ABIGAIL ADAMS continues her letter to her sister Mary Cranch describing the trip she and her husband took to the West Country of England in 1787. In Southampton Abigail took a dip. During the 1780s bathing in the sea began to be considered healthful.
“Machines,” such as the one illustrated, allowed a woman to change into her bathing costume and slip into the sea in a protected environment away from prying eyes. It is not clear whether Abigail used one of these but it does sound like it. The woman who assisted the bather was called a “dipper.”
Proceeding to Weymouth, Abigail was distressed by the poverty she witnessed and the inability of the ordinary folk to better themselves given the circumstances in which they lived. She was proud that in America, in addition to its other advantages, it was relatively easy to acquire property.
From Winchester we proceeded to Southampton, which is a very pretty seaport town, and much frequented during the summer months as a bathingplace; and here, for the first time in my life, I tried the experiment. It would be delightful in our warm weather, as well as very salubrious, if such conveniences were erected in Boston, Braintree, and Weymouth, which they might be, with little expense. The places are under cover. You have a woman for a guide, a small dressing-room to yourself, an oil-cloth cap, a flannel gown, and socks for the feet.
We tarried only two days at Southampton, and went ten miles out of our way in order to visit Weymouth, merely for its name. This, like my native town, is a hilly country, a small seaport, with very little business, and wholly supported by the resort of company during the summer months. For those persons, who have not country-houses of their own, resort to the watering-places, as they are called, during the summer months, it being too vulgar and unfashionable to remain in London. But where the object of one is health, that of fifty is pleasure, however far they fall short of the object.
This whole town is the property of a widow lady. Houses are built by the tenants, and taken at liferents, which, upon the decease of the lessees, revert back again to the owner of the soil. Thus is the landed property of this country vested in lordships and in the hands of the rich altogether. The peasantry are but slaves to the lord, notwithstanding the mighty boast they make of liberty. Sixpence and sevenpence per day is the usual wages given to laborers, who are to feed themselves out of the pittance. In travelling through a country, fertile as the garden of Eden, loaded with a golden harvest, plenty smiling on every side, one would imagine that the voice of Poverty was rarely heard, and that she was seldom seen, but in the abodes of indolence or vice. But it is far otherwise. The money earned by the sweat of the brow must go to feed the pampered lord and fatten the greedy bishop, whilst the miserable, shattered, thatched-roof cottage crumbles to the dust for want of repair. To hundreds and hundreds of these abodes have I been a witness in my late journey. The cheering rays of the sun are totally excluded, unless they find admittance through the decayed roof, equally exposed to cold and the inclement season. A few rags for a bed and a jointstool comprise the chief of their furniture, whilst their own appearance is more wretched than one can well conceive. During the season of hay and harvest, men, women, and children are to be seen laboring in the fields: but, as this is a very small part of the year, the little they then acquire is soon expended; and how they keep soul and body together the remainder of the year is very hard to tell. It must be owing to this very unequal distribution of property, that the poor-rate is become such an intolerable burden. The inhabitants are very thinly scattered through the country, though large towns are well peopled.
To reside in and near London, and to judge of the country from what one sees here, would be forming a very erroneous opinion. How little cause of complaint have the inhabitants of the United States, when they compare their situation, not with despotic monarchies, but with this land of freedom ! The ease with which honest industry may acquire property in America, the equal distribution of justice to the poor as well as the rich, and the personal liberty they enjoy, all, all call upon them to support their government and laws, to respect their rulers, and gratefully acknowledge their superior blessings. . . .