I prefer Lerner’s version to Churchill’s History is written by the victors. Opinions will survive as long as the group that holds them, and such a group may disappear for reasons besides defeat through conflict. Often, the group is temporary by nature.
Remember this when reading about how the sunshine movement eradicated rickets and tuberculosis—the two long-running epidemics of the Western world. This is a history written by those who kept making their case long after others had lost interest. To quote a Sailerism: History is written by those who write … and write … and write.
Here is how the sunshine movement is usually presented:
In the nineteenth century, different physicians advocated ‘heliotherapy’ as a means to treat rickets and kill the microbes that cause tuberculosis. They were ignored, except by a few nudists and health faddists. Then, two events broke the barrier to public acceptance. One was the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which showed the need for strong measures to keep microbes from spreading. The other, in 1919, was the discovery that ultraviolet light can cure rickets by releasing a chemical into the bloodstream, later identified as vitamin D. Heliotherapy thus gained in popularity and by the late 1920s sunbathing had become widespread. Meanwhile, tuberculosis and rickets steadily declined until both virtually disappeared.
This narrative leaves out a key detail. The sunshine movement had little effect on the prevalence of either tuberculosis or rickets. Through the 1920s and 1930s, there was only a gradual decline in the incidence of tuberculosis, as part of a downward trend that began in the nineteenth century and that probably was due to stricter segregation of tubercular patients in hospitals and sanatoria. Steep decline began later—after the Second World War (Wilson, 1990). Much of the credit goes to the discovery of antimicrobial drugs like isoniazid, rifampicin, and streptomycin. Just as important was the overall rise in the standard of living, particularly among urban workers. As the population became better nourished and as overcrowded tenements gave way to suburban homes, microbes could not spread so easily to weakened hosts.
Nor was rickets much affected. In Dundee, Scotland, its incidence among children held steady from 1925 to 1935 and then dropped abruptly, apparently after the introduction of a ‘milk in schools’ scheme in 1934 and then greater provision of free meals to needy children. This drop preceded vitamin D fortification of milk and infant cereals (Stewart et al., 1964). In the United States, rickets was deemed as late as 1940 to be “still probably the most common disease of early childhood” (Harrison, 1966). In Sweden, it still afflicted most fetuses and newborns during the early 1950s (Sydow et al., 1956).
By this time, many medical researchers had concluded that the cause could not be lack of sun. A Swedish autopsy study found that rickets in fetuses and newborns showed no significant correlation with the mother’s vitamin D status during pregnancy, as indicated by her consumption of vitamin D supplements or by her degree of sun exposure, i.e., daily walks in the sun, outdoor work, summer holiday in the country, and latitude within Sweden (Sydow et al., 1956). For several research teams, the cause seemed to be substances in commercial bread, like phytic acid, that immobilize calcium and phosphorus within the body (Bruce & Callow, 1934; Harrison & Mellanby, 1939; McCance et al., 1942; McCance & Widdowson, 1942). But fewer and fewer researchers were now interested. Like tuberculosis, rickets too went into a steep decline after the war, eventually becoming a medical oddity by the 1960s (Harrison, 1966).
Meanwhile, interest had been growing in the sunshine movement. It now extended far beyond the medical community, being influential in the fashion industry, the arts and literature, architecture, and the movie industry. It had become a cultural phenomenon, and one that would create much of the look and feel of modern life.
Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel is usually credited with making suntans popular among women. Certainly, in the late 1920s she was the one who added tanned skin to a new androgynous look, la garçonne, that featured long legs, a flat chest, narrow hips, and large shoulders, like a young boy on the brink of puberty (Andrieu, 2008, p. 73; Bard, 1998; Galante, 1972; Wilson, 1985).
But Coco Chanel simply boarded a bus that was already on the road. As early as 1926, a Connecticut radio station announced: “a coat of tan seems to be the latest style in natural coloring at this season of the year. [It has] been increasing in favor during the last few years” (Nickerson, 1926). Female tanning became fashionable through women acting on their own initiative. Others then saw the market opportunities:
Cosmetics manufacturers took notice of the new acceptability of nonwhite skin and began to produce darker powders, as well as artificial bronzing lotions. By 1929, Jean Patou and Coco Chanel had introduced suntan products, and Helena Rubenstein was selling “Valaze Gypsy Tan Foundation.” Other cosmetics manufacturers were blending powders to be “creamy,” rather than white, and producing “ochre,” “dark rachel,” and “suntan” shades. (Berry, 2000, p. 188)
During this time, skin whiteners became less popular.
