Baby, What a Tan

“Turn on a tan, you great big beautiful baby you!”

Summer and tanning is deeply burned into me…literally.

Though I no longer sport the deeply burnished Bain de Soliel St. Tropez tan of my twenties nor the beloved bronze glow of the Johnson’s baby oil tan of my teens, I still belong to that dying breed of unabashed sun worshipers in search of that holy grail – the perfect golden tan.

I grew up “letting the sun do its thing.”

And for good reasons. I’ve been over exposed not only to the sun and its rays but to the oversold benefits of tanning from the time I was a baby.

Once upon a time, in the fairy tale era of Mad Men America a “healthy tan” was not considered an oxymoron. In those pre SPF days our only worry was painful sunburn, but a cooling spritz of Solarcaine put a smile on your face making you good as new, ready to bound on back to the beach.  After all, who wanted to be a Paleface?

A Lifetime of Tanning

In the sunny optimistic world of mid-century America, sun was a health tonic for everyone.

And for baby boomers it was never too early to start a lifetime of tanning.

“For years out our American manufacturers have prevented people from getting products mixed up by identifying them prominently with brand names and trademarks. Under our system of brand names and advertising it’s easy to recognize the brand we want without risk of substitution.” Vintage ad 1948 Brand names Foundation

In fact in the late 1940’s some red, white, and blue American babies were purposely given a good sunburn right from birth. Since suntans were considered harmless some newborns were purposely given a sunburn immediately after birth as a way to identify them.

And no those babies weren’t part of the Nevada Test Site where Atomic blasts spread radiant sunshine throughout the southwest.

Apparently baby’s footprints were no longer sufficient in identification.

For those humane hospitals that refused to use actual branding irons, a quartz sunlamp was used to print baby’s name right on junior’s back. It was all part of good ol’ American branding, as explained in this 1948 ad from Brand Names Foundation:

Back several years ago it was fairly common to read about babies getting mixed up in the hospital.

But not anymore. Now hospitals footprint the infants and some even sunburn the name on juniors back with a quartz lamp- just to make sure that babies go home with the right set of parents.


Vintage Copperton Girl

Dr Spock coaxed young babies to join the tan-ables and get the best of the sun including a tan that was rich and flattering. “Direct sunshine contains important ultra violet rays which create Vitamin D right in the skin”, Dr. Spock explained. “There may be other beneficial effects of sunshine which have not yet been discovered.”Of course it would be decades before the other effects of sunshine would be discovered. Vintage Coppertone Girl

Lucky for me my first suntan took place at the beach.

Born in the spring, it was just in time for me to take the beneficial rays of sunshine right away.

The sun’s rays were so darn good for everybody but no more so than babies who needed Sunshine Vitamin D to ward off rickets and develop strong bones and teeth. It is no wonder then that babies were encouraged to take as many sun baths as possible.

And no one – other than Coppertone – was more bullish about the benefits of the sun than Dr Benjamin Spock the baby guru of the boomers. Dr. Spock pointed out: “Direct sunshine contains important ultra violet rays which create Vitamin D right in the skin. There may be other beneficial effects of sunshine which have not yet been discovered.”

The good Dr. coaxed young babies to join the tan-ables and get the best of the sun including a tan that was rich and flattering.

Sunburned baby illustration

Vintage ad Solarcaine 1958

“The first sun bath should be one minute on back and one on the front,” went the common sense wisdom from Dr. Spock’s  classic tome The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.If after the sun bath is over the skin shows no redness the time can be increased until the sun bath takes from 40 min to an hour. If the baby gets tanned and if his skin is pleasantly warm, all is well.”

Thanks to all my sun baths taken by open sunny windows, my developing golden tan convinced Mom I was getting all the vitamins I needed.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

vintage illustration mother and baby in crib

Sunlamps were perfect for letting baby get their daily doses of ultraviolet rays. Vintage ad detail GE Lamps 1953

For those poor infants born in winter months, early doses of Cod Liver Oil for baby were like spoonfuls of summer sun. During those cold dark winter days an electric sun lamp was often used to give you all the ultraviolet advantages of the sun.

Vintage Illustration tanned man and woman Vintage ad GE Sunlamp

Vintage ad GE Sunlamp 1953


Fortunately for me, grey rainy days posed no problem in getting my daily dose of sun. Mom had wisely purchased a GE electric sunlamp with its glorious ultraviolet rays that promised the same wonderful healthful tan you’d get at the beach and all the beneficial vitamin D a baby could ask for.

Beach Baby

Vintage illustration of babies at beach

The Sun Set. Vintage illustration from Johnson’s baby oil 1955

Come summer, Mom loved taking me for daily fun-filled hours on sunny Long Island beaches not far from our home.

