Once upon a time, achieving the perfect tan involved basking outdoors with a paperback and a sheet of aluminum foil. But towing the line between a healthy glow and a blistering sunburn proved more challenging than expected. The further paleness fell out of vogue, the more interested we became in products and devices that could brown our skin without burning it to a crisp.
Nowadays, those of us without adequate sun exposure can visit tanning salons to attain a glowing complexion, but those living in decades past had to practice a little more creativity. Now that we’re in the last month of summer, we thought we’d pay homage to the sunny days of yore by collecting some of the most enterprising suntanning technologies from our archives.
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During the summer of 1938 sunbathers at Willow Lake, CA, spritzed actual milk on themselves to expedite the process of tanning. At the beach, women would stand in front of a motor-driven atomizer to receive a spray of the concoction. Supposedly, it could prevent sunburn, but like sunblock, it probably just made them smell a little funky.
That same month, we wrote about a rotating tent that would permit sunbathers to follow the sun’s movements. 1938 was a magical year for tanning: in the fall, we learned of a ski lift-inspired tramway that would transport individuals up a sunny hilltop.
Technology became a little more sophisticated, and closer to what we know, during the 1940s. Recognizing the benefits of moderate sunlight, inventors developed sun lamps for use in restaurants, waiting rooms, and hairdressing salons. While the idea never really took off, we can see the appeal of getting bronzed on the go.
Click through our gallery to learn about the tanning drugs, the coin-operated tanning lamp, and more gadgets designed for a sake of a glowing complexion.
Milk Spray: May 1938
These days, beach-goers use coconut oil to achieve a tan, but milk spray was briefly hailed in the 1930s as a sun bather’s best friend. Developed in Glendale, CA, milk spray machines used motor-driven atomizers to spritz people with a sheer coat of solution. Supposedly, milk would prevent sunburn while helping beach-goers toast themselves to the perfect shade of brown. Read the full story in “Milk Spray Aids Sun Tan”
Rotating “Sun Tub”: May 1938
Don’t you hate finding the perfect spot for tanning, only to have a tree cast its shadow over you after a mere half hour? Most of us are resigned to finding a new spot, but sun bathers in the summer of 1938 (also known as the summer of milk spray), could use a rotating tent to follow the sun’s movements. Using it was as simple as turning a built-in steering wheel while lying down on the cot. At the same time, we can’t imagine that the tent’s ease of use could justify the trouble of packing and dismantling 150 pounds of canvas and wood after each trip. Read the full story in “Rotating Shelter Aids Sun Bathers”
Tramway: October 1938
There’s nothing quite like sunning on a breezy hilltop during a summer’s day. Inspired by ski lifts, a Swiss hotel proprietor built an aerial tramway that would bring sun bathers from a lake to a sunbathing lawn 250 feet up a mountainside. While the machine’s cable umbrellas look a little unsafe, we can only assume that their scenic destination was was worth the precarious journey. Read the full story in “Tramway Carries Bathers Up Hill”
Artificial Sunshine: January 1946
While this image might resemble a tanning salon, a closer look at the details reveals that it actually depicts the inside of a hospital. The early 20th century saw the popularity of using ultraviolet light to treat a variety of conditions, including polio. While tanning sounds like a superficial endeavor, its association with physical health was a serious matter during that period of history. The so-called sunshine ceiling, which was designed for hospitals and botanical research centers, used six different types of lamps to replicate the effect of a pleasant day at the beach. To do this, researchers installed 423 lamps that could stay on for 24 hours a day. Arranging the lights needed a little strategic engineering, however, as the heat they generated would normally be rather uncomfortable. In the end, fluorescent lamps and sunlamps were installed on the curved side of the ceiling, while the other lamps (including those containing mercury) were placed behind a glass pane that had water continually running over it. The addition of electric fans also helped distribute the heat mitigated by the thousands of gallons of water running down the glass skylight. In terms of getting a tan, real sunshine would work more effectively than this brightly-lit room, but it’s not as if everyone has access to a rooftop, beachfront, or open lawn. Read the full story in “Man-Made Sunshine”
