Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Beauty and Women's History

A couple of days ago, I (Stephanie Grace Whitson) shared a video on my personal Facebook page because I wanted the young women in my social loop to see it. I wanted them to realize that our culture sets impossible standards by creating beautiful women with technology and then "passing them off as real." I close this post with that video, but the reason it appears here on my history blog is this:  "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Girls in the 1860s used to starve themselves to get the utlimate compliment of being called "fairylike." Sound familiar? Looked at a runway model's figure lately? 

It has been thus in America since before the Civil War. In an era when tan skin was unacceptable, Thomas Jefferson wrote this to a devoted daughter: "Remember ... not to go out without your bonnet because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much." Jefferson may have had a way with words when it came to authoring political documents, but I gotta say he could have used a little coaching when it came to communicating on the subject of beauty. Ahem.
In the 1860s, the ideal waist measurement was 20 inches. T-w-e-n-t-y. Of course fashion designers were happy to create corsets to help women achieve the ideal. And physicians were equally happy to express their outrage at what such nonsense did to a woman's innards. But just as it does now, the desire to be desirable and to meet impossible standards of beauty waged unending war with common sense.

According to Gail Collins, author of America's Women, "while virtually everything women read told them that corsets were bad, everything they saw stressed how essential they were." And it didn't end in the 1860s. After all, an 1880s woman wasn't going to achieve this:
 without this:

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) wrote: "We in America have got so far out of the way of a womanhood that has any vigor of outline or opulence of physical proportion that, when we see a woman made as a woman ought to be, she strikes us as a monster ... Our willowy girls are afraid of nothing so much as growing stout ..." 

Did your mother wear a corset? I was born in 1952 and advertising copy back then mentioned that "every woman has a figure problem." 

And so it goes. The older I get, the more I struggle with the impossible standard. After all, at 79 Sophia Loren "rocked" the red carpet. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Civil War ladies didn't want dark skin, but today we try to achieve it with everything from beach days to tanning beds to spray-on foam. So what is considered "beautiful" does change ... but the role of advertising and impossible standards in our quest isn't new.

As a wise man from the East once said ... 

"That which has been is that which will be,

And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Mourning Event, Part I

"I'm going to a mourning event this weekend ... wanna come?"

Not an invitation you hear often, eh? But when I saw news of the event on the web site for the Chatillon-Demenil House in St. Louis, Missouri, I was intrigued. I'm always interested in historic mansions, but I'd never been to a "mourning event." I have, however, had to research mourning customs, most recently for my book The Shadow on the Quilt. I'm very glad I made the effort to go. The event was well planned and very informative. I found it fascinating.

Attendees were welcomed with the sign at the right placed on the wrought iron fence that borders the back of the property. Friends and fellow authors Judith Miller and Nancy Moser and I purchased our tickets and made our way up the sidewalk that ran alongside the house toward the front door. Why did we go in the back way? Well, the front of the house looks out on an access ramp to an interstate. It's sad that the house just barely escaped being razed, and that "the view" isn't exactly inspiring. Still, the mansion was saved and it's cared for by a group of dedicated people.

Each room of the house was dedicated to a certain aspect of Victorian mourning. First, we met a widow in the first stage of mourning. Then we moved into another room where a widow in the second stage of mourning showed examples of mourning stationery and other ephemera. The dining room table was set with mourning china, complete with a tray of funeral biscuits. In the upstairs hall, another mourner told us about one of the great enemies of children in the 19th century--diphtheria. In another room, a nurse shared some of the things she'd used to treat an ill patient and warned us of the importance of keeping a button on our person at all times, so that if a funeral procession happened to pass by, we could hold onto the button and keep Death from stalking us. Mary Todd Lincoln shared her experience with grief. Back on the main floor, the undertaker greeted us in the formal parlor. Each reenactor seemed very well informed, and I learned something new from each one--and came home with a new appreciation for how different things were in the 1800s, when saying good-bye to loved ones was based in the home.

The plate at the right is an example of the mourning china that was on display in the dining room.
I didn't know such a thing existed!

Commercial bakeries often vied for the "funeral biscuit" business ... just as they competed for wedding cake orders. In some areas, biscuits were distributed at the funeral luncheon or supper. In other parts of the country, they were delivered to family and friends as a way of sharing the news of a loss. Printed memorials were sometimes used for the wrapping paper, the packages closed with black sealing wax.

Overall, this was a fascinating and informative event. The next time I have to kill off a character, I'll know more about how that would have affected the survivors--well, the wealthy survivors, anyway. The "middling folk" wouldn't have been able to participate in such elaborate ritual.

In 2013, we sometimes lament the commercialization of holidays. In the late 1800s, furniture makers, florists, printers, bakers, dressmakers, musicians, stone masons, tailors and more all created product to support an entire industry. Mourning was big business. There is nothing new under the sun.

Posted by Stephanie Grace Whitson 
November 6, 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hot Women of History: How Women Dealt With Heat and Hygiene.

As I sit in my air-conditioned house and drive my air-conditioned car, wearing shorts, sandals, and a breezy cotton top, I wonder how women of the past dealt with hot weather. Thinking of all their layers upon layers makes me melt.  Where’s my fan? 

So how did women tolerate the heat?

Perhaps part of the answer is simple:  the change in seasons comes gradually, allowing the body time to adjust.  Plus, it’s relative.  Sixty degrees in April feels warm while sixty degrees in September feels cool. The body adjusts and fabrics change weight and color. 

In “Gone With the Wind” the ladies at the barbecue retire to the shade-darkened bedrooms, strip down to their underwear and nap during the heat of the day.  Daily schedules changed to fit the temperature. People often got up dawn, took a breather in the heat of the day, and went back to work in the cooler evenings.

During the late 1800’s, the wealthy families of the stifling east-coast cities moved their entire households to mansions that took advantage of the ocean breezes of Newport, Rhode Island. People with porches or basements slept wherever they could catch a breeze.  Women carried parasols—which I found handy in Rome.  Note my light-colored cotton clothing.

In the middle ages, the church thought nakedness was evil and baths could make you sick.  Eventually logic prevailed. Later, washing the body, washing the face, and eliminating waste were achieved in three distinct areas: a portable bath tub in the kitchen near the heat source, a wash basin in the bedroom, and an outhouse.  Or a chamber pot—which was emptied in a cess pit in the basement or outdoors.  Putting all the functions in one place didn’t come about until the 1900’s.

If women were traveling, where did they relieve themselves?  They could use outhouses at inns, or if in the country walk away from the wagon or stagecoach, lift their skirts and squat in the grass. Sometimes a fellow woman would spread a shawl or skirt to afford some privacy.  There’s a scene in the movie, “Mrs. Brown” that shows Queen Victoria relieving herself in the woods. Pantaloons were often split in the middle which allowed for this amid all the other skirt layers.

Now comes a question we rarely ask.  How did women handle their periods?  Pads and tampons have been around since ancient times. Moss, leather, and other fabrics were tied around waists or even inserted when wrapped around a stick. In some tribal cultures, women were ostracized during their periods.  But for the most part rags were used, washed, and reused.  And women of status often withdrew during that time, keeping to their rooms—which I suspect played into the image of females being weaker and more fragile than men.

People didn’t wash their clothes often either. To cover the stench they used perfume and pomanders. If everyone smelled, did they get used to it? 

I am so glad I live when I do.  Take a look at my Pinterest board:  What a Lady Wore Beneath it All then check out over 2000 links to wonderful historical fashion!
What could you give up:  Air conditioning, a bathroom, or modern clothing?//Nancy