The best sun, hands down was at the the beach.

Dr Spock encouraged it.  “In summer you can begin exposing the baby’s body to the sun as soon as weather is warm enough and as soon as he weighs 10 pounds. This means he is plump enough so he won’t get chilled when he is partially undressed outdoors.”

So Mom packed up her squealing ten pound roaster decked out in a diaper and we droveto the beach to begin baking. I would snuggle up to Mom on the  plastic covered front seat,  not a seat belt in sight allowing plenty of wiggle room for me, as the warm summer sun beat down through the open car windows giving me a glorious  head start to summer fun.

Let the Sun Do Its Thing

The beaches had the brightest, rawest light of the day, perfect for plenty of vitamin D. Of course common sense told you, and Dr Spock concurred, the best time to take baby out was between 10 and 2pm when the rays were at their strongest, so we could make a whole day of it.

Vintage ad Johnson's Baby Oil 1illustration babies at beach

While today’s parents are super vigilant about babies excursion to the beach, packing an assortment of protective gear worthy of a military exercise, a bottle of Johnson’s baby oil was all that stood between me and the suns rays. Vintage ad Johnson’s Baby Oil 1955

The Long Island beaches were filled with other sun-worshiping babies, their eager little bodies, tanned and glorious brown; these were precious hours of health which happily could be carried over to the dark days of winter. I happily joined the other tan-ables.

Squinting into the bright sun, Mom commented to one of the other mothers: “Imagine all the healthful doses of vitamin D those children in Nevada must get from the bright light of the A-Bomb testings! Talk about a sunbath!”

Nothing Stands Between me and the Sun

I loved the beach from the very first start, soothed by the ocean with its endless motion, oddly fearless of its unimaginably frigid dark depth. Without any luck, Mom would try to coax me to crawl and chase the little birds with legs like toothpicks, as they scurried up and down the beach.

But I preferred to just lay there basking in the hot sun.

Decked out in my gleaming white cloth diaper, my tan was well shown off. Even then I knew no tan can look blah when you slip into summer white.

Naturally Mom always took care that I was always well protected in the sun and a coating of Johnson’s Baby Oil was applied liberally and often. Common sense told you the glistening protective oil made you more responsive to the sun’s healthful tanning rays.

Like cooking the perfect standing rib roast, there were instructions for producing the perfectly tender, well done, but not too well done  sun-kissed little baby roaster. The constant flipping from front to back with regular, generous basting of Johnson’s Baby Oil was a tanning technique I perfected in my teens.

Not Just For Babies Any More… Turn on a Tan, Baby  

Vintage ad for Tanning Johnsons baby Oil

Not just for babies any more, Johnson’s began marketing their baby oil to teens. “Turn on a tan with Johnson’s. Right, baby? Right baby! Johnson’s baby oil is the same great pure oil your mom used on your skin when you were a mini kid. It has no sunscreens like tanning lotions and creams. So there’s nothing to block out the golden sun. You tan faster and deeper than ever before. And you stay tan longer. Come on. Turn on, you great big beautiful baby you!” Vintage Ad Johnson’s baby oil 1968

Baby oil was the preferred tanning marinade of the boomer well into their teens.

Everyone knew that the same familiar oil that Mom first used on you as a tyke brought you the deepest, darkest tan. It had no sunscreens like tanning lotions and creams, Johnson’s ads boasted, “So there’s nothing to block out the golden sun.”

Nothing stood in the way of you and your tan. Or the suns punishing rays.

Back Yard Grilling

collage Sally Edelstein

Well Done. Art by Sally Edelstein

For teens in the 1960’s, backyard grilling took on a whole other meaning.

By the time I was a teen in the late 1960’s the suburbs were sizzling as back yard grilling was going on up and down my block. No, not only on Weber Grills but on aluminum lounge chairs occupied by teens  in pursuit of a tan. Slathering on oil to attract the ultra violet rays and speed the intensity of the sun, everyone was California dreaming in quest of the perfect Malibu suntan in their own yards.

Tanning Techniques

Though Johnson’s baby oil was the favorite tanning accelerant some experimented with other household oils. Like every good grill master the kids on my block each had their own basting techniques.

Next door, our paleface neighbor sixteen year old Joel Weismann was always char broiling in his yard in a futile attempt to achieve a golden tan.

Ignoring his fairness, he’d lavishly slather on some oily accelerant, skillfully maneuvering a silver metallic reflector to help make those long summer rays burn deep. Joel had his secret marinade.  He slow roasted, basting in a pool of viscous Fleets Mineral Oil  straight from his father’s medicine chest.

