What if your doctor actually prescribed you a trip to the beach? These days we go to the beach to relax and rejuvenate. But we used to believe that a trip to the beach would actually cure us. Eighteenth century British beachgoers dunked themselves in the chilly waters of the North Sea to relieve their moral and physical ailments. For decades, taking in sea air and drinking seawater was prescribed with medical certainty. Through the tuberculosis epidemic of the nineteenth century, the seaside was a place of refuge and rehabilitation for the wealthy. Eventually, as the middle class flocked to the beach in the twentieth century, we turned our gazes from the sea to the sun–the new source of therapeutic wonder that rejuvenated and revitalized us with the tans to prove it. Here’s the full story on The Atlantic.
In America, we like our substitutes. We like sugar substitutes, meat substitutes, and in the 1920′s, we apparently liked glass substitutes. In 1927, Time Magazine published a short article promoting the practicality of newfangled glass substitutes: “Children and animals that live in glassed houses are cheated of that ultraviolet part of the sun’s light which helps the bones ossify. The glass blocks the ultraviolet rays; the children and animals become rickety. Therefore glass substitutes have recently appeared for sale.”
One such wundermaterial was Cel-O-Glass. It was produced by a company out of New York City and promised all the qualities of glass with added medicinal value. Cel-O-Glass was marketed as a new glass-like product particularly useful for constructing a kind of closed-in porch. And, bonus: Cel-O-Glass, which was was “approved by the authorities,” let in the “vitalizing ultra-violet rays of the sun. These are the health rays which produce a healthy coat of tan in the summer. In winter, you can get these rays indoors through Cel-O-Glass.”
For the first three decades of the twentiesth century, sun rays were thought to prevent and cure tuberculosis and rickets (which is partially caused by a vitamin D deficiency, so I guess they were on to something there). According to “The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth,” sunlight was also an important element of the eugenics movement, thought to be “nature’s universal disinfectant, as well as a stimulant and tonic.” That sun-kissed look, which used to be associated with field work and peasantry, became the height of fashion and health–a tribute to the sculpted and bronzed bodies of ancient Rome and a marker of one’s abundant leisure time spent soaking up the sun on the beach. But come summer, what was a decoloring sun worshiper to do? Thanks to Cel-O-Glass, winter never had to get between you and those “vitalizing” ultra violet rays again.
My seven-year-old self’s heart flutters. As a largely water-dwelling child, there was nothing I wanted more than to be a mermaid. Disney did a fine job in 1989, but even at seven I knew it was a saccharine mess. I grew up on Hans Christian Anderson’s mermaid. I knew what really happened. And, apparently so do some Irish and Greek families.
Medieval mermaids were vain, villainous creatures. They craved an immortal soul which they would acquire by marrying a human. Other mythical sea creatures captured the hearts of men too. The Mavromichalis family of Greece trace their heritage to when Kondouriotis Mavromichalis found a nereid, sea nymph, sitting by the shore, captured her and took her for his wife. Claims of their decedents exist as late as 1900. Other families also boasted nereid-human family members around that time. Their relations were known for their great beauty and for their poor relationship skills–a family legacy. Nereids would inevitably leave their human families for the sea.
We share this earth with the miles of dark water churning all around us. It’s easy to imagine the worst. But it’s also easy to imagine the sublime and the fantastical. Here’s a nice round-up of mermaids and water nymphs throughout history and around the world from the Natural History Museum.
Not too long ago on an episode of Iron Chef America, the sweaty contestants were dexterously hacking away at a large animal encased in an impressive layer of fat usually only seen in the parts of Europe where words like “monounsaturated” and “natural supplement” haven’t yet arrived. “This is Iron Chef America Battle of the Mangalitsa!” the announcer proclaimed. At which point I leaped out of my chair, yelling: “It’s Mangalitsa!!” as if I had just seen my best friend on TV. I was first introduced to the Mangalitsa when I was living in Hungary a few years ago. They are a hulking, fatty, woolly hog that taste as unique as they look. So, when the strange beast appeared on my TV, well, I got really excited. Apparently I was not the only one. As I found out, Mangalitsas are finding their way into the hearts of chefs, farmers and foodies right here in New York. Here’s my full story on NPR’s The Salt.