American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light

American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light

by Daniel Freund


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In the second half of the nineteenth century, American cities began to go dark. Hulking new buildings overspread blocks, pollution obscured the skies, and glass and smog screened out the health-giving rays of the sun. Doctors fed anxities about these new conditions with claims about a rising tide of the "diseases of darkness," especially rickets and tuberculosis.

In American Sunshine, Daniel Freund  tracks the obsession with sunlight from those bleak days into the twentieth century.  Before long, social reformers, medical professionals, scientists, and a growing nudist movement proffered remedies for America’s new dark age. Architects, city planners, and politicians made access to sunlight central to public housing and public health. and entrepreneurs, dairymen, and tourism boosters transformed the pursuit of sunlight and its effects into a commodity. Within this historical context, Freund sheds light on important questions about the commodification of health and nature and makes an original contribution to the histories of cities, consumerism, the environment, and medicine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226262819
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/07/2012
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Daniel Freund is assistant professor of social sciences at Bard High School Early College.

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American Sunshine

Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-26281-9

Chapter One

The Darkening City, 1850–1920

John Griscom was worried. In 1845, the sanitarian conducted the first formal survey of New York's housing conditions, and he did not like what he saw—or rather, did not like that he could not see. Bad housing meant corrupt morals, weak bodies, and dependency, burdening government and sapping the nation's vitality. Griscom found worse than bad housing. He told of residents who suffered dearly in "dark hole[s]—devoid of windows, which made fresh air and sunlight 'entire strangers to [their] walls.'" Other tenants had it worse; cellar dwellers endured near pitch-blackness. Stepping down, Griscom wrote, one "must grope in the dark, or hesitate until your eye becomes accustomed to the gloomy place, to enable you to find your way through the entry." Fumbling through "dark, damp recess[es]," only auditory cues, a flickering lamp, or a dirt-coated window could lead a visitor to tenants.

Griscom's report began a crusade that would grow powerful in the coming years. Throughout the second half of his century, the city he hoped to reform would attempt to take on its problem. Generally, measures did little. In 1901, however, Albany legislators passed a tenement house law to resolve New York City's housing problem. Its goals ranged far: reduce fires, check prostitution, and decongest the slum. Its most extensive section, however, dealt with none of those concerns; it took aim at poor ventilation and dark rooms, looking to fix a city where overbuilt blocks prevented light from entering residences.

By the time Albany took its most substantive action, concern had ranged outside of New York and beyond slums. Throughout the country, in subsequent years, municipalities followed New York's tenement-reform model. Chicago was one of those places, and like Gotham, its darkness problem was not limited to slums. By the 1890s, skyscrapers had made canyons of its downtown. While the Second City was first to take legislative action against its skyscrapers, soon New York again produced the nation's most impressive sunlight legislation.

Between 1850 and 1920 reformers oft en combined their concerns about light and air into a general condemnation of the urban environment. Nevertheless, the perception that darkness was a problem in the maintenance of morals, health, and property values was growing. With the light-is-good / dark-is-bad binary approaching its full form, reformers took action. Their solutions to disturbing conditions were hopeful, social, and organizational—in a word, they were Progressive: redesign the tenement, reorganize the city, and remake the classroom. Concerned citizens thought it was irrelevant that many of the places they sought to fix were more big towns than burgeoning metropolises; darkness had spread far and the future looked increasingly bleak with industrial cities proliferating. Worried that sunlight was everywhere retreating, they decided that there was no time like the present to take action.

Griscom's report expressed profound concerns, but before long conditions were worse, and his big, dingy, scary tenements seemed almost quaint. According to an 1865 report by the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor, new monstrosities stood tall and packed families into rooms that were "small, dirty, very badly ventilated, poorly lighted, and wretched in the fullest sense of the word." In the following decades, waves of reform came—in 1869, 1879, 1884, and 1895. Oft en legislation indicated big hopes and contained bold prescriptions for a brighter future. All failed. By 1900, many of Manhattan's new tenements took up nearly all of their 25-by-100-foot lots and stood six stories high. Oversized buildings on overstuffed lots left little room for open space; with structures shading each other, windows offered minimal benefits.

