Summer may be over and Winter approaching here in New Zealand, and many people will be lamenting the impending loss of their tan. But it wasn’t so long ago that being in the sunshine was something to be avoided.
Before the 1900s a tan was a stigma – the working classes had tans from their long hours of labour in the sunshine, so being pale was thought to indicate wealth, refinement and beauty. The fashions depicted in artworks and advertisements show full length trousers, skirts and sleeves, and even swimwear and sportswear covered most of the skin.
On top of this, women dared not leave the house without a wide-brimmed hat and parasol to shield the sun’s rays. Rudimentary sun screens were available, consisting of petroleum jelly mixed with magnesium, zinc oxide or bismuth, which coated the skin and prevented sun burn and freckles. If colour did start to show they could purchase one of the many bleaching creams or powders designed to whiten skin.
During the 1890s medical studies discovered that sunlight killed the Tubercle bacillus (TB) and prevented microorganisms from growing, and a lack of sunlight caused Rickets Disease. The sun became a provider of health. UV radiation, otherwise known as sunbathing, became a treatment for many conditions including lupus, anaemia, Hodgkin’s disease, renal failure, syphilis and septic wounds.
In 1910 medical journal The Lancet published the statement, “the face browned by the sun is regarded as an index of health”. Having a tan was no longer a social stigma, and by 1930 was publicly regarded as healthy. Mothers were told to put their children in the sunshine every day to keep their bones and teeth strong. UV radiation lamps were used in hospitals to decrease blood pressure, increase appetite, and promote wellbeing. Models for the home soon followed.
Alongside this, society changed. Work hours were reduced and people had more time to experience the outdoor leisure centres that were being built. Fashions were shortening and more skin was being exposed to the sun, particularly in leisurewear. Hats and parasols became unwanted trappings of the past.
The Industrial Revolution led to changes in many work environments, from outdoor to indoor. The working classes grew pale, while having a tan indicated having money and leisure to travel. The desire to tan was increased with fashionistas like Coco Chanel declaring “a golden tan is the index of chic”.
But it wasn’t all fun in the sun. As early as 1894, dermatologists noticed that those who worked outside were more likely to develop skin cancers, especially on areas that saw the sun frequently such as hands, faces and necks.
The term “sun cancer” was first coined in 1933 but the initial causal links were largely ignored by the wider medical community and the public. In the 1940s a link between tanning, sunburn and skin cancer was confirmed and the name “melanoma” became commonplace. Knowing UV radiation was dangerous helped to improve sunscreens, but the desire to be tanned and beautiful was stronger. Between 1930 and 1970 the rates of melanoma over the world increased 300-400%.
In New Zealand around 4,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year, and around 300 will die from it. We have the highest incidence of melanoma in the world.
So enjoy the sun, but be safe and remember your hats, sunscreens and parasols.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.