Like so many things, the beach vacation actually rose to popularity in Britain late in the 18th century and spread through the world from there. (This isn’t to say people avoided the beach entirely before then, but vacationing at the beach wasn’t a cultural phenomenon.) Its origins were tied up with how industrialization was remaking Britain at the time, as well as in popular contemporary medical theories that now sound bizarre.
As Daniela Blei writes in an excellent essay for Smithsonian.com, earlier periods in history contained 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 dangerous wilderness; it was where shipwrecks and natural disasters occurred,” Blei writes.
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. It causes the Great Deluge and appears in Genesis as a “great abyss.”
The Roman poets and philosophers Horace, Ovid and Seneca detested the ocean as an “unsociable” force that kept men apart, Corbin says. In Shakespeare’s plays, the sea appears in the form of tempests, chaotic journeys and shipwrecks.
By the 1600s and 1700s, however, the sea began to appear in French poetry in a more flattering light, Corbin says. By the 17th century, Dutch seascape paintings began bringing tourists to seaside towns to look upon the same vistas the painter had observed.
But a deep cultural appreciation of the benefits of being at the beach really started in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, largely because of medical prescriptions at the time. Many contemporary doctors believed that bathing in cold sea waves was beneficial for conditions they called “melancholy” and “spleen” – an excess of black bile that made people introverted, depressed, cautious or moody.
The malady stemmed from the idea of the four humors, a basic medical theory that dated back to Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks. Robert Burton, the English scholar who wrote the 1621 tome “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” described melancholy as one of man’s chief maladies, a sickness of the soul as well as the body that was associated with the spleen.
Burton’s strategy to combat melancholy was not exactly beach vacations – he believed those with melancholy should stick to dry places – but his theories did eventually lead to the tradition of seaside vacations, Corbin says. Burton believed the best remedy for melancholy was a change in one’s environment; he recommended traveling, a varied landscape and an overlook of the horizon.
Over the next two centuries, Burton's prescriptions inspired other doctors to recommend that their patients head for 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, and scholarly treatises proliferated on the very best beaches for a variety of maladies.
British women often relied on bathing attendants, who would help them with the correct timing and method of bathing, including which part of their body would make contact with the waves, writes Corbin.
“The ‘bathers’ would plunge female patients into the water just as the wave broke, taking care to hold their heads down so as to increase the impression of suffocation,” Corbin writes. Like tempering steel, these periodic cold baths were seen as a method of toughening up patients, including young girls who were thought to be dangerously pale.
Antoine Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen in 1778 led to a flourishing of popular theories about the health benefits of sea air, which was thought to be more oxygenated and more pure, said Corbin.
At the same time, of course, the water and air in British cities was getting grungier. Factories were springing up around Britain, the first country to industrialize. Tourism and industrialization went hand in hand, giving people both the desire and the ability – in terms of money and transport methods – to get away from it all.
Visiting the seaside gradually became a kind of competitive activity among Britain’s 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 through the elite. In Jane Austen’s "Emma," for example, published in 1815, the main character's hypochondriac father endlessly debates the health benefits of Britain's various beaches with his upper-class friends.
From there, the habit spread down the social ladder. Railroads built through Britain in the early 19th century made a trip to the ocean affordable even for the lower classes. By the late 1800s, Blackpool had become the world's first seaside resort for working class people, writes John Walton of the University of Central Lancashire.
“[B]y 1840, the beach meant something new to Europeans. It had become a place of human consumption; a sought-after 'escape' from the city and the drudgery of modern life,” Blei writes.
Like so many things at the time, the seaside vacation became one of Britain’s cultural exports, spreading both by word of mouth and through expatriate Britons. By the early 19th century, seaside resorts were springing up in Normandy, southwestern France, northern Germany and Scandinavia, says Walton. By the late 19th century, they had spread to America – first to the New England coast, then gradually to the Mid-Atlantic and the South.
By the 1960s, the airplane package tour had become the rage, leading to the decline of old beach towns like Brighton and Coney Island. But for those who wish to go there, a dip in the sea will still likely be a good remedy for melancholy.