Many of these tenements owed their shape to an 1879 law. The light courts it required led builders to design structures like dumbbells, wider in the front and back and slightly narrower in between. With previous buildings oft en reaching from lot line to lot line, these new structures were an improvement, and initially public advocates hailed the innovation as a model worth emulating: a narrow side yard was better than no yard at all. Before long, however, that improvement—real though it was—became infamous, and many of the same tenement reformers who celebrated the dumbbell design spoke out against it. The problem, they contended, was mathematical. In the front and back, with exposures onto the street or a rear yard, light was rarely a problem. However, profiteering builders reduced side yards to a bare minimum, and messy tenants did not help matters. As a result, the dumbbell's handle, which included several distinct spaces—halls, stairs, bedrooms—opened onto five-foot-wide rubbish pits and almost never received light. Reformers complained that the 25-foot lot, with accommodations for four families per floor, effectively precluded light. Prominent architect Ernest Flagg overstated the case when he expressed the common sentiment that the design was "the greatest evil which has ever befell New York City," a "disaster" beyond compare that made healthful, well-planned buildings with sufficient light and air impossible. That a city of apartments built without the 1879 law would have been worse was hardly worth mentioning for turn-of-the-century reformers.

By 1900, New York had swelled to almost 3.5 million people, two-thirds of whom lived in tenements. The city's housing, according to the definitive survey of the time, contained 350,000 dark rooms, a number growing as new dumbbells replaced old structures. Some blocks on the Lower East Side were among the densest in the world. One housed 2,781 people in two acres. Of its 1,588 rooms, almost 30 percent were dark, and 40 percent more only had exposures onto gloomy, narrow airshaft s. More than two thousand of Manhattan's tenements were in the rear of a lot containing another building. They were the worst. Lawrence Veiller, New York's most indefatigable housing reformer, investigated a sample of the most troubling rear tenements and found that 41 percent of stairs and rooms were pitch black, 38 percent were very dark, and 21 percent were dark—a total of 100 percent.

Similar conditions could be found elsewhere on the island. In 1894, the city's Architectural League president, George B. Post, said that tall buildings were an evil and that a street lined with them was "like a bottom of a canyon, dark, gloomy, and damp." But Gotham just got bigger and so did the problem. G. W. Tuttle and Herbert S. Swan's twice-published Planning Sunlight Cities, computed that at noon on December 21, the Woolworth Building cast a 1,635-foot shadow, and the Equitable, a recent, imposing addition to the city's skyline and a lightening rod for criticism, shaded 7.59 acres.

In 1913, New York's Board of Estimate and Apportionment authorized a study to help inform a new law that would "arrest the seriously increasing evil of the shutting off of light and air from other buildings and from the public streets." The Report of the Heights of Buildings Commission found that the gravest problems were limited to the southern tip of the island, and only 1 percent of buildings reached taller than ten stories. Still, the document told not of a limited problem but of a considerable and expanding one. A subsequent report even provided a graphic representation in order to show what happened on Exchange Place between Broad Street and Broadway when a building cast all-day shadows. Neighbors, the caption explained, had little choice but to resort to artificial light even on sunny days.

Manhattan was not alone with its concerns. A year before the Times spoke with Post, Harper's published Henry Fuller's serialized novel The Cliff Dwellers, which told of the social machinations in the Clift on, an eighteen-story Chicago office building. Fuller's city was a corrupted landscape of pseudo-shrub telegraph poles and mock-tree chimneys. Its air was not oxygen and nitrogen but soot: "The medium of sight, sound, light and life becomes largely carbonaceous, and the remoter peaks of this mighty yet unprepossessing landscape loom up grandly, but vaguely, through swathing mists of coal-smoke." Its buildings were "towering cliffs" with "soaring walls of brick and limestone" that jutted up along canyon-like streets. Many of the Clifton's renters occupied a world of shadow, with the bottom floors lacking sunlight except for a short while each day early in summer.

While Fuller paid considerable attention to the sootiness of his environment, pollution was somewhat less of a concern than cliffs and canyons in this early period of sunshine enthusiasm. Blackened skies had begun capturing reformers' attention, but many still saw pollution as an indicator of progress, evidence that the nation was an industrial powerhouse. Some even ascribed curative properties to smoke. Those who did see cause for concern oft en struggled to define their issue, unsure whether they were dealing with a health or an aesthetic crisis. At this point, shade was the greater worry. As was the case in smoke-abatement arguments, it was not always clear at first just why darkness was such a grave problem. For some, lightness was little more than a vague metaphor; for others, sunshine was growing to prominence as a critical element for the prevention of disease, promotion of virtue, and protection of property.

