A Brief History of the Seaside Holiday | DW Travel | DW | 18.08.2016
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A Brief History of the Seaside Holiday

These days, millions take seaside holidays for granted as one of life's pleasures. But 200 years ago, a dip in the sea was more a test of courage. Hardly anyone could swim.

Deutschland Nordseebad Norderney Photochrom um 1900

Men's beach on Norderney around 1900

As late as the 18th century, many Europeans still thought of the sea as the realm of Satan: storm-tossed and inhabited by terrifying monsters. "Unlike the mountains, the coasts were terra incognita as a holiday spot," says Manfred Bätje, director of the Bade-Museum on the North Sea island of Norderney. Anyone who set foot in the water was "stepping into the unknown".

Brighton showed the way

That only began to change after the British aristocracy discovered the healing power of salt water. As early as 1780, Brighton, England's biggest and oldest seaside resort, was a bustling spa. Philosopher and physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) of Göttingen gave Germans the starting signal with his 1793 essay "Why doesn't Germany have any large public seaside resorts?" In it, he called for the creation of a resort in Cuxhaven on the North Sea. He received support from the most notable German physician of the time, the Prussian king's court physician, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland.

Heiligendamm Badehaus und Salon Badekultur

Heiligendamm, copper engraving around 1840

But things turned out somewhat differently. Germany's first seaside resort was indeed built in September, 1793, but in Heiligendamm on the Baltic Sea. Four years later, permission was granted for construction of Germany's first resort on the North Sea, on Norderney. "For the first bathing season on July and August of 1800, only around 250 guests turned up. Now, the nearly 6000 residents host a good 530,000 bathers annually, plus around 230,000 day-trippers," Bätje reels off the figures.

Romanticist inspiration

In the 19th century, the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, such as his famous Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818), gave seaside holidays added impetus. From then on, the sea was no longer a voracious beast. From the shore, the cultivated, modern European contemplated the vast melancholy of the deep. "The calm sea became an embodiment of unspecified yearning, the waves an expression of vitality and dynamism," soliloquizes museum director Bätje.

Flash Galerie Schmalspurbahn Bäderbahn Molli

Molli the resort train has run between Heiligendamm and Bad Doberan since 1896

But the journey to the sea long remained an arduous, time-consuming one. It took the mail coach a good thirty hours to cover the distance from Hamburg to the North Frisian town of Aurich over bumpy, muddy roads.

The express cab from Bremen only took about 16 hours to reach the East Frisian town of Norden - including six changes of horses along the way. "It wasn't comfortable," explains Bätje. Not until the introduction of seaside tourist steamers out of Hamburg and Bremen to the islands and the expansion of the railways did the journey become easier.

Deutschland Nordseebad Norderney / Plakat 1892

Bathing dresses for women

Strict bathing rules

At first, it was primarily the well-to-do bourgeois and nobility who were able to afford a seaside holiday. Victorian-era society is known for its extreme prudishness, and the beach was not exempt. Bathing machines were essentially changing cabins on wheels that could be rolled into the surf.

The sexes were kept strictly separated. Wet swimsuits could not be allowed to cling, thus revealing the body's contours. Women sported baggy flannel garments with bloomers underneath that swiftly became waterlogged to where the bather was risking her life.

Hardly anyone really knew how to swim anyway. "Most bathers wouldn't stay in the water any more than two minutes, often just seconds at a time. The English had a rule: 'Three dips and out'," quips archivist Manfred Bätje, whose Bade-Museum is housed in a building for a former wave pool, just a few steps from Norderney's Weststrand, where, during the summer months, vacationers sunbathe in wicker beach chairs and on blankets, cooled by a salty sea breeze.

Sunbathing first came in style early in the 20th century, and the first true swimsuits were produced in the United States. "Starting in 1919, today's bathing culture gradually began to take shape," Bätje looks back. At the same time, ideals of beauty were in flux - such as the attitude towards tan skin, which had long been regarded as a mark of farmers and manual laborers. Bätje: "People were still cultivating their genteel pallors."

Geschichte des Badeanzugs Seebad Ostsee

Starting in the 1920s, swimwear became the norm

Water, Waves, Wellness

Today, the sun worshipers are the devout masses, and seaside holidays are their pilgrimages. The North Sea resorts alone count some 12.9 million overnight stays annually. Health is once again a primary concern: sea air, sea water, sea salts and the algaes and mud used in thalassotherapies and cosmetic treatments. "It's much like in the beginning," Bätje concludes. For over 200 years later, the holiday-makers have been coming to enjoy the fresh sea air and the healthy bracing climate.

Dieter Sell (epd)