‘Sunburn’ – a new historical project.

Eleonore_Noll-Hasenclever,_etwa_1910How do historians think up their next project? For some, this is a political question, a desire to contribute to contemporary debates and policy; for others it is borne of a deepening intellectual engagement with their existing work, a more fundamental question to ask of the same topics and for some (and there is nothing wrong with this) it’s an accident of research or chance meeting that decides a future trajectory.

I’m sure that there are more,
but those three summarise the path I have trodden since it became apparent that I wanted to move away from histories of outdoor leisure. I knew that I wanted to contribute to debates about humans and the environment of which they are a part, and that I wanted to do so in ways that brought together a cultural history of human behaviour and its meanings with those of science and environmental understanding. Yet it still took a story to jump out at me and point to a direction.  This is that story.

Sometime around 1900, Eleanore Noll, a young German woman studying at a private girl’s school in Lausanne, Switzerland, got a visit from her mother. Noll was not there, but friends at the school told her mother to go to the famous Swiss Alpine village of Zermatt. There, on the train station platform, the two met – Eleanore, according to the story, was stood there, dressed in men’s trousers, smoking a cigarre, her face tanned brown. As explanation all she could offer was the answer – ‘Mother – I’ve become a mountaineer!’.

The story goes that Eleanore could not be persuaded to quit – and her mother instead convinced her to stop smoking in return for funding basic equipment. Within a few years, Eleanor Noll became an expert mountaineer, and as the image tells us, not afraid to challenge the gendered norms of the period in clothing or marriage. In 1909 we find her walking up to a difficult ridge traverse after taking the Montenvers train up the hillside from Chamonix. On the way her own group – composed of her male mountaineering friends – met another. ‘French women’ she later wrote, ‘wrapped in flowing veils, balanced along the narrow path carved in the rock on high white stillettos. And what for all the squealing! The poor guides were full of panic. And the way in which they looked down on us – black-burnt people, whose clothes told much from struggles with wind and weather, with rock and ice. And then we heard one exclaim in French “my god, it’s a woman!”, the other “But no, it’s an Englishman with his three guides”. There we were up there, my climbing partners as mountain guides, and me as an Englishman.’

For the women Noll met – un-emancipated from their clothes, assumptions and, implicitly at least, from marriage (think about the veil…) – it was unimaginable that a woman in the Alps could be tanned – the colour of Noll’s skin was at least as important a gender marker as her clothes. For Noll, however, her brown face was a symbol of her mountaineering expertise; evidence for long periods in the high mountains, without the protection of a veil.

What I think Noll recorded here was the cusp of a significant social and cultural change in attitudes to the skin’s reaction to ultraviolet light, a change which had profound consequences – good and bad – for tourism, coastal environments, medicine, health and even environmentalism. Where in the Victorian era even seaside goers covered themselves in clothes and shade from umbrellas in order to preserve a pale complexion, just one decade after Noll began mountaineering, sunbathing became an integral part of a seaside holiday across Europe.

This history has normally been interpreted as a cultural change associated with skin aesthetics and new cultures of the body in the early-twentieth century. Yet it was also a change in the ways in which a large group of humans (mainly in America and Europe) chose to interact with the environments in which they lived. At the same time as these new cultures of sunlight were emerging in the Alps (the first popular sun-cream, Gletschersalbe, or ‘glacier-cream’, was for mountaineers rather than sunbathers), ‘photogenic’ or ‘chemical’ light had been rapidly put in medical applications that recognised its sterilising impact. ‘Sunshine cures’, developing out of ‘fresh air’ and spa health resorts, emerged in the Alps after 1903, and in 1900, the London Hospital had a ‘light department’, treating bacterial infections and the rashes that often accompany Lupus through the use of treated sunlight and artificial ultraviolet. In the emerging ‘biopolitics’ of the interwar period, such health cures were rapidly picked up by a whole variety of life-reform movements, especially in England and Germany.  Sunbathing took on a spiritual element most famously visualised in the Lichtgebet, or sun-worship image produced by Fidus – the adopted name of the painter Hugo Höppener – which was reproduced by the million and became a central symbol of the 1920s German youth movement. Given the prevalence of rickets in almost all European populations in the early-twentieth century, associations of sunlight with youthfulness and strength had some basis in lived experience – those exposed to sunlight genuinely had stronger bones.

The meanings of ultraviolet in these movements were, as these images suggest, twofold. On the one hand, the practices and results of ultraviolet exposure were experienced as forms of emancipation – naked bathing, popular in Germany in the 1920s, in particular, held meanings of freedom we can detect in the quote from Noll – from conservative dress codes, from the sexual politics that covering genitals was thought to entail, and of youthful strength and beauty. Brown skin – and a full body tan – could thus be appreciated as a symbol of freedom. Yet exposure to ultraviolet also held meanings of purification and cleanliness that were easily adopted and reinterpreted by racially motivated movements – the ability of ultraviolet to purify and sanitise bodies, as well as make them strong, was an integral part of campaign by both the ‘beauty of labour’ and ‘strength through joy’ organisations to racially and physically cleanse Germany’s manual workers; how similar cultures played out, for instance, on America’s segregated beaches remains to be seen.

But a history of ultraviolet opens up so many other issues, too: significant roles in popular culture from alternative dance to an imagination of forensic investigation, in medicine from vitamin D production to skin cancer and (limited) sterilization, and from the banality of plastic deterioration to ozone fears and ultraviolet diplomacy, this most visible of the electromagnetic spectrum’s invisible frequencies has operated at the join between ‘culture’ and ‘environment’ since the late nineteenth century and deserves a history.