“Beauty is the last true thrill left us in a mechanized age,” wrote American Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in his foreword to beauty editor Josephine Huddleston’s 1929 book Secrets of Charm, “it is a precious gift that cannot be standardized. Everything else is routined and regulated and ordered but beauty cannot be had for the asking”. Ziegfeld’s opening declaration to this comprehensive volume, which details everything from skin and haircare to ‘how to cultivate a sweet smile’ immediately reveals more of the changing social climate of 1920s America than even the most ironclad social manifesto. The advent of new technology and social order dominated contemporary thought, while evolving attitudes to traditional femininity remained central to shifts within gender roles and occupations. It is for this reason that such unintentionally political literature assumes a significant value to anyone hoping to analyse or investigate the social landscape of any given historical period.
As the editor of a beauty column which boasted a readership of nearly seven million American women, Josephine Huddleston had “an unusual opportunity to study women’s needs” from the 1920s onwards. Years of such accidental research resulted in a publication that offered advice on not only the practicalities of maintaining a period-specific aesthetic allure (‘applying bleach paste for stubborn freckles’ and ‘how to promote growth of lashes’ are just two examples) but, more crucially, on the cultivation of an inner “charm [that was] far more vital than physical beauty alone”. Her descriptions of this so-termed ‘charm’ illuminate contradictory feelings about both the role and desires of women of this period:
It is the power that takes a chorus girl out of tights and puts her name in electric lights. It is the power that makes the Only Man place a diamond circlet upon the finger that tells the world you are his to love, cherish and protect for as long as you both shall live. And it is the power that makes most women hate with a burning intensity the woman who has it, for women know its great influence.
Huddleston’s conclusion that charm and beauty are essential to both a woman’s accomplishment of individual professional status and the securing of a husband who can provide for them is highly telling of a contemporary tension between women’s growing independence and an attitude to domestic ‘destiny’ and desire that might, today, be considered borderline sexist and stereotypical. “To be beautiful, one must be in love”, she declares, before adding: “it is not essential that one be in love with a man, but one must have something…whether it be husband or hobby”. Huddleston obviously remains acutely aware of such conflicts, and it is thus through the use of cosmetic preparations, fashion, exercise and deportment that she suggests a solution to this double-edged sword of femininity:
It is true that women, in surprisingly large numbers, are nursing the idea of economic independence because they are bringing home round dollars in sizable amounts each week- dollars that have been earned by their own efforts. But…Man is still the controlling figure in the world…[and] he expects women to profit by his efforts in an intelligent way and his idea of intelligence is beauty and charm. We may rebel at the idea, but we can’t change the fact.
To a modern reader, this book is undoubtedly a fascinating vintage gem, brimming with humorously outdated advice on sick bed beauty and superfluous body hair while simultaneously revealing the origins of much sworn-by old wives’ tales and cementing their tried-and-tested effectiveness. Yet, within its yellowed pages, we also become privy to a unique condensation of contemporary attitudes, norms and yearnings that reveal as much about the precarious position occupied by Western women during the 1920s as the correct medium for painting one’s lips at the time of press (good old-fashioned rouge, now you ask). Of course, it is only with the benefit of historical hindsight that such conventions and prejudices are truly exposed, but the book’s underlying philosophy is one that still rings true today, and can be related to whatever our social status, romantic situation or professional occupation: “is there anything lovelier than the habit of beauty?”
Huddleston, J. (1929) Secrets of Charm, New York and London: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.