Costa da Caparica Beach
Costa da Caparica Beach

The origins of “going to the beach”

Everyone reading this knows that Portugal is home to some of the best beaches in Europe and is one of the main reasons millions of tourists visit the country each year.

Most of the tourists that visit are from Spain, yet the United Kingdom comes in a close second. The British are also the second-largest nationality to permanently move to Portugal after the Brazilians, which is why it should come as no surprise that it was actually the British who first propagated the idea of beach holidays or “going to the beach” in the modern cultural sense.

The modern embrace of beaches for health, recreation and enjoyment dates back to the mid-18th century. Nevertheless, humans have always been attracted to the coast and found beauty in beaches just as we do today.

Evolution is the main reason we find nature and landscapes so alluring and aesthetically pleasing. We are attracted to places abundant in water, flora and fauna because our ancestors were attracted to these places, which provided them with food, water and shelter. We are ultimately descendants of people who survived living among the most beautiful and healthy ecosystems.

When humans first emerged from the forest of Africa and gradually began to inhabit every corner of the world, they stuck close to rivers and beaches rich with fish, clams and crabs, packed with omega-3 fatty acids which helped develop and advance the human brain.

Woman in bathing suit (1893)
Woman in bathing suit (1893)

The openness of wide beaches also provides us with a sense of calm and relaxation, for open spaces used to provide a sense of safety for our ancestors who had to worry about hidden threats. Even in Roman times, wealthy people built large villas in beautiful locations and spent their free time on the coast.

Essentially, people have been swimming and visiting beaches all throughout history. However, they were not always considered a place for tourists and beach holidays were not the cultural phenomenon they are today.

In classical mythology, the wrath of the Ocean is a recurring theme, and stories of shipwrecks, sea creatures and natural disasters stirred fear in the popular imagination. There were also pirates, crusaders, looters, colonisers and other threats that regularly came ashore and beaches were overall a symbol of the unknown. Furthermore, in medieval and more modern eras, undressing to go for a swim would have been seen as immodest.

By the 17th century, poets and landscape artists had started depicting the sea in a more flattering light, which in turn began attracting tourists to seaside towns to look upon the same places depicted in the art they admired. However, it was ultimately in England, in the mid-18th century, where the modern beach phenomenon began.

During the Industrial Revolution, elites started to become preoccupied with their health and wellbeing. The upper class had become weak and feeble compared to the rest of the population who were gaining strength through physical labour. This is when the term “restorative sea” was born, and doctors believed that bathing in the cold sea would invigorate and cure several health conditions. The wealthy, therefore, began to see the beach as a way to exercise and experience the outdoors.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the Prince Regent, later King George IV, visited Brighton after being advised that bathing in the sea could help cure his gout. In the decades that followed, Brighton became a seaside resort and an escape from the city for the upper-class of London.

By the mid-19th century, railroads built across Britain offered cheap fares to seaside resort towns that were becoming popular across Britain. At this time, Blackpool became the world’s first seaside resort for the working class.

Even though beaches had become a cultural phenomenon, most of the time spent at the beach wasn’t actually spent on the beach but on large boardwalks and piers filled with attractions and activities. Swimming was not considered a family activity and it was still considered immodest to swim in the presence of the opposite sex in public.

Frederick William Woledge - Brighton, the front and the chain pier seen in the distance (1840)
Frederick William Woledge – Brighton, the front and the chain pier seen in the distance (1840)

The very first swimsuits covered most of people’s bodies and still they were considered immodest. Many of the beaches were equipped with bathing machines, which were roofed and walled wooden carts where people would change into swimwear and then transported down to the sea. However, even with these machines, women were still often frowned upon for swimming, married women in particular.

During the beginning of the 20th century, the rolling bathing machines began to diminish and people swimming together became more acceptable. The 1912 Olympics, held in Stockholm, helped public swimming become more acceptable and it was the first time women were allowed to compete in a swimming competition.

Over the decades, mainland Europe was instrumental in a more relaxed attitude towards public swimming and swimwear, which then spread to Britain and the United States. Then, in 1946, the first bikini was introduced in France by designer Jacques Heim and first modelled by Micheline Bernardini.

Throughout the mid-1950s, mainland Europe started to embrace the bikini, in spite of the Pope’s efforts to label bikinis and other swimwear as sinful. As the church continued to lose influence, people’s views and social norms became more liberal and films also began to feature more men and women together at the beach. Once again, French designers also introduced one-piece and shorter swimwear for men.

By the 1960s, airplane package holidays were already becoming increasingly popular. A cultural phenomenon that started in small old beach towns like Brighton had now spread to the rest of the world and today Portugal serves millions of tourists each year, who come to enjoy the country’s picturesque and sandy beaches.

Lastly, the colour blue is associated with feelings of calm and peace and staring at the ocean can actually change our brain waves’ frequency. The vitamin D and serotonin we receive from the sunlight also boosts our mood and helps us feel calm. These feelings, paired with the advantages of coastal environments that have left a deep imprint on our brains by our ancestors, are why we enjoy the beach so much.

By Jay Costa Owen

|| [email protected]
Jay works for a private charter airline, and is also a UX designer and aspiring author who enjoys learning about history and other cultures