Boldly staring danger right in the face, he’d languish all day on a lawn chair listening to WINS1010 on the radio while his white skin turned the color of a rare steak only coming in when he had achieved a second degree burn.


rotissiere chicken

Two houses down a chubby Susan Cornblau would be slow roasting like a plump chicken on a rotisserie, expertly turning and flipping for even browning. A true sun aficionado her technique was top secret- she got the extra plus of polyunsaturates by liberally applying a coating of Wesson oil.

Everything may have been better with Blue Bonnet on it, but for tanning, according to Susan,  Wesson couldn’t be beat.


“Turn on a tan with Johnson’s baby oil,” Ali McGraw coos in this late 1960’s ad.  “Its summer baby. The pale romantic heroine is out. The tan romantic heroine is in. Be one, a bronze and beautiful one, by turning on a tan with Johnson’s baby oil. It makes those long summer rays tan deep. And the deeper the tan the longer it’ll last after summer is gone.  Just smooth it on and let the sun do its thing. Turn on a tan, baby. And you’ll turn on your hero.”

But nothing could turn on a tan like Johnson’s baby oil.

In the yard directly behind ours, with the sounds of WMCA wafting over the wisteria, fourteen year old Trudy Goldblum would inevitably win the tanning contest, grilled to a turn in her itsy- bitsy- teeny- weeny –yellow- polka- dot bikini. For that char broiled look so popular with the teens, nothing seared in the juices like Johnson’s baby oil.  She was the tanning envy of the block.

Tan line for tan line you couldn’t match a Johnson’s baby oil tan.

A Love Affair With the Sun

vintage tropical tanning oil ads 1970s

Tropical tanning oils from exotic locales appeared in the 1970’s promising the best way to capture a sensuous man was with a sensuous tan.

By the early 1970’s tropical oils appeared on the tanning market crowding out Johnson’s baby oil. With their exotic blends of coconut and almond oil, they guaranteed to give you that island tan.

Whether from Hawaii or Tahiti, tanning oil offered zero protection but plenty of promises. Tahitian Dark Tanning Oil “gives the sun carte blanche to cover you with the deepest darkest island tan you could get” while, Baine de Soliel  beckoned you to “have a love affair with the sun.”

It was, sigh,  love at first sight. And once that golden bronze island tan was achieved, love would follow.

But first loves are hard to forget.

Johnson’s baby oil lingered in memory and practice, its primal appeal felt as deeply and long-lasting  as the sun damage you would eventually get.

vintage Long Island Post card and people at the beach

For that genuine Island tan, Mother clearly knew best – Johnson’s baby oil gave you the best Island tan. Even if it was only from Long Island.

Turn on your tan, baby.

Copyright (©) 20017 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved






  1. Doris Dear

    Oh yes. And of course we added iodine to the baby oil which I’m not sure why but maybe because it stained the skin darker!?!? We were all so proud to be a dark reddish brown with a lip like I got injections it was so swollen. Of course now I spend at least one a day a year on Mohs therapy having the cancers removed. But oh that tan!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Never an aficionado of that classic recipe of adding iodine to baby oil, it was a precursor to self tanners in a way. It did actually stain the skin for a few days up to a week so it gave the impression of a deep dark tan. Mixing it with baby oil with the skill of a mixologist ensured that it spread evenly and stopped it from looking too dark or too fake.
      Today when I go to the beach and I spy someone with a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic Oil with an SPF of 4, I look at it with equal measure shock and longing. Like a former alcoholic seeing someone sipping a pina colada. Sigh!


  2. Doris Dear

    Same here! And I remember when certain “girls” showed up with a tube (metal of course) of “Bain de Soleil”. It was a bright orange gelé that seemed to turn into oil when it was on the skin… but oh that wonderful smell!!! A quick search and they still seem it in a metal tube (SPF 4!!!!) and people say they get a wonderful tan from it. It blows my mind that people think it is still ok to bake themselves!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bain de Soleil was the height of sophistication. No ordinary all American Coppertone, please! Your description of that orange gele straight from St Tropez is spot on and so evocative, I might just go on ebay and get me a metal tube of that glorious goo.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Mom packed up her squealing ten pound roaster …” you made me laugh! Although my mother was proud of her very fair skin, she and my father dutifully exposed me to ricketts-preventing sunlight as soon as they got me home from the hospital. When I lived in a very hot part of California, I deliberately got a mild tan at the start of every summer, just to prevent getting an accidental sunburn from playing tennis or simply being out of doors. Now, of course, we have sunscreen….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wise parents were yours to protect their little baby from rickets. Despite a lifetime of sun, soaking in more than my share of Vitamin D, my middle age bones still succumbed to osteoporosis.But I still sport a good tan!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: