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10 Pre-Sunscreen Methods for Dealing with the Sun

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As the weather heats up, we’re all slathering and spraying on more sunscreen. While applying that SPF-30 at regular intervals may seem like a chore, a quick look at the ways we protected ourselves from UV rays before the advent of modern sunscreen will make you thankful that all you need to stay safe is a friend to do your back. 

1. Jasmine and Rice  

Ancient Egyptians prioritized light and fair skin as a symbol of beauty, so they needed protection; the oldest reference to skin care and sun protection can be found on their papyrus scrolls and tomb walls. Interestingly, some of the compounds they used really work: Rice bran actually contains UV-absorbing gamma oryzanol, and jasmine can help repair damaged DNA. 

2. Olive oil  

Ancient Greeks wore veils and large brimmed hats to evade the sun, and also rubbed olive oil on their skin as a line of defense. Of course, that did absolutely nothing in the way of protection, but it did make their skin very soft.

3. Tsuga

Also known as native hemlock, the extract from this coniferous tree was used by some Native Americans as a dye and mixed with deerfat to create a salve to treat sunburns.

4. Tannin 

Otto Veiel of Austria published one of the first reports of a substance protecting skin from ultraviolet rays in 1878. However, since tannin is a yellow/brown organic substance made from plant tissue (much like tsuga), it stained the skin darker—a side effect many were trying to avoid.  

5. Zinc Oxide 

Zinc oxide paste, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays of ultraviolet light, has been used for hundreds of years. But because it's not easily absorbed into the skin, its popularity has waned with anyone who doesn’t want to look like one of those comical tourists with a painted white nose. It has made a comeback in recent years as a nanoparticle in certain sunscreens, though, because even though it makes you look funny, it works really well.

6. Zeozon 

The name may sound futuristic, but this is a sun protectant that dates back to 1910. Zeozon was derived from horse chestnut tree extract and marketed as a way to avoid both sunburns and freckles. However, it was quite pasty and therefore not very popular. 

7. Milton Blake’s compound  

One of the first usable sunscreens came from Australia. Milton Blake invented a compound for sunburn cream in his kitchen in the 1920s. After 12 years of experimentation in his apartment, Blake began producing and selling the cream through his company Hamilton Laboratories. Blake’s descendants still run the company and market sunscreens.

8. Ambre Solaire 

This product was developed in 1935 as a tanning oil by French chemist named Eugene Schueller, who is better known as the founder of one of the world’s leading beauty companies: L’Oreal. Ambre Solaire contained a sun filter and claimed “Tanning five times faster without burning!” It can still be bought today.  

9. Glacier Cream 

Despite the previously mentioned oils and pasty balms, Swiss chemist Franz Greiter has been credited with finding the first modern sunscreen, Gletscher Creme or Glacier Cream. He got quite sunburned during a 1938 climb of Mount Piz Buin and decided an effective protection against the sun was needed; he later named his company after the mountain. Although it was effective in 1946, it's estimated that the first Glacier Cream had an SPF of only 2. More effective variations of Glacier Cream are sold today and claim “cutting edge sun protection with luxurious skincare for anyone who wants to enjoy life in the sun.”

10. Red Vet Pet 

During World War II, airman Benjamin Green wanted protection from the sun during his missions, and this unfortunately named substance was the concoction he whipped up. Red Vet Pet was short for “red veterinary petrolatum (petroleum jelly),” a heavy, unpleasant red jelly. It was a great physical barrier and served its purpose in life raft emergency kits, but it was unpleasant to wear. Green tweaked the ingredients, added a little cocoa butter and coconut oil, and eventually invented Coppertone

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.


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