Books like Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow and The Story of My Life, or the Sunshine and Shadow of Seventy Years simply told stories or offered poetry about sometimes difficult, sometimes good days. Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life was similar, and its author's explanation of the memoir's contents indicates his insubstantial sense of light and dark; the two mapped simply to "the best features as well as the worst" of his life. Elsewhere, the pair's meaning was a bit more complex but still mostly metaphorical. In the 1868 book Sunshine and Shadow in New York, dubious characters skulk in shadow; poor people stew in filth and gloom; and good citizens, the sunshine, take action. The text's author, Matt hew Smith Hale, exuberantly celebrated work that joined religious with social causes because, as he put it, "great cities must never be centres of light and darkness; repositories of piety and wickedness; the home of the best and the worst of our race; holding within themselves the highest talent for good and evil, with the vast enginery for elevation and degradation." Historians have rightfully critiqued this simple urban portrait as fantasy, but to Hale, it seemed real. The city was a place where sunshine battled shadow for the souls of residents.

For others, however, light and dark were far more than literary devices. Progressive reformers worried that dark places became centers for human debasement, where children could not grow into good people and immigrant parents, isolated from the benevolent care of Americanizing natives, became bad citizens who kept unhygienic homes. The Progressive story was simplistic and largely inaccurate, revealing ethnocentric versions of good, clean, and American; in it, an environment of corruption and degradation festered, in part because bad behavior thrived when hidden from light.

Many Progressives argued that darkness did more than simply hide transgressions; it was positively toxic. Each "crowded, ill-ventilated tenement" crippled children and bred delinquency. Only human life was cheap, with "light, air, water, heat, the elemental things cost[ing] blood money." Robert DeForest, chair of the committee that effectively made the 1901 housing law, claimed that trouble was built into the very definition of tenements. He quoted the apparently authoritative National Cyclopedia, characterizing them as "commonly speaking ... the poorest class of apartment houses," too dark, poorly ventilated, and overcrowded, with many rooms that were oft en completely without daylight. In them, "bad air, want of sunlight and filthy surroundings work the physical ruin of wretched tenants, while their mental and moral condition is equally lowered."

While many, like DeForest, lumped darkness with a litany of environmental toxins, others singled out its debasing effects for special consideration. An 1894 tenement house report claimed that, on the subject of morals, the only issues that interviewees consistently brought to the authors' attention were overcrowding and darkness. In the case of filth and germs, the main problem was darkness alone. A letter printed in Charities, a leading reform periodical, made it clear that goodness and brightness were linked: "Darkness fosters in young children all sorts of immorality, and it tends to make the persons living in such houses oblivious to filth." When light hit the hall, tenants quickly became ashamed and cleansed their buildings and bodies. In its absence, filth and moral corruption festered, hidden from watchful eyes.

Nobody more effectively dramatized troubling tenements and the needs of residents than Jacob Riis. His photographs of alleys convey messages in light and shadow. The street level in his images is generally cramped and dark, almost claustrophobic, and oft en features immigrant toughs or children playing with little supervision. The sky, by contrast, is invariably bright, almost glowing. In indoor scenes of cramped quarters and dark rooms, of working mothers and children, Riis's work suggests the hidden moral hazards of tenement canyons. One photograph shows a child standing alone in a hallway; the caption reads, "Baby in slum tenement, dark stairs—its playground." The girl leans against a wooden board, which has pealed away from the wall. She wears a dirty dress and stands on a filthy floor. Her slightly blurred head and the rope tied around a banister give the feeling of a soul lost in chaotic isolation. The picture powerfully expresses the Progressive message: darkness means chaos, disarray, and lost childhood.