Golden Peacock Bleach Cream and other facial bleaches, which were advertised regularly in women’s magazines until the late 1920s, appeared only rarely after the early 1930s, although skin lighteners were still marketed to the African American community. (Berry, 2000, p. 188)
The same trend swept through women’s magazines. By the end of the 1920s, Vogue was telling its readers that “The 1929 girl must be tanned” and “A golden tan is the index of chic” (Vogue, 1929). In the early 1930s, however, these magazines were periodically predicting the end of the suntan fad (Berry, 2000, p. 188). Just as fashion leaders had failed to anticipate this fad, they also misjudged its staying power.
Arts and literature
In the mid-1920s, the sunshine movement spread to artists and literati through multiple points of entry. A key one was the French Riviera (Ash, 1974; Weigtman, 1970).
Among the fashionable, “heliophobia” soon gave way to “heliophilia.” The scene of this minor revolution was the French Riviera—specifically the beach of La Garoupe at Cap d’Antibes—and its chief ideologist was Gerald Murphy [an ex-pat American artist].
… It was the Americans—Cole Porter and the Murphys—who first “discovered” the Riviera as a summer resort. The Murphys began to clear La Garoupe of its layer of seaweed and persuaded the proprietor of the Hotel du Cap to remain open during the summer months … The cultivators of the simple, the connoisseurs of the primitive, formed a new elite comprised of Americans, artists and the more unconventional members of the aristocracy. Among others, the Hemingways, the Fitzgeralds, the Picassos, the Legers and the Count and Countess Etienne de Beaumont, all joined the Murphys at Cap d’Antibes in the summer. It was this elite, with some assistance from Coco Chanel, that raised the suntan to the level of higher fashion. (Ash, 1974)
Andrieu (2008, p. 73) and Weigtman (1970) describe how French writers of the 1920s placed favorable references to tanned skin in their works, associating it with lead characters and positive qualities. Similar placement appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Miss Jordan Baker has "sun-strained eyes," a "slender golden arm," a "brown hand," a "golden shoulder," and a "face the same brown tint as the fingerless glove on her knee” (Fitzgerald, 1992, pp. 15, 47, 57, 84, 185).
The sunshine movement brought a new urban landscape by moving buildings further back from the street, limiting their height, and spacing them further apart. Windows also became bigger and more numerous. Meanwhile, modernist architects looked to tuberculosis sanatoria and ocean liners to make their creations more open to the sun and air. They introduced such features as the flat roof, the balcony, and the roof or garden terrace “on which elegant Jazz age young women, dressed in patio-pyjamas, could sunbathe on chaises longues” (Campbell, 2005).
These signatures of modernism marked the design of public housing and, especially, schools, whose population was thought to be most at risk for tuberculosis and rickets:
By the late 1920s, the therapeutic qualities of sunlight were widely recognised, and its use was extended in sunshine schools and open-air clinics to the more general treatment of sickly, TB-prone and crippled children, many of them drawn from the slums. Progressive schools like Bedales early encouraged sunbathing; St Christopher School, Letchworth, installed vita glass; and pictures of Pinehurst School show the children running about naked. (Twigg, 1981)
In general, traditional architecture was seen not simply as old-fashioned but as unhealthy. This gave a revolutionary urgency to the thinking of modernists, like the Swiss architect Le Corbusier:
But when it comes to a question of demolishing rotten old houses full of tuberculosis and demoralizing, you hear them cry, “What about the iron-work, what about the beautiful old wrought-iron work.” (Campbell, 2005)
Such demolition was considered necessary to build a healthier society. “Sunlight stood for the new society of light”:
Houses in the garden cities were oriented towards the sun. Architecture in the interwar years pursued light to an almost obsessive degree. It came to be the emblem of a cluster of reforms in the 1920s aimed at making Britain a better, healthier, cleaner place to live.
