Between 1848 and 1855, miners unearthed 750,000 pounds of gold in California. But the state didn’t just tempt those in search of the precious metal. California had another kind of gold to offer: the warmth of a seemingly endless summer that, some claimed, conferred health on whoever soaked in the sun’s plentiful rays.
In “Sun Seekers — The Cure of California,” Lyra Kilston tells the story of the state’s self-identification with health and wellness. It’s a history populated by wild claims and willing followers.
The first wave of sun seekers hoped the state’s famously warm, sunny climate would cure tuberculosis and other ailments. The book reproduces some of the advertisements that lured people to “the Sanatorium of the World.”
It was the beginning of a collective health obsession that never really faded. Kilston’s book is filled with figures who advocated everything from raw food cures and dress reform to nudism and cave dwelling.
She lingers over the story of Philip Lovell, a naturopath who gained fame through a health column in the Los Angeles Times. In 1929, he debuted what he called the Health House: a Richard Neutra-designed home whose modernistic, glassy design encouraged long sun soaks and clean living.
While she focuses on the past, Kilston suggests compelling comparisons between gurus such as Lovell and today’s health fads. (Juicing, it turns out, was touted in California long before Instagram fell in love with celery juice.) Plentiful illustrations show everything from the first raw vegetarian restaurant to people practicing proto-Pilates.
Sun seekers “sought both physical health and something more holistic and abstract,” Kilston writes, “a source of vitality far from the poisons of civilization. A wellspring reclaimed; a return to nature. Some found what they were looking for.” The search continues — even if it has ditched the flowing gowns for the form-fitting fashion called athleisure.