TB Book Club – American Sunshine

As I start delving into dissertation research, it’s time to read some of those secondary source materials I’ve overlooked in the past. My first reading is Daniel Freund’s 2012 American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light.

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American Sunshine situates the topic of sunlight within a larger framework of American medical knowledge. During the late 19th century, increased urbanization led to overcrowded housing. In order to accommodate the influx of immigrants, city planners and architects started to build upwards. Unfortunately, as buildings grew higher, many Americans grew concerned over the lack of sunlight and fresh air for those crammed into tenements. Studies, such as New York City’s 1913 The Report of the Heights of Buildings Commission, researched the negative impact posed by tall buildings in the cityscape. Progressives, particularly tenement reformers, attributed the lack of sunlight with moral corruption and disease.

The early twentieth century witnessed profound changes in American public health. Freund examines how sunlight was commodified by health promoters. From fresh air schools to sun cure lamps, sunlight found its way into the lives of everyday Americans. Throughout American Sunshine, Freund draws connections between sunlight and tuberculosis treatment. The turn-of-the-century construction of sun parlors and sun rooms reinforced the role of nature in TB treatment. Even hospital design, specifically at sanatoria, maximized natural light for its curative properties. Yet, although sanatoria embraced prevailing ideas about disease and light, it was ultimately fresh air schools that offered a healthy space for America’s youth to learn proper hygiene and understand the benefits of outdoor living.

Given my interest in health tourism and tuberculosis treatment, I found the chapter on climate tourism to be particularly interesting. On the dilemma faced at health resort towns, Freund notes:

By the 1910s, southern and western destinations had begun to realize that the climate tourism that drew ailing easterners in search of health was becoming more of a liability than an asset. Linking their fortunes to the ill – often terminal tuberculosis patients – had its perils, and as the popularity of places like Southern California began to take off, they looked to sever their tie with the great white plague. They did not, however, shed their association with a salubrious climate. (136)

Overall, American Sunshine is an intriguing look into the utility of sunlight as first a disease cure and then health product. By weaving together urbanization, consumerism, and medical tourism, Freund shows the impact of America’s obsession with sunlight from the late 19th century into the 21st century.

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