Before the general public began to understand the health dangers of sunlight overexposure, a fair number of white Americans devoted much time and effort to acquiring a “perfect tan.” The suntan craze began in the mid-1920s, as outdoor recreation became more popular among middle-class Americans. Marketers also promoted the practice—once convinced that suntanning was not just a fad—with products designed to assist the quest to be tan. The following 1949 editorial from the popular magazine Collier’s offers a tongue-in-cheek critique of tanning, calling attention to peer group pressures of social conformity and competitiveness inherent in tanning rituals. Absent from the piece is any consideration of the racial aspects of such a practice, centered on darkening the color of one’s skin, and performed, as it was, in a multiethnic, but white-dominated society.
As the vacation season approaches its peak, this department has been thinking about the number of man-hours that must be expended each summer in cultivating the short-term tan.
We watch the boys and girls from this office take off for a well-earned holiday in the open. We know that others are doing the same thing in thousands of offices, stores and factories all over the country. And we are sure that most of them will devote a good portion of their holiday to a patient, perspiring effort to roast themselves to as rich a mahogany brown as time, weather and pigmentation will permit. We wonder if it’s really worth it.
Getting a tan in a couple of weeks—less travel time and cloudy days—is quite a feat. The vacationer must immobilize himself (or herself) for hours on end. He must take precautions against a painful, incapacitating burn. At best, he must endure such minor mortifications as oppressive heat and persistent insects.
Time was when all this discomfort was not a social necessity. A coat of tan was once the badge of the outdoor workingman, and snobbery neither admired nor coveted it. You don’t have to be ancient to remember the days when ladies carried parasols, and little country girls wore sunbonnets and submitted to buttermilk baths to ward off sunburn and freckles.
Then, the coat of tan appeared at the other end of the economic ladder as a symbol of opulence and leisure—even as the off-season or Miami Beach tan is today. Its wearer stood out as a person who could afford to spend his summer days in or on the water, at the tennis club or on the golf course. But now, everybody seems to feel obliged to acquire a tan, even if he has to spend most of a short vacation doing it. It’s not a question of deception.
The short-term tanner doesn’t try to pass himself off as one of the idle rich. Even though exposure to sun and fresh air may be beneficial, he doesn’t pretend that ten days of it is going to keep him healthy for the next 50 weeks. In short, the short-termer’s sun bathing is rather a matter of ritual than of reason.
If there is any reward for all this effort, it comes when his vacation is over. He and other office tanners compare their color as if they were comparing golf scores or a day’s catch of fish. And the one whose shade happens to be the darkest is likely to be a little hard to live and work with for a few days.
It’s no more of an accomplishment for a person to turn brown in the sun than it is for a roast to turn brown in the oven. But you’d think, from the way some short-term tanners act, that a toasted epidermis was a mark of superior physique, intelligence and moral character.
Incidentally, the author of this complaint doesn’t tan. Dammit, he just burns and peels.
Source: "Sun-tan Addicts," Collier’s, 6 August 1949, 74.