It is often necessary to students and scholars of history to familiarize themselves with anachronistic social customs and practices in order to gain a better understanding of a given period. One of our favorite resources for this is the wealth of books on etiquette and beauty held here in SPARC. It only seems natural that we turn to these books decades, and in some cases centuries later, as from their very inception, it was their purpose to advise, tutor—and in some cases, admonish—a blossoming middle class on the social graces elegantly embodied by their social peers and betters. Frequently, these books were produced in miniature, so women could demurely tuck them into skirt pockets, well-hidden beneath the voluminous, rustling masses of petticoats and crinolines.
Some volumes were produced solely as etiquette or beauty manuals, while others combined the topics to form a large format compendium of sorts. The etiquette sections of these evidence just how slippery the slope of social faux pas could be with their elaborate and nuanced codes that governed even the most minute of gestures. The beauty regimens recommended often underscore the ephemeral, constructed nature of physical beauty, as the perceived ideal shifts over time.
Often amusing, sometimes absurd, the words of advice proffered in these volumes always provide a delightful window into the past….
“Married persons who, in society, place themselves continually near each other, and who converse and dance together, do not escape ridicule to which their feelings blind them. In society, we ought, above every thing, to avoid being personal; for a husband or a wife is another self; and we must forget that self.” pg. 92 Etiquette For Ladies; with Hints on the Preservation, Improvement and Display of Female Beauty, 1839
“What girl does not know that eating lump-sugar wet with Cologne just before going out will make her eyes bright, or that the homelier mode of flirting soap-suds into them has the same effect? Spanish ladies squeeze orange juice into their eyes to make them shine.” pg. 245 The Ugly-Girl Papers, or Hints for the Toilet, 1874
“FOR SCARLET FEVER. Give plenty of warm lemonade with gum arabic dissolved in it. A cloth should be wrung out in hot water and laid upon the stomach. This cures ninety-nine cases out of every hundred.” pg. 268 De La Banta’s Advice to Ladies Concerning Beauty, Development of the Figure, Etiquette, and Art of Pleasing Dress, Etc., 1877
“Those persons afflicted with large noses may be glad to learn of a method of reducing their proportions. Wear eyeglass frames during the night, and as much as possible during the day. If the nose is slightly crooked—deviating from the median line—it should be blown exclusively on the defective side until it becomes straight.” pg. 204 My Lady’s Dressing Room, 1892
“Gentlemen will do well to bear in mind that, when they pay morning calls, they must carry their hats with them into the drawing room; but on no account put them on the chairs or table. There is a graceful manner of holding a hat, which every well-bred man understands.” pg. 84 Manners, Culture and Dress of the Best American Society Including Social, Commercial and Legal Forms, 1893