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Beauty is in the eye of the ten cent handbook

Posted by Amanda McCollom, Digital Library Intern

How to become beautiful; or, Secrets of the toilet and health, published in 1882 by Frank Tousey, is a part of the Ten Cent Handbook series, which provides “how-to” guides on an assortment of topics ranging from card tricks to taxidermy to engineering. How to become beautiful offers a look into late 19th century beauty standards for women and how moderation and temperance were upheld as the key to beauty and good health. The introduction stresses the importance of avoiding extremes in food, temperature and emotion with mandates such as “Let your food be plain and not too highly seasoned,” (8). The guide urges women to resist any expression of emotion as it, “is just as sure to leave a wrinkle either in the mind or body, which can never be eradicated,” (6). As developments in industry enabled families to purchase more goods, men started working outside of the home while women were expected to live up to the ideals of the “cult of domesticity.” Women’s roles revolved around maintaining the home and acting as the moral center for the family; advices guides like How to become beautiful were common during this time as they offered women instructions for being the ideal wife and mother.

The remainder of the handbook offers a collection of “toilet recipes,” to be used to improve and enhance one’s skin, eyes, teeth, hair, breath, hands and feet. The handbook claims these “toilet recipes” are “carefully tested by experienced chemists, and are guaranteed not to produce other than beneficial results,” yet the precise sources of the formulas are unknown (11). While DIY beauty recipes are still popular today, you won’t find many of the ingredients for these 1882 recipes at your local store. For instance, the recipe for preventing baldness calls for 1 drachm of Powdered Spanish flies and 1 ounce of alcohol, which once macerated and filtered, should be combined with lard at a 1:9 ratio (22). The final thirty pages contain perfume recipes, many with romantic names such as “Dreamer’s Extract,” “Enchanted Drops,” and “Kiss of Cupid,” (40, 44, 48). This language reinforced the importance of femininity and attractiveness as key components to a women’s health and identity. While beauty standards and gender roles have certainly changed today, advice for women still proliferates today through magazines and blogs. How to become beautiful provides a way to examine how expectations for women have both changed and remained the same.


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Last Modified: February 22, 2017