However, there is a challenge to reading this photograph. Regardless of what the caption says, the photograph is not dark, and the girl is not hard to make out. Photographs distort light. They can introduce it where it does not exist—by using a flash—or they capture more of it than would the eye. The inescapable fact that photographs distort presents historians with a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Riis's pictures may have misrepresented their scenes and most certainly were oft en staged, but they were quite clearly emblematic of their time, demonstrating a perspective that located danger—moral and physical—in darkness. In fact, the lightness of the scene, when paired with its caption, only adds to a sense that Riis has brought something terrible to light.

Afraid of what happened hidden from view deep in slums, reformers focused closely on light, but they saw benefits well beyond the removal of moral contagions and the cleansing of cluttered hallways. Brightness brought wellness too. Griscom and the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor had a vague sense that the sun could help prevent tenement residents from falling ill. Other light enthusiasts pushed sunshine as a medical wonder more aggressively. Around the same time that Griscom issued his report, but an ocean away, Robley Dunglison lamented industrial conditions in Britain that threatened young workers, contrasting the "pale deformed being" brought up in confined cities to the "ruddy native of Country Situations." In the half-century that followed, theoreticians would echo similar concerns. American Edward B. Foote Jr., a self-avowed light expert and author of The Blue Glass Cure: How and When it Originated, asserted that the sun was a spectacular healer, favored by the ancients and returning to prominence:

The sun has not for a long time been accorded that homage which is due to it as the source of all our blessings; and its benign influences have been for centuries willfully and ignorantly neglected; but of late science has been prying into the origin of things, and it has traced back to the sun the source of all the vegetable and animal life which inhabits the planet.

Foote contended that America was not the only nation enthusiastic about light and singled out Englishman Forbes Winslow, author of Light: Its Influence on Life and Health, for special consideration. In his celebration of sunlight, Winslow bemoaned the physical and mental health of miners trapped in darkness throughout the daylight hours and made comparisons between city children and country children that would have impressed Dunglison.

Despite these points of agreement, the early light discourse was fractious; most glaring, two self-assured camps battled over whether clear or tinted sunlight brought health. Foote included as part of his eighty-word subtitle, Gen. Pleasonton Not a Success as an Experimental Philosopher. Much to Foote's dismay, no doubt, bad science did not prevent General A. J. Pleasonton's popularity; his blue-light theory had captured a considerable following. Pleasonton argued that color had profound biological effects and that blue light contained powerful electromagnetic forces that could return bodies to health and build strong constitutions. Other theoreticians asserted biological roles for reds and yellows too, claiming that different colors had uses in curing different ailments: red stimulated the body to action, and blue calmed it. For one of these theorists, Edwin D. Babbitt, sunlight, an amalgam of all colors, contained the best of all worlds, energizing or relaxing as needed. Really, though, Babbitt was a color enthusiast as much as a light enthusiast. Blue light had effects similar to the flower foxglove and red worked much like cayenne pepper. Both he and Pleasanton struggled to understand light's effects in producing health, and neither thought that sunshine had unique properties; for one the issue was really energy and for the other it was color. Without a compelling mechanism by which to explain color's effects, Pleasonton and likeminded theoreticians struggled against a doubting—sometimes mocking—medical establishment. Their success was short lived.

Before long, biologists asserted a new role for sunlight in preserving health, which diverged considerably from the claims of Pleasonton, Foote, and Dunglison. In the 1870s and before, the prevailing theory of disease held that gases, miasmas—products of unsanitary conditions—caused disease. About thirty-five years after Griscom's report, German Robert Koch, an adept experimental scientist and a clever theoretician, revised that thinking. His work—largely built on the efforts of other scientists like Louis Pasteur—isolated bacteria and enabled him to formulate four simple criteria necessary to show that a particular infecting agent caused a particular disease. It is hard to overstate the importance of the bacteriological revolution and easy to overstate its short-term transformative effects. Much of the old miasma theory endured. The public and scientists accepted contagions even as they remained confident that filth and squalor bred sickness. Miasmas did not explain microbial infection, but that does not mean people abandoned old ideas entirely.


Excerpted from American Sunshine by DANIEL FREUND Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction Toward a History of Natural Light

One The Darkening City, 1850-1920
Two The Dawn of Scientific Sunlight
Three Sun Cures
Four Popular Enthusiasms: Eugenists, Nudists, Builders, Modern Mothers, and the Sun Cult
Five Climate Tourism and Its Alternative

Epilogue Sunlight into the Twenty-First Century


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