… Just as the antiseptic qualities of sunlight had been observed through its action on mouldy, damp objects, so the sunlight for this post-Victorian generation could be made to shine on the dank, rotten and hidden aspects of the Victorian world. (The thirties saw the full flood of anti-Victorianism) This could mean the slum houses and sick children, but it also, very frequently, meant sexuality. (Twigg, 1981)
The tanned look entered the movie industry via individual actors and actresses, notably Joan Crawford:
Joan Crawford was credited for spreading the trend among Hollywood flappers—in addition to tanning her face, Crawford browned her body and went stockingless …
(Berry, 2000, p. 188)
She was reportedly told by MGM to stop tanning because it made her look “like a lineal descendent of Sheba.” The movie industry, however, soon realized there was a market for dark skin as an item of sexual interest. The 1930s thus saw a spate of Hollywood films featuring Latin lovers, Arab sheikhs, and South Seas beauties (Berry, 2000, pp. 110-111).
No one fully understood this phenomenon. Described as a quest for the exotic, one might doubt the exoticism of stars and starlets who were just a darker version of the European phenotype. Nonetheless, through productions like South Pacific (1949), this faux interracialism would help pave the way for the real thing after the war.
Perhaps white Americans were motivated to sexualize dark skin by a ‘rare color effect’ such as exists with differing shades of hair color. The rarer brunettes are, the more they excite sexual interest in men (Anon, 2008; Thelen, 1983). Or perhaps the motivation lay at another level of male sexual response. If women evolved a lighter complexion and other paedomorphic features as a way to inhibit male aggression and stimulate feelings of care, a darker skin tone could exert sex appeal on a more aggressive and less empathetic level (Frost, 2007; Guthrie, 1970).
Social conformity and status competition
Cultural change involves not only leaders but also followers. As more and more people sported tans, the new look tended to spread simply through social conformity and status competition:
The appearance of medical articles that begin to deal with tanning as not directly related to a “cure” shows that the acquisition of the suntan, at least among certain sections of society, was already desirable. In addition the change toward a more positive view of the suntan was to articulate well with other social changes taking place, particularly as related to travel, in the early twentieth century. The idea of health travel was established, with many invalids seeking the sun cure in sanatoria. However, the wealthy invalid was able to travel further — to locations where they could be assured of receiving sunlight, such as the Swiss Alps or the Mediterranean. (Carter & Michael, 2003, p. 269)
The cosmetic aspects of a suntan were not originally much to the fore; during the 1920s tanning was regarded as only a side effect and not spoken of with special favour. By the 1930s, however, the naturist magazines were praising the look of bronzed skin. The fashion spread beyond these circles, to the cosmopolitan and wealthy. By the 1930s the Riviera season had reversed from being winter to summer. The seaside, from being a place for bathing and for sea air became somewhere for taking off your clothes and lying in the sun; the resorts began to publish their sunshine figures; and by the mid 1930s the major cosmetic houses were producing suntan creams. A suntan became associated with youth, health and vigour, qualities that the thirties found particularly attractive sexually. (Twigg, 1981)
During the 1930s, the popularity of suntanning and nudity reached a peak, intellectual and social benefits were said to accrue from sun-exposure, and it was felt to be “imperative” for the successful executive to be tanned, as this indicated “superior physique, intelligence, and moral character.” (Koblenzer, 1998)
The sunshine movement was able to impose its world view—and its version of history—by winning over the creators of modern culture: artists, writers, actors, architects, and fashion designers. This victory, if we can use the term, was achieved not in the narrow realm of medical debate but in the larger one of cultural production. In truth, there was no victory because there was no battle. The ‘other side’ lost interest in explaining the tuberculosis and rickets epidemics once these had subsided. They moved on to other things.
The ‘victors’ had an unforeseen ally: a sensual, if not sexual, fascination with dark skin. By arming young men and women with a medical alibi, the sunshine movement unwittingly opened up a dimension of sexual attraction that had lain unexploited. There had, in fact, been a taboo against sexualizing dark skin, partly because of the racial connotations and partly because dark complexions among white Americans had traditionally been viewed as unfeminine for women and as hypermasculine for men.
Another ally, widespread in the twentieth century, was a belief in change and in the urgency of change. It is probably no coincidence that many sunshine advocates, like the architect Le Corbusier, saw themselves as radicals. The movement likewise had more success in pushing its agenda in the Eastern bloc, as seen in the mass relocation of working families to modernist housing projects, in State-sponsored vacations at Black Sea resorts, and in the DDR’s mass administration of vitamin D megadoses to children.
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