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Divisions in 19th-Century Seaside Resorts

It is often claimed that socially constructed entities and the interactions behind them can be interpreted through spatial determinism. Under this prism, the seaside resorts are no exception. The dynamic and self-conflicting nature through time and space has served as a scope of social analysis regarding class and gender identity formation during the 19th century. Spatial parameters provided an important sense of community and means of exclusion of alleged "others". This essay will attempt to examine which factors contributed to the seaside landscape in Europe and America becoming a breeding ground for social tensions. These tensions shaped and were shaped by existing class and gender perceptions in a changing and increasingly competitive society. This essay will further analyse the geographical basis of social differentiation and the use of resorts' layouts to resolve social conflicts and contest class identities.

Figure 1: Brighton: The front, and the Chain Pier seen in the distance (Woledge, 1840)

Parameters that Led to Conflicting Attitudes

In the 19th century, the rising incomes, shorter working hours, and public transportation revolution triggered the working class's arrival to English and American seaside towns. This shift drew juxtapositions between conflicting classes, which became an instrumental part of the common currency of seaside life. The emerging distinctions in leisure cultures were a characteristic point of class difference. The shoreline served as an ideal landscape for the middle classes to self-improve in scientific and artistic aspects and indulge in mind-stimulating facilities (Zuelow, 2015). On the other hand, the working classes were seeking entertainment and boisterous fun. Under these circumstances, the seaside became "the object of social competitive consumption, as it was seen as a space for both natural beauty and access to amenities" (Walton, 2005, p. 71). As a result, those shared spaces brought contrasting ways of experiencing pleasure into contact and ignited cultural disagreement.

The portrayal of the working-class day-tripper in the media played a decisive role in how class allocation was formed. Despite the initial mild and approving commentary tone, well-known English newspapers were starting gradually to give voice to critical local seaside residents. These argued that the working-class excursionists repelled the respectable aristocrats and impinged upon their right to enjoy public space (Churchill, 2014). The journals also tended to highlight the rough, dangerous, immoral character of the excursionists, whose behaviour threatened the presence of better-off visitors. As fights between trippers made the main news column and reports of indecent bathing and drunkenness increased, the working-class visitors' stance was condemned and viewed as a social encumbrance (Churchill, 2014).

Figure 2: Beach at Coney Island (Carr, 1837-1908)

With the increasing working-class demand for seaside trips, certain notorious itinerant services and entertainment prospered. This further labelled excursionists as a source of social problems. Beach entertainers and entrepreneurs who plied their trade from the streets or had turned piers into moneymaking enterprises with opportunities to promenade and refreshment were highly criticised as they exacerbated the transformation of the orderly city into a chaotic popular resort. At the same time, drivers of cabs and donkeys were causing agitation among the upper-class inhabitants due to furious driving, obstruction and cruel animal treatment (Churchill, 2014). Local government, police and civilian agencies in negotiation with transport, entertainment and residential interests contributed to the urgent need for trader regulation, issuing fines for traffic offences and imposing regulations that forbade "nuisances", including pubs, stalls, and fairgrounds. However, a more reluctant approach to drunk working-class tourists was adopted in an indirect effort not to deter them from spending their money elsewhere (Churchill, 2014). Only those who had an economic interest in the trippers' presence, mainly the many shopkeepers in the town's tourist districts, aspired to cultivate tolerance as a shared sentiment and sustain local sympathy by stressing the excursionists' need to travel as a means of escape from their everyday plight.

The Role of Spatial Geography in Social Tensions

The spatial geography of the seaside resort was also a determinant factor in enhancing or diffusing social tensions. Beach resorts, where the space was narrow and tight, tended to become extremely crowded and suffocating at peak times. This stimulated a convergence of dissimilar leisure cultures, thus accentuating a certain amount of class conflict. On the contrary, long, straight beaches often allowed different classes to spread themselves out, working in favour of the very wealthy, who wanted little to do with either the middle or the working classes (Lewis, 1980). Since beaches could not be privatised in Britain, the sexes were separated into distinct bathing zones. Furthermore, strict nudity regulations along with expensive bathing regimes were imposed to protect the respectable classes from the workers' promiscuity.

