Vancouver’s Monarchs of the Bronze

CVA 99-4244 – Walter Leek, President of Exhibition Association is shaking the hand of Sun Tan Queen, Iris Palethorpe. Next to Leek is Dr. E. H. Funk, one of the ‘finals’ judges. Next to Palethorpe is Sun Tan King, Henry Lund, shaking the hand of J. K. Matheson, Exhibition manager. Standing to Matheson’s right is Jack Devaney, the other ‘finals’ judge. And at the far right of the photo is Calvin Winter, conductor of the Home Gas Orchestra, some members of which are in the background. Shot at Vancouver Exhibition. Sept. 1 1932. Stuart Thomson photo.
Van. Sun July 7, 1932

In 1932 the Vancouver Sun newspaper teamed up with a number of suburban Famous Players theatres, as well as a few ‘country’ theatres across the interior of B.C. to have a “Sun Tan Contest”. [1]

The ‘contest’ would actually consist of regional events held at the various theatres (in several ‘classes’: Boys and Girls, ages 6 to 10; Boys, 10 to 17; Girls, 10 to 17; Men 17 and up, and Ladies, 17 and up) and also two nights of finals held at the Vancouver Exhibition (now known as the Pacific National Exhibition).

Although there were 5 age classes, greatest attention was given to the two adult classes, from which would be crowned Sun Tan King, Henry Lund (Vancouver), and Sun Tan Queen, Iris Palethorpe (Burnaby).

The sole criterion, initially, for successful contestants was that they had a ‘good’ tan. However the contestant chose to define that was up to him/her.

Crop of CVA 99-4246 – Sun Tan Queen, Iris Palelthorpe, wearing seal fur coat at Vancouver Exhibition. Sept 1 1932. Stuart Thomson photo.

But just as the application deadline was nearing, another criterion was added: “Because of the unusual lack of sunshine this month, it has been decided to include personality as a factor in the contests…” (Sun, 29 July 1932). If the terms for judging suntans were vague, try to imagine those for judging personality!

There were $1000 worth of prizes. It was impossible to be a complete loser, as even those who were not among the bronzed chosen received an unspecified ‘consolation prize’.

The majority of the $1000 was for the Queen. Besides the trophies that the King and Queen received, there were gifts from various corporate sponsors (such as Associated Dairies, Swift Canadian, and Piggly Wiggly). But the most valuable prize was a seal fur coat supplied by New York Fur Company for Queen Iris, valued at $350. Presumably, the fur was intended for wearing when the sun was more often hidden!

Suntanning: A ‘Sea Change’ Begins

Suntanning began in Vancouver in the 1930s as a fad. Until then, there was only the smallest possibility of the sun’s rays getting past the torso-covering swimwear.

The 19-teens. CVA 99-5112 – V.A.S.C. – Vancouver Athletic Swim Club. May 1917, Stuart Thomson.
Late 1930s. CVA 371-836 – The Polar Bear Club about to go for a swim on New Years Day. Jan 1 1939.

But by the 1930s, the notion of swimsuits had changed some. Local swimwear manufacturer, Jantzen for example, was advertising a new feature of women’s swimsuits: deeply cut ‘sun-tan’ backs! We certainly aren’t talking about the skimpy two-piece bikinis of the 1960s, here, but this one-piece novelty let at least some sun reach the human body, thereby making suntanning above the waist a possibility.

To the best of my knowledge, after 1932, there was never another Vancouver Sun Sun-Tan Contest. The reason for the contest being a ‘one-of’ isn’t entirely clear. There was considerable enthusing by Sun writers about how well the event had gone and how probable that it would become an annual affair. To the extent that there can be any single explanation for the contest not being repeated, it may have been due, at least in part, to civic censorship.

Just one year after the tanning contest was held, the Sun published this report:

Policeman on Horse Visits Beaches

Vancouver police have taken literally and seriously the onerous duty thrust upon them by the Parks Board as censors of sun-tan[ning]…on Vancouver’s beaches.

So seriously, in fact, that in their first foray in the bright sunshine at English Bay and Second Beach this morning, they took no chances on foot in the shifting sand but let a horse do the floundering while a couple of dozen young men reclined with rolled-down bathing suits, under the beneficent rays.

There were no arrests, but there may be if the warning is not heeded, the officer told the sun gods as they reluctantly pulled shoulder straps over torsos that were just beginning to show signs that after all the sun can shine in Vancouver if it does not get discouraged.

Vancouver Sun 1 June 1933


  1. The local theatres where regional contests were held were: Alma, Broadway, Fraser, Grandview, Regent, Kerrisdale, Kitsilano, Victoria, and Windsor (none of these cinemas are still standing and in service for their ’30s purpose). The B.C. interior theatres that participated were: In Kamloops, Capitol; in Vernon, Empress; in Kelowna, Empress; in Penticton, Empress; and in Nelson, Capitol. For a look at a number of the great interior theatres, I highly recommend viewing the film produced by friends, Curtis and Silmara Emde called Out of the Interior.

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