Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Cultivation of Beauty: A Duty

Do you and your family do some version of Secret Santa for the holidays? If you do, I highly suggest you arrange for your name to be picked from the hat by your Cousin Tracey. Cheat if necessary.
My own Cousin Tracey chose my name this year and it was like winning the Christmas lottery. She bought me an elegant 1940s travel vanity case with perfectly intact glass jars and bottles and a lovely art-deco hand mirror. And! A vintage beauty book which features some of the most adorable illustrations of hairdos I've ever seen. I will share that with you soon but first, gift number three:
This 23-page pamphlet, published in 1912, is an extended advertisement for various "Beauty Expression Lessons," available by mail for students to complete at home.

"It is absurd to believe that a woman of ordinary common sense cannot treat her own face, neck, hands, feet and hair in her own room, if given a few sensible rules, directions and advice, prescribed especially for her, by one competent to pass upon her physical condition-- one who is able to correct , if need be, the blood conditions affecting the skin, able to advise the kind of treatment and kind of cosmetics suitable for her individual requirements."

The cost was $18.00 (no small sum 96 years ago) for a four-week course that included top secret tips on how to keep the neck white and prevent the ears from sagging. My favorite part of this pamphlet is the angle it takes to convince students to send in those checks. It's a tactic I've mentioned here before, but one I don't run into nowadays:

"Time was when the cultivation of the beauty of the human face and figure was considered vanity,-- an instigation of the evil spirits. Happily, that day has passed.
Every thought, every touch, every influence that inspires the sense of beauty, is just so much added to uplifting and redeeming the world from sordidness and gloom...
Try to realize, each day, how much depends, for yourself and others, upon a pleasing presence, and solemnly promise yourself that you will always be at your best-- as attractive, pleasing and refining in appearance as your natural gifts will admit.
Indeed, the development of attractiveness in yourself is just as elevating and cultivating as the study of beauty anywhere.
The cultivation of beauty vanity? It is a duty each one owes to self, but especially is it the duty of woman, -- the world looks to woman for the refining delicacies of life...
Every woman may be the most artistic expression in her home. She may care for her skin and keep it delicate as coral, she may keep the lines of her figure as beautiful and symmetrical as those of any Venus or Diana.
Your privilege, as a woman, is to educate, to refine, to allure to brighter worlds, and lead the way...
Few men have time to spend in the art galleries, but nearly every man has a keenly artistic sense and appreciates beauty in woman,-- the beauty in figure and feature, the clear skin, the luxuriance and gloss of well kept, well dressed hair, the sparkle of lustrous eyes, the gleam of teeth well cared for, the daintiness and grace of expressive hands. He is cheered, rested and uplifted by such beauty, just as a woman, who has time for the art galleries, is feasted and refreshed by beauty on canvas or in marble."

Got it? It is your responsibility, your duty to be the art. Be the art. Not convinced? Next, the author of this compelling piece (and founder of the beauty course), Susanna Cocroft, is moved to deliver a full-fledged beauty sermon! I almost wrote earlier that pamphlets like these were the pre-television infomercials, but that isn't accurate. In the days of yore, people with goods to sell or cults to cultivate gravitated towards public squares and stood on literal soap boxes and such, giving witness and shouting sales pitches. I like to think the manifesto below was originally delivered in that very manner:

"When I see a human form with too much flesh, which suggest the physical appetite in control (though excess flesh does not always mean physical appetite predominating, it suggests it to the beholder); or see one round-shouldered and stooped, with cramped chest, bony, angular, and sallow of complexion, I am reminded of a gnarled and crooked tree and I feel life crying out:
'Oh, my sister, arise to your birthright of beauty, light and power! Stand upright. Do not despoil God's temple, but lend your share to the beauty and use of the world. Remember that beauty is use-- it is education-- refinement. Life head and chest and heart and soul, and drink in the beauties of life. As you drink your fill-- Arise!
Let your grace of movement express the rhythm and harmony of your inner life;
Let the cleanly body, with hands, hair and skin well groomed, express the cleanness of life;
Let your upright body express the uplift and courage and strength of your soul.'"

That's right, go ahead, drink in the beauties of life, just make sure they are low-cal beauties, so as not to let the physical appetite take control. Exhausted by her exhortation, Susanna Cocroft begins to wind things down. She mentions that she is handing the business off to her nieces (a detail that charms me) and urges us to trust them as we have come to trust her all these years. Before going on to denounce other peddlers of creams and methods, the so-called, "beauty doctors" (I think we know where they work), she leaves us with this inspiring line:

"A face radiating mental poise, a well groomed body, clothed neatly and carried with grace and dignity, is its own aristocracy."