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A Survey of the Most Ridiculous Anti-Drowning Devices of the 1800s

Victorian life preservers invited both drowning and mockery.

Mermaids at Brighton swim behind their bathing machines in this engraving by William Heath, c. 1829. (Photo: Public Domain)

Over the course of the 19th century, as seaside holidays became more popular in Europe, North America, and Australia, beachgoers began to understand why previous humans had spent thousands of years avoiding the ocean. New swimmers grew wary of the dangers they knew were waiting for them while suspended over deep waters, particularly the most obvious one: drowning.

So industrious Victorian inventors set to work, and imagined some interesting life-preserving solutions to the problem at hand. Many of their efforts were as complex as they were perplexing.

Although life-jackets are ubiquitous today, the materials they use had not been invented yet, so swimmers and sailors had to strap on preservers that were far more elaborate.

G.B. Shepherd’s 1897 patent for a life-preserver, which “will be non-collapsible and will contain enough air to give it sufficient buoyancy”. (Photo: Google Patents US 616439 A)

Consider, for example, the life-preserver as envisioned by George B Shepherd in 1897. The construction is fairly baffling, with “a series of hoops…preferably four in number, and connected to each other by a series of folding and locking braces” joined by leather. This clever device also sports a breathing tube, and the person using it can sit comfortably while waiting for help, theoretically. 

Materials in the 1800s were under-qualified for the task of creating a light, portable device a that would keep a grown human afloat; there were rubbers and fabrics, but no airtight plastic as we have today. Victorian inventors had to get creative.

Drawing of Diving Dress, 1810. (Photo: National Archives/RG 241)

Cork was a popular choice, though many cork-based life savers were larger than we’d consider wearing today, like P. Plant’s Cork Swimming Suit from 1882, which was described as “an improved swimming suit or jacket, made to fit and cover the body.” Diving dresses, the precursor to modern diving suits, got more ambitious in the Victorian era than they’d ever been before, adding metal rings, vests, and breathing tubes, as with one patent from 1837.

Many life-preserving inventions were made for fisherman and other seafarers, whose occupations had long been considered high-risk, even deadly. In the 1849 book Echoes from the Backwoods: Or, Scenes of Transatlantic Life, Sir Richard George Augustus Levinge writes:

“It happened one evening that the conversation turned upon the best thing to be done in case of a man’s falling overboard. “Nearly all the party had witnessed such accidents; each had seen a different remedy tried…every sort of patent anti-drowning contrivance discussed—but, as usual, no two agreed. On one point, however, they all did agree, which was, how rarely a man is ever saved.”


A “swimming apparatus” patent from 1881, “having between the pockets for the limbs a web portion, which acts like wings or fins, which, from the movement of the legs and arms, effect a propulsion through the water.” (Photo: Google Patents US 243834 A)

Inventors, however, carried on. William Beesom’s swimming device came as a detachable suit with wings, which let the swimmer glide effortlessly across the water and avoid drowning in the waves. An issue of Practical Magazine from 1875 admits “It is not generally known how little [buoyancy] is needed to keep a person afloat in sea water,” but goes on to describe several cork-vests and belts, including one invention by Lieutenant Kisbee, “introduced under the curious name of jfietlicoat breeches.”

His device was to be used with a “life rocket,” that would fling passengers off of a sinking ship like a slingshot. It included “a pair of canvas breeches kept open at the top by a circular life-buoy or ring of cork. It is hauled over from the shore to the ship. A man gets into it, his legs hanging below the breeches, and his arm-pits resting on the buoy.”

A drawing of “swimming stockings” in action. (Photo: Public Domain)

The swimming stocking, an earlier invention from 1851, wasLight, portable, easy of application” according to Mechanic’s Magazine, but “resembles, in fact, a small umbrella around the leg.” The idea is that you could wear a pair of stockings, which were made of wood, fabric and rope, under your clothes like socks and use them “in the moment of need.”  

To use swimming stockings most effectively, the wearer had to make sure to swim on their back and kick each leg alternately straight out; then, “the leg ought to be held steady for an instant after being drawn up” in order to take advantage of its use. The magazine article then recommends swimming 50 to 60 strokes per minute. There were limits, though: “With a pair of these stockings a person may swim in summer weather a mile for pleasure, and several miles if for his life.”  

A drawing of the ‘Wearable Lifeboat’. (Photo: National Archives/RG 241)

Designs for the Wearable Lifeboat, meanwhile, resembled nothing so much as a bucket-shaped diaper, that humans were meant to waddle around in, along with goods they wanted to keep dry.

Patented in 1837 by John Macintosh, it was intended “for the conveyance of troops, baggage, and other articles across rivers” and of course for life-preserving itself. The design uses canvas coated in rubber for the body of the personal lifeboat, and attached booties for the user to wear. “Air chambers” would keep a would-be swimmer afloat, while “Oars, or paddles, may be used to give a direction to such vessels.” 

A patent for a life-vest that could be conveniently stored in a coat pocket. (Photo: Google Patents US 650976 A)

But what if you were strolling by the water, fell in, and suddenly found yourself in dire circumstances without your large, cork-filed suit or wearable boat? In 1840, Samuel W. White had a fashionable solution: just put your life preserver in your hat. In his patent document he announces “new and useful Improvements in Preventing Persons from Being Drowned.”

When drawn out with a ribbon or cord, the hat’s waterproof lining creates an air pocket that can hold its unfortunate wearer above the water. Others, like Henry O. Lavery in 1899, committed to safe seaside fashion using hidden life-vests that could be activated when needed, and otherwise neatly stored away in a coat pocket.  

A patent drawing from 1882 of a cork swimsuit. (Photo: National Archives/6277687)

Of course, people all over the world in the 1800s were aware of the ridiculous nature of some swimming products. For one reason or another, many of these patents did not become widely used devices, though perhaps they should have—during WWI some recruits apparently wore mattresses, at least once, as cumbersome life preservers. In 1928, the inflatable life preserver was invented, changing the game of swimming safety.

Swimming grew in popularity, as did modern life vests, making more intricate inventions a bit less necessary, though we’re still looking for cuter, newer ways to avoid drowning. Next time you take a swim in your own, less-cumbersome swimsuit, or use a life-jacket, remember the efforts of those early safety pioneers, and all their zany, ingenious methods of keeping people afloat.