The Victorians’ version of Cosmopolitan
Personal Beauty by Philadelphia doctors D.G. Brinton, M.D. and G.H. Napheys, M.D., was published in 1870, under the title, The Laws of Health in Relation to the Human Form. The book is an interesting window into the Victorian mind and attitudes toward beauty and sex roles. Perhaps not surprisingly, despite its title, the form it focuses on is exclusively the female form. It is a guidebook, containing Victorian recipes for health and beauty, and in its pages are revealed Victorian notions about femininity that have long since been replaced by a more modern and egalitarian understanding of gender.
Still, to delve into its pages is an entertaining way to explore social attitudes of the time. The book begins by feebly attempting to define what beauty is—as an absolute. The chapters progress to deal with every part of the body, from the neck and bust, to the head, face, and expression, to the eyes, nose, teeth, arms, legs, feet, skin, and hair.
A section on the arms is instructive and portends to prescribe this quite particular ideal with mathematical precision.
“The ‘upper extremity’ as anatomists call it, by which they mean the arm, forearm, and hand, is so constantly brought into prominence in daily life that its care and embellishment become almost a weighty matter. If we divide the distance from the top of the shoulder to the end of the middle finger, into 14 equal parts, the length of the hand ought to equal three parts, the forearm five parts, and the arm above the elbow six parts.”
Exercise, apparently, is not good for a Victorian lady desiring pretty arms.
“While moderate exercise improves the arm, by enlarging symmetrically all the muscles, it is not good taste for a woman to display a brawny, sinewy member. It must have a roundness, one gentle curve sinking into another, which is not consistent with great muscular development.”
Hmm. Lady Gaga, take note.
Regarding one’s teeth, the doctors weigh in on numerous topics, including a careful discussion of the pros and cons of tooth cleaning implements. Point by point they make their case and arrive at a conclusion that seems to carry nearly as much weight as judicial opinion.
“There are some objections to the tooth-brush. It is apt to scratch the gums and wear the enamel to an extent which is injurious. Owing to the stiffness of even soft bristles, they do not reach into the inequalities of the teeth, and the sensation they convey to a sensitive mouth is often so disagreeable as to limit their use. We are for these reasons inclined to regard with great favor the recently introduced device of tooth-sponges. These are fine sponges, about the size of a large pigeon-egg, mounted firmly on handles of ivory or wood.”
Alarmingly, it is unclear what these sponges imparted into one’s mouth, and what exactly they were designed to do, but they would seem to be a recipe for a shortened life:
“Some are bleached to snowy whiteness, others soaked in odorous or odontalgic liquids which impart to them salubrious and pleasant qualities.”
Considering that many Victorian beauty recipes actually were quite dangerous to the health (the use of arsenic comes to mind), this manual on beauty should be read solely within the context of its times. We might also better appreciate the advances in science since the Victorian era.
There is one recommendation that does still apply today, that is not as much recommended now for beauty as for health. That is, to take care when out in the sun, and, as an extension into 2022, to use sunscreen:
“The sun is no friend of a dainty visage. The bells of yore knew this, and jealously guarded their charms from its rays.”