strong . . . I never wear a bathing cap except for Sundays or when I have to go out right after the bath. Usually I let my hair get wet, then tie a towel around my head and let my hair hang out the bottom. To be sure, my hair turns red and gets very coarse from this, but the doctor says that the water is good for our hair. It is supposed to strengthen it. It is beyond me why anyone would rather have red hair that is a little too thin. Wednesday, July 11
For a while we had been complaining that often after the bath we felt hot and flushed. Yesterday Helen developed a real fever after her bath. She did not have to stay in bed, but she was very excited and hot, as if she were on fire. The doctor forbade her to bathe today.
So I bathed alone with Mama. To my joyful surprise, Marie led me away from the cart into the open sea. I followed her partly walking, partly swimming, partly creeping along the bottom. Thursday, July 12
Today I was not allowed to bathe. I was furious with Dr. Mess, assuming he did not let me go into the water because he had found out that I enjoyed my bath so much yesterday. Friday, July 14
Ada reports an accident that proves the dangers of
knowing how to swim -- especially for women.
The victim was a female who knew how to swim. Because the only bathing accidents anyone could remember had happened to swimmers, she was seriously warned to refrain from swimming. She had promised to do so and so far had kept her promise. But today some children on the beach had asked her to swim. She forgot her promise and went swimming. Suddenly -- it seems she was only partly swimming -- she noticed that the water got deeper and was so frightened that she lost her nerve and could not turn around. She had gone off a so- called sand bank, where the sea suddenly becomes as deep as a high house. They quickly brought in a horse, but the water was much too deep. Then they threw in a lifeline which the woman was able to grab. But as soon as she was safe she fainted. Tuesday, July 17
Today Helen and I bathed at seven o'clock in the morning, which is really much more pleasant than bathing later. At 11 o'clock, the beach is lined with idle gentlemen who watch the bathers. Even though one is in the water up to the neck, it is still unpleasant to feel oneself watched. Wednesday, July 18
The headmistress of the school here told us today that her husband was the lifeguard who saved the drowning woman. To show her gratitude, she gave him 30 gulden and she blushed when she did it. The headmistress also told us that her uncle had drowned in the sea. Friday, July 20
I had never noticed before: At the booth where one buys the bath tickets there are three sections -- one for gentlemen who want a cart all to the themselves, one for gentlemen who share a cart, and one for ladies.
This was my 13th and -- I believe -- last bath. In the afternoon we had a violent downpour which flooded the patio. In the evening I had a terrible toothache. Dr. Mess forbade me to bathe. Thursday, July 26
When Helen stepped out of the bathing cart, she said to Marie, "How dirty the water is today!" "That's true," replied Marie, "but that's especially healthy. It makes you strong."
All bathing attendants wear blue wool skirts and white cotton scarves tied around their bodies. The skirts bulge at the top but then come down straight and limp -- as if they were wearing a crinoline upside down.
Four days later, Ada's stay at the beach ends, and
she nostalgically describes her last view:
"The small, light-gray waves forever rippling -- like a candy chestnut wreath on a beautiful layer cake."