May 24, 2010

The Ugly Girl Papers, 1870s Beauty Advice

I came across the depressingly titled “Ugly-Girl Papers” This seems like something my mother would have given an awkward, gangly, thirteen year old me if we lived in the 1870s. I assume this book would be given as a gift because I can’t see any girl picking this up in a bookshop and not feeling a rush of embarrassment. She would then keep it, not on a bookshelf but wrapped up in a rag, tucked under her bed or hidden in a pantry, only to sneak peaks at it when her family is out. Most of the recipes and suggestions in this book include toxic chemicals such as ammonia, nitrate of mercury, sulfurous acid (a chemical found in acid rain,) and borax.

As much as this book tries to reassure the “ugly reader” that there is hope for her, it perpetuates a lie that is all too familiar to us today: “you are ugly and need products to fix you.” Makeup is fun and that is all it ever should be- no one should feel that they are not able to leave the house without caking pounds of makeup on their face. It really is upsetting to read this book; you can imagine the ladies of low self-esteem who heard enough lies that they put numerous poisons on themselves.  

It reminds me of the poem by Marge Piercy entitled “A Work of Artifice":

“The bonsai tree
in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain
till split by lightning.
But a gardener
carefully pruned it.
It is nine inches high.
Every day as he
whittles back the branches
the gardener croons,
It is your nature to be small and cozy,
domestic and weak;
how lucky, little tree,
to have a pot to grow in.
With living creatures
one must begin very early
to dwarf their growth:
the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch”

Some of excerpts from Ugly Girl Papers, some are sad to read, others are interesting to see how they used items:


  1. How sad. Good post though, gorgeous :) There's nothing new under the sun.

  2. This is so sad! I can't believe a book (is this a book) can even get published! Wow, great post.

  3. Milli, it is a book. I'm not sure what they were thinking in publishing that. Harper's Bazar is a fashion magazine company that was only started 3 years before they published it. The magazine is still in business, I doubt they print anything like that now, though.

  4. Thanks for that nice sewing tip that you left on my blog. It's great to know that someone take's time to just leave a little note.

    -Hannah Rebekah

  5. Speaking of the 1870s, which saw a depression, your post reminded me of "The way to grow poor. The way to grow rich," a Currier & Ives Lithograph, 1875 -

    That link is to the Library of Congress site.

    Thought I would pass it along.

    There's a lot of wisdom packed in that lithograph.

  6. Wisdom, hmmm, I should have said lessons, we are slowly maybe re-learning today.

  7. WudizThePoint, I love that lithograph, thanks for sharing. I like the emphasis on hard work and also to an extent the non-importation of goods. I also highly agree with "the credit system" bubble being one of the fastest ways to become poor as a person and as a country.

  8. wow stephanie! Even back then girls were having that age old problem of instead of the media the public and books telling them they were not beautiful without makeup or perfect hair or faces! I am so so so glad that my parents always told me I was beautiful, not because I was perfect, but because of the good works the Lord does in me by His Spirit.

    thanks for the reminder stephanie of true beauty not being in our appearance!

  9. Honestly, what strikes me most is the need for a recipe to re-grow eyebrows after catching fire on them...
    That, somehow, scares me most. Well, and then the wasp-waists on the ladies on the photographs.


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