In August 1891, just three months after it was founded, the magazine ‘Blanco y Negro’ already included its first story about the tradition of Spanish families going to the beach. The headline was ‘Pleasure Trips’, but the article nonetheless showed an ‘out of control’ mother complaining about the upheaval caused by this old habit: ‘Shall we start yet? You can’t go anywhere with these guys. God knows that if it weren’t for your father, who needs the wave baths, I would stay in Madrid this summer. Jesus, what a sentence of children!».
This scene was very common throughout the 20th century, especially from the 1960s, when the Spanish got used to seeing, every August, thousands of cars stuck on the roads on their way to the coast, loaded with junk in what seemed like a pilgrimage to see the Virgin of Lourdes. But the conquest of the beaches was not an easy process in our country. It took us centuries for summer baths to become a habit within everyone’s reach.
El Sardinero, in Santander, was the first beach that the Spaniards came to from the inland provinces to dive. This is how she described it ‘Medical Gazette’, on July 20, 1849: «On the shore there is a beautiful cast-iron pavilion elegantly arranged to receive the people who, every half an hour, drive the buses from the city and vice versa. There are also two different wooden houses with several independent rooms. These houses are a little distant from each other and one is intended for ladies and the other for gentlemen, also having lunches and snacks in them».
Still in those moments, the only ones who could travel to the coast were the members of the nobility and the wealthiest bourgeoisie. It must not be forgotten that, when this fashion began in Spain, the railway had not even been implemented and families had to travel by diligence. Since almost no one knew how to swim, some of the most popular and luxurious beaches installed a kind of anchor tied to a rope for bathers to hold onto in the water. Furthermore, if someone got loose, there was nothing to worry about, since there was a boat with trained personnel to rescue them.
A few decades before, however, the normal thing was that the beaches were completely empty. For centuries the sea was despised and feared in equal parts. There were no children playing in the sand, no young men swimming in the sea, no lovely ladies and gentlemen trying to tan. Nothing at all. The beaches were deserts by the sea that the Spanish had to conquer little by little. The first ones who dared, in fact, got into the water dressed and to treat all kinds of diseases. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that bathers began to change street clothes for swimsuits weighing up to three kilos.
That stigmatization of bathing on the beach occurred in the Middle Ages, in a kind of historical involution that would have surprised the inhabitants of Ancient Rome, accustomed as they were to dive into the coast in order to heal wounds, exercise and even having sexual encounters. This last and controversial practice was the one that caused the most conservative medieval and modern authorities to prohibit it for centuries.
El Sardinero beach in the summer of 1922 ABC
“I have no money”
In 1892, the playwright Manuel Matoses included in his ‘Memories of a bather’, also published in ‘Blanco y Negro’, the following conversation of a married couple in which the woman, «as soon as May arrives», begins to tell her her husband:
—Celedonio, you have to think about the summer expedition.
-Nothing nothing! You already know that the summer that I am not going to bathe I get pimples as soon as October appears.
—But woman, isn’t it preferable to have pimples come out than to have them stay inside?
—It’s that by tempering the blood they don’t stay inside and they don’t come out.
“Besides, I don’t have money.
—That’s why I’m telling you ahead of time, so you can save money.
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