Suntan Meter: September 1949
It’s not always easy to tow the line between a delicious tan and a horrific sunburn. To help sun bathers estimate the time needed to reach the perfect shade of brown, General Electric engineer Hoyt S. Scott developed a machine that calculate sun exposure. His sun-tan meter was made of four basic parts: photocells, filters, and a projector. During use, the suntan meter would project the image of a dial onto a screen. Each increment on the dial represented one “minimum perceptible erythema”; in other words, the minimum amount of visible sunburn. Details on Scott’s invention are scarce, but evidently, the photocells and filters would work together to determine how long you would have to bask in the sun to gain one erythema. Read the full story in “‘Tan’ Meter Times Sunbaths”
Coin-Operated Tanning Lamp: May 1950
In 1950, General Electric released yet another tanning-related invention: a coin-operated lamp that could toast your face while you waited at the doctor’s office, at restaurants, and even at railroad stations. After inserting a coin into the device, you would pull a steel tape to determine the proper distance between your face and the lamp. A small heat lamp next to the sun lamp would quicken the process by making you sweat a little. A timer would alert you when your session was finished, and if all went well, you would walk out of your venue sporting a healthy new glow. Read the full story in “Coin Lamp Tans as You Wait”
Take a Drug, Get a Tan: July 1956
Unlicensed tanning drugs are constantly abused by customers who obtain them from the black market. While substances like Melanotan have undergone clinical trials, researchers have yet to determine their long-term effects. Believe it or not, attempts to legally distribute tanning drugs have gone on for several decades. In 1956, we mused on the possibility of using 8-MOP, a drug for treating vitiligo and psoriasis, for leisurely purposes. Why couldn’t a substance that darkened white splotches darken people who were pale all over? Prior to the publication of this article, researchers had conducted three strictly-controlled mass trials for the product. One of them took place in the Arizona State Prison, where volunteers were paid $5 a day to lie in the sun after taking 8-MOP. (The results of the experiment are shown on the left.) Researchers were not only impressed by how quickly their test subjects tanned, leading experts to consider using the drug to prevent skin cancer. Read the full story in “Take a Powder: Get a Suntan”
Slot Machine Sunshine: August 1960
Like the coin-operated tanning machine, this English invention was designed for public venues: drug stores, hairdressing salons, and the like. The device, named Solarota, was invented by a physiotherapist named James Morgan. Think of it as a space heater that emits ultraviolet light. After dropping a coin into the machine, you would step onto an attached turntable that would revolve every couple of minutes to facilitate an even burn. Read the full story in “Slot Machine Sunshine”
DIY Structure for Sunbathing: February 1970
Kenneth Isaacs, the Popular Science design consultant with a penchant for geometric DIY projects built his sunbathing bowl after contemplating dodecahedra (we’re not joking — he says so in the article). This structure is easy to build and even easier to enjoy. All it takes is plywood, aluminum foil, and several wingnuts. Despite its comical appearance, the project proved quite practical. If it started raining out of nowhere, you could huddle under the bowl for shelter. On cloudy days, you could even turn it upside down to use as a children’s playhouse. Isaacs also added that you could pose inside the bowl’s access hole for quirky family photos. Best of all, you could dismantle the structure for easy storage. Read the full story in “A Modern Bowl For Sunbathing”
Blankets Not Required: November 1953
Finally, something that resembles the modern-day tanning beds we know and love. Unlike today’s machines, however, this one was intended more as a replacement for blankets than as a cosmetic device. If anything, attaining a tan was a pleasant bonus. According to the machine’s inventor, waves of infrared and ultraviolet light would lull you to sleep while keeping your body warm. Sounds downright comfortable, minus the part about having to sleep in sunglasses and a bikini. Read the full story in “Heat Lamps to Replace Blankets”