American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light
by Daniel Freund
The University of Chicago Press
A few years ago, a friend told me her doctor wanted to test her for a deficiency of vitamin D because recent studies had shown that most North Americans have too little of it. Not long before that conversation, we had crouched in scrubby shade on a cliff in New Mexico, forearms extended, comparing the damage that years of living under the desert sun had done to our pale northern European skin. We could only laugh at her doctor’s eagerness to get on the vitamin D bandwagon even as skin cancer rates skyrocket. To understand the reasons behind these contradictory anxieties, you would do well to pick up a copy of Daniel Freund’s American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light. This slim history surveys the centrality of sunshine to an array of social reform and public health efforts in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s, with a quick glance at the present day.
According to Freund, until recently Americans have mainly worried about a lack of access to natural light. This may come as a surprise to readers who remember Ma reminding Laura Ingalls to wear a bonnet so she wouldn’t turn brown like an Indian, but the author’s focus is on city dwellers, not whites settling the country’s western frontier. New York City reformers in particular grew anxious about people not getting enough sun in the 1840s, when cities began to grow upward and workers streamed out of fields and into factories. Housing reformers in particular feared the effects that rapidly rising shoulder-to-shoulder tenements and office buildings would have on city dwellers. When people lived in grimy darkness without access to sunlight, reformers believed, sin and disease flourished. Perhaps more influentially, landlords noticed their rental income plunging every time the building next door overtopped its neighbors and cast them into darkness. So they lobbied for requiring windows in every room, building setbacks, and zoning plans separating residential from business areas.
But the progress of science, Freund reports, soon showed the limits of the “more windows” approach. All types of light are not born equal, and some kinds have greater health benefits than others, specifically the wavelengths then called “actinic” and today “ultraviolet.” By the 1920s, scientists figured out that it was this part of sunshine that catalyzed the formation of a mysterious substance in the body that enabled it to absorb and deploy calcium and phosphorus to make strong bones. Too little of this substance—eventually dubbed vitamin D—produced rickets, a disease in which growing children had bones so soft they deformed under the weight of the body.
Unfortunately, reformers argued, the conditions of urban industrial life at the turn of the twentieth century prevented many people from getting enough ultraviolet light: working and living indoors, air pollution, and ordinary glass all blocked these wavelengths. More windows were no solution. With the discovery of vitamin D and the coincident spread of electrical power, a new phase of reform began, one in which technical fixes like special ultraviolet-admitting glass and carefully calibrated sun lamps replaced efforts to build healthier buildings and cityscapes. If industrialization—and the vagaries of the weather—were obscuring the sun, new technology would guarantee better, more reliable delivery of the wavelengths critical for human health, at least to those who could afford it.
Increasingly, Freund shows, access to sunshine became a medical issue more than a moral one. As scientists and physicians learned more about sunshine and how it affects human health, they asserted more control over it. The finding that sunshine can kill bacteria—especially those that cause tuberculosis, a leading cause of death among adults in the early twentieth century—encouraged the spread of sanitariums in which sunbathing was a major form of therapy, first in Europe and later in the United States. Because light, people, and diseases vary, doctors insisted that they had to be in charge of light therapy.
But nonspecialists met that assertion with an enthusiasm for sunbathing that far exceeded medical prescriptions. In the 1920s, exposing oneself and, more importantly, one’s children to sunshine became the solution not just to disease but to all forms of bodily debility and mental weariness. This was particularly true for whites, Freund notes, because they believed that as the most civilized of races, they had lost the interaction with nature necessary to keep their bodies strong. Lying in the sun would restore this interaction and therefore cure whites’ racial debility and strengthen their grip on power. As a result of such ideas, a whole new type of clothing designed for sunbathing came to be offered to the majority who balked at nudism.
By the 1930s, for many whites having a tan was a sign of health and beauty, and sunny states like California and Florida profited from the new fashion. (Editor’s note: This topic and the racial and sexual aspects of the tanning fad are covered in greater detail in the reviewer’s Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas, to be published in spring 2013.) At the same time, food manufacturers raced to take advantage of new techniques for synthesizing vitamin D and adding it to their products, especially milk. Freund concludes that the goal by the mid-twentieth century was not to modify the human landscape to ensure access to nature, as in the 1840s; it was to improve on nature to better serve human needs.
Interesting and readable, Freund’s study nevertheless has its limits. It relies heavily on urban reform journals and public health records from New York City and Chicago, following a path well worn among US historians. The occasional references to San Antonio and other provincial cities suggest that the story of Americans’ efforts to harness sunlight might be more regionally variable than this book admits. Los Angeles is only the most successful of the southwestern and western cities to advertise its sunny climate and low-rise sprawl as an antidote to the cold, sooty canyons of eastern metropolises. Similarly, some acknowledgment that the majority of Americans lived in small towns and rural areas throughout the period of this study would help put the urban reformers’ fears in context.
Freund also neglects the racial and gendered aspects of the call for more light. He spends only a few pages discussing the fact that white women were the primary target of much vitamin-D mongering, as well as the advertisements for revealing clothing and bathing suits, suntan lotions, and related cosmetics. Completely absent are Americans whose skin is innately dark, even though they suffered disproportionately from rickets in urban areas and after 1900 often protested the segregation of municipal beaches and pools. American racism frequently turned on allegations that dark-skinned people, especially women, were excessively sexual, and this prejudice permeated the discussion of tanning in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly for white women.
Also noted but not explored is the shift in focus from poor people, the intended beneficiary of mid-nineteenth-century reforms, to middle-class and wealthy people once the provision of light became a medical technology. Indeed, my chief frustration with the book is its brevity—a mere 216 pages including the endnotes and index. Most of the topics Freund raises would benefit from a more leisurely and nuanced examination.
By the 1960s, doctors had begun urging us to fear sunlight rather than seek it out. These days, tubes of sunblock crowd drugstore shelves, and lawmakers are taxing and regulating tanning salons in the name of public health. Yet the tan remains a sign of sexiness and vitality for whites, especially women, and we’ve discovered seasonal affective disorder and ubiquitous vitamin D deficiencies. To explain these contradictory trends, Freund argues that we continue to fear both nature and our loss of connection with it, and to try to restore—or replace—that connection with ever more sophisticated technologies. But some of us, like my friend who was tested for D deficiency, take the dog out for a long walk every day, rain, sun, or snow (she lives in the Northeast now), and call it good.
A few years ago, a friend told me her doctor wanted to test her for a deficiency of vitamin D because recent studies had shown that most North Americans have too little of it.