Monday, December 21, 2009

Suntans in the 1920s & 30s

For reasons unknown to us, the idea prevails that beauties of the 1930s were always pale. We constantly hear claims that to be period-authentic, one must (there's that word again!) avoid the sun. This is revisionist history. We are certainly not implying that all 20s-30s women were tan, but it is likewise incorrect to suggest that the ultra-pale look favored by many vintage women today is the only authentic one.
A vogue for tanning began in the late 20s. It was smart to be tan in the summer - also in winter, when those who could afford to went skiing or to one of the new "winter playground" resorts that could now be comfortably reached by train or plane, or on a pleasure cruise. The international set flocked to the French Riviera, where according to legend, Coco Chanel "accidentally" got a tan while yachting and supposedly created a fad for bronzed, glowing skin. The 1929 ad for Marie Earle cosmetics asserts that "smart young things" created the suntan vogue in Palm Beach in 1927. It was also in 1927 that the Southern Pacific Railroad began running special excursion trains called "Suntan Specials" between the San Francisco Bay Area and the beach resort of Santa Cruz. Pictures of bronzed Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford poolside or at the beach helped popularize the trend. It has also been our observation that the use of parasols, in advertising and photos of bathing beauties, seems to decline after 1927. By the mid-1930s, a tan was such an expected part of a vacation to sunny climates that apparently no one would believe you'd actually been there if you didn't come back with one - Fred MacMurray goes under a sun lamp to fake a tan in 1935's Hands across the Table so his girlfriend won't know he missed his boat to Bermuda; similarly, in The Awful Truth (1937) Cary Grant gets the sunlamp treatment to convince his wife he'd been in Florida.
So, worshipping the sun was really a new thing in the late 20s. Just a few years earlier, a tan was something to be avoided, as in this 1924 ad for Tan-No-More, a product that prevented sunburn, tanning, and "all of the injuries from "sun, wind and dust." Most young women of the Art Deco era had probably grown up learning from their mothers and grandmothers to protect their skin from the sun, as in this 1912 ad for Ponds. It was true in their day, but the fashion had changed. Suntans were now not only fashionable and chic but a "healthy tan" was considered physically beneficial.
Sunscreens and Skin Care
1920s & 30s women were well aware of the sun's damaging and aging effects. Many products were developed during this time to prevent sunburning and moisturize skin before and after sunning. They were typically called "sun creams" or "sunburn creams." Some sources attribute the invention of sunblock to L'Oreal founder Eugene Schueller in 1936; others claim it was chemist Franz Greitter in 1938. We know that sunblocking creams were available before either date.

Elizabeth Arden introduced her "Sun Pruf Cream" in the summer of 1933. This ad, from 1934, claims that "burning and peeling have become unnecessary evils." Dorothy Gray advertised her suntan cream in 1936 as "the original burn control sun cream, famous for many years of repeated use at smart resorts." It promised to "control your tan without homely redness or painful burning." Lentheric sold a "sunplexion" cream to prevent sunburn in 1938. We can't vouch for the effectiveness of these products - merely note that their intent and purpose was to prevent sunburn. Sun Protection Factor (SPF) ratings were still a few decades off, but wearers could adjust the level of blockage they desired by applying either a thick or thin layer of cream. To protect the complexion from sun and wind damage, Frances Denny offered an astringent cream as early as 1932. The well-established complexion soap Palmolive touted its benefits for sun and wind damaged skin as well in this 1930s ad featuring the Dionne "Quins." There were also suntan oils and other products that were supposed to aid tanning. Elizabeth Arden's came in "delectable kidney-shaped bottles in costume colors for the beach" (need we say it - we want one of each). Another group of 1930s California women tried a "milk spray" said to protect the skin from burning and peeling while accelerating the tanning process. We'd like to ask: how'd that work out?

Make up
New products and shades of make up were developed to create a fake tan or better show off a coveted natural one. Our earlier manicure post discussed some nail polish shades created to compliment suntanned skin. There were also new lipsticks and powder. In 1929, Coty came out with Cotytan powder - the "perfect shade of summer chic," as well as a liquid powder that could be applied to faces, "slim bare legs and arms," shoulders and backs. It gave one a "glorious even tan that beats the sun at his own game - and livens you with a new exotic beauty, utterly thrilling. It's the newest vogue of the season." Marie Earle's Palm Beach salon offered "sunburned makeup" for a faux tan that left her patrons "with the look of radiant sun goddesses" and also claimed to ward off "every burning ray of sunlight." Not to be outdone, Dorothy Gray sold face powder in "Suntone" to "forecast or match your tan." as well as a smart lipstick in "Tawny" to accent one's suntan - "the perfect summer lipstick." Rival Elizabeth Arden had her Velva Beauty Cream to "make you appear tanned and chic... really a perfect, ready made tan - indispensible with shorts." It came in four shades: eggshell, dark, evening, and suntan (a "ruddy brown"). We tend to associate leg makeup only with the stocking shortages of WWII, but it began well before then.
For those who couldn't get away, there were always sun lamps. Besides providing fake tans (as well as fake alibis -Cary never does explain where he really spent all that time), sun/heat lamps were thought to have a health benefit and advertisers bragged about their "powerful Ultra-Violet rays." There is not a lot of scholarly research on the history of tanning; most information floating around seems to be largely anecdotal, and in many cases, erroneous. For further reading, try "Suntanning in 20th Century American" by Kerry Segrave. Cotytan, Tan-No-More, Dorothy Gray, Lentheric, Marie Earle, Elizabeth Arden and Frances Denny are from the fabulous , John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

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