The history of the sun tan is a chequered one, to say the least.
In the West, up to around 90 years ago, pale skin was very much the fashion, because it suggested wealth and a life of ease. The possessor of a porcelain complexion was not someone who needed to work outside in all weathers, becoming weather-beaten and catching the sun. People went to great extremes to avoid tanning, covering up and using parasols to shade themselves.
All that changed dramatically in the early 1920s – the story goes that fashion designer Coco Chanel accidentally got sunburned on a trip to the French Riviera, and such was her influence, the look quickly became fashionable. The sun tan had arrived, and with it, machines such as our exhibit from the Scarborough Collections this week – the Vi-Tan, an ‘ultra-violet home tanning unit’ made by the Thermal Syndicate Ltd of Wallsend, Northumberland.
This rather handsome but Heath Robinson-esque piece of kit dates from around 1939, and is a precursor to the modern day tanning bed. Its name, though, suggests health as well as cosmetic benefits – vitality – and it was marketed as a therapeutic instrument: the marketing slogan was ‘Plug into Sunshine’, and a ‘regular light bath [to] keep you always fit and well’ was recomm- ended.
Contemporary adverts tell us it cost £15 (including goggles). That was a huge amount in wartime Britain when the average wage was around £6 a week. Recent statistics suggest that the average weekly wage in the UK now is just over £500, so we’re looking at the equivalent of around £1250 – a health aid for the wealthy, then. Was it worth it? One ad, headlined ‘Vi-Tan keeps me fit in winter’ tells us:
“Now, more than any other winter, we need the active ultra-violet rays of the Vi-Tan to maintain that marvellous feeling of holiday health. All of us are working under war-time conditions and natural daylight is greatly restricted. The Vi-Tan Ultra-Violet Home Unit brings you all the benefits of seaside sunshine and builds up resistance to winter ills. You can use it anywhere in your home; costs less to run than a 60 watt bulb.”
The Vi-Tan machine is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years. If you have an enquiry or would like access to the Collections please contact Karen Snowden, Head of Collections on 01723 384506, or Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org