In the Netherlands, as the bourgeois female wives and daughters entered the public sphere of recreation in a very restrictive manner, the outdoor spaces of the social mixture were limited without an accompanying male presence to avoid sexual embarrassment (Furnee, 2001). In America, however, the resort did not become a means of gender segregation since it both revolutionised and redefined traditional sex roles, as "the anonymity of the pier and the promenade allowed freedom in the mixing of the sexes in the beach and amusement parks" (Lewis, 1980, p. 50).

Figure 3: Victorian modesty standards, women fully clothed on an England beach (Vintage Everyday, 19th century)

The social composition of popular destinations, such as Southend, further attests to the rival ambience between classes. The elites were concentrated at one end and the poor at the other. As soon as the industrial working-class excursionists started to permeate the seafront, the international high society retreated to the western cliff top or crossed the channel to visit European destinations in France, Italy and Switzerland, in search of the security of exclusive social surroundings. After the young Queen Victoria turned her back on Brighton in the early 1840s, British seaside resorts were conspicuous by their lack of aristocratic or even fashionable patronage (Walton, 2005). In the Netherlands, however, the open and inclusive ambience in the recreational spaces of the terraces of Scheveningen, the Kurhaus and the Hague's Zoo "contributed to the reconstruction of class identities and challenged traditional bourgeois social relations" (Furnee, 2001, p. 215-216).

The United States, apart from the pervasive feelings of class bitterness, also encountered problems related to race and ethnicity, which resulted in an even less homogeneous population by the sea (Lewis, 1980). The black intrusions into the white bathing led to bloody riots in Chicago, a somewhat hypocritical condemnation of the dark skin colour one could consider, since tanning was growing fashionable. The British seaside was supposedly democratised in terms of accessibility. However, one could claim the presence of a rather disguised policy in favour of the aristocracy, as tickets for the shorelines were only available short term. At the same time, workers' confinement at weekends was obligatory. The promoters of Atlantic City also claimed it to be "a thoroughly democratic place, with no caste prejudice", where social homogeneity was "no uncommon sight" in this seaside melting pot (Lewis, 1980, p. 47). As the working-class invasion of the seaside intensified in the late 19th century, the desire for spatial subdivision of the seaside resort became immediate. This became prominent because piers charged tolls and had behaviour regulations, while certain marine promenades also excluded impoverished visitors. Some resorts even allocated certain low-quality areas close to railway stations to working-class visitors, which would become appropriate spaces for tolerating their socially unaccepted behaviour (Lewis, 1980).

Figure 4: Segregated seashore in the USA (George Grantham Bain Collection, 1871)


Taking all the above into consideration, it can be said that 19th-century seaside resorts were intertwined with the construction and contestation of various intersecting axes of identity. This essay exposed the turbulent growth of tourism in seaside resorts and its social consequences in class and gender identity formation. It further aspired to shed light on how the emergence and consolidation of spatial arrangements minimised conflicts through governmental policy and authority regulations. In Europe, the restricted presence of women in seaside resorts and the conservative separation of the sexes into distinct bathing zones manifested an effort to protect the respectable classes from the workers' immorality. In contrast, in the USA, the resort resisted gender division, given the reconceptualisation of sex roles. Even if classism in European and American seaside resorts was a long-lasting denominator, in the USA, colourism became an additional parameter that extended the seaside resort chasm.

Bibliographical References

Churchill, D. (2014). Living in a leisure town: Residential reactions to the growth of popular tourism in Southend, 1870-1890. Urban History, 41 (01), 42-61. DOI: 10.1017/S0963926812000740

Furnee, J. H. (2001). Bourgeois strategies of distinction. Leisure culture and the transformation of urban space: The Hague, 1850-1890. Identities in space. Contested terrains in the western city since 1800, pp. 204-227.

Lewis, R. (1980). Seaside holiday resorts in the United States and Britain: a review. Urban History Yearbook, [7], 44–52.

Walton, J. K. (2005). Urban space, public pleasure and cultural conflict: The seaside resort in England c. 1840-1939. Presses Universitaires Francois Rabelais.

Zuelow, E. (2015). A history of modern tourism. Red globe press.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Anny Polyzogopoulou

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