By Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)
Chapter 24 - Vanities
Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010
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Beauty shops were unheard of in my childhood, but don’t for a moment take that as proof that the women of our town were unmindful of the importance of beauty. Permanent waves may have been confined to bodies of water, yet that did not prevent girls from wearing curling papers and more than the absence of professional masseurs restricted massage. The ‘skin you love to touch’ was invoked by the application of homemade pomades. Even in our sedate household, a dish of dry oatmeal, for dusting on freshly-laundered palms, sat beside the washbowl.
Cranberry nails were still confined to the primitives, but the negro mammy’s pronouncement that ‘you could tell a lady by her hands’ boosted the vanishing cream business to a start. In winter old kid gloves persuaded glycerined hands to bleach and soften, and ready for bed, crowned with curl papers, ladies were anything but beautiful to behold.
Through the dull months – sort of between seasons – beauty culture filled in, but when gay-colored heralds announced spring’s arrival, an electric spark ignited us. A spring dress for Easter was as important as three meals a day. If we couldn’t afford a new one, last year’s was remodeled and we felt as proud as peacocks on much of their expenditure. When summer arrived we each had a summer dress, including accessories (new or carried over). Mitts, a fan, and a parasol imparted a feminine touch no other season could commandeer unless perhaps winter’s muff and perfumed handkerchief. The faint sound of creaking fan-sticks against the minister’s voice on a drowsy Sunday was charmingly full of romance to me. Fans were cheap, too, while parasols were beyond my reach. I walked under half of Mary’s.
When autumn colored the woods we bulked two seasons and a winter dress turned the trick. In order to confound our friends with our elegance, we entered into a conspiracy with a dressmaker. (Readymade clothing was not on the market till the late ‘eighties.’) Twice a year this orthodox glamourizer settled down at our house to spend a week or two, fashioning frocks and lingerie (we called it underwear) for the ladies of our menage. Mrs. Ackley’s coming was an event to me and when she eventually waved goodbye, I knew just what people in our church didn’t pass the cake twice to her; why Elaine Braddock was never going to have a baby, and other extra-curricular bits of scandal. Mrs. Ackley not only gave me a fillip to my leisure and a flavor to my conversation but she added swank to my apparel. Mother supplied her with dainty materials and with a skill born of experience she converted them into social collaterals. Breakfast would scarcely have been eaten when she would arrive, take off her wraps and lay them on the bed. Then she would unwrap her black apron, and deposit her thimble, scissors, and tape-measure on the machine. Mother would bring out the lap-board and material for the first garment and we would be off to a glorious start.
Mrs. Ackley had a smooth, creamy skin, and black hair that crinkled into tiny waves like a modern permanent. It was oily, shiny and smelly and she parted it in the middle and brushed it close to her head with a coil shaped like a tire at the nape of her neck. She was probably turning the dangerous corner to forty and, aside from the fact that she was an expert with the tucker and gatherer, she held me captive with her endless flow of gossip. She knew everyone we did, it seemed, and when she ran out of topics held forth on the charms of her daughter, Ruby.
Mr. Ackley had passed out and on early in life and Ruby was all she had. I shall never forget my disappointment when Ruby first fell under my scrutiny. I had heard so much about her that I expected her to be a fusion of Diana and the angels and when she didn’t come up to representation, I somehow felt I had been deceived. Lilly was pretty and dashing and I set her as my standard for all daughters. I knew that I did not achieve the requirement, but I felt distinctly culpable for letting my family down and I used to wonder if Dr. Clements hadn’t missed his way that so undesirable a little girl as I was born to so wholly delightful a family.
Ruby undoubtedly presented more charms to the opposite sex than were exhibited on the rare occasions when she interviewed her mother at our house, for she was married at a very precocious age and her baby Malo doubled as a subject of eulogy by her admiring grandmother. I thought Malo an exciting topic also. I knew the date of her first tooth and shared elation over her first ‘Da-da.’
One of Mrs. Ackley’s characteristics calls for a light touch. She was a calorie-collector and her poundage touched a new high every year. Being of the ‘never-hurry, strong-on-comfort’ type she wore no corset and through that habit perfected a skill I have seen no other person copy. It was a trick of parking her spool of thread between the folds of her bosom and stomach. When she needed a thread she merely sat a little straighter and captured the spool before it fell on the floor. It was a baffling feat to watch, like the juggling of a magician. I tried repeatedly to copy the trick. I had a plump solar plexus but the voluptuous bosom was missing and foiled success. That did not limit my enthusiasm over her talent, however, and she gave a tang to my childhood that few outside the family circled contributed. I had a genuine affection for her as I stood tirelessly at her elbow and watched the scraps fall as she sliced sheer fabrics and gay characters with her polished shears.
Father and Mother were very particular about clothes and appearance. Father wore a closely cropped beard in conformity with the fashion, and in spite of extreme baldness I thought him the handsomest father of my acquaintance. I distinctly recall how favorable to my vanity were the comparisons I made and how resentful I was when our maid referred to him as ‘the old man.’ His suits were custom-made, carefully pressed, and worn till they were as thin as a veil.
Mother, too, had nice clothes, if not in abundance. Usually her best frock was turned out by a dressmaking shop of one of our best stores. Because of the family pride, our parents saw to it that we children were nattily caparisoned. Father bought our coats and shoes himself, and no shoe dealer in Springfield exulted when he took us in to be fitted. We wore spring-heeled shoes till we were in High School because he leaned toward dress reform. He was very particular about the comfort and fit of our shoes. (God bless him.) He stroked bumpy excrescence, walked us about the store with judicial thoroughness, and was so slow in making decisions that he was the despair of both the salesmen and the family. As for our coats, we tried on every possible one in town before the momentous question was settled. It was his Cymric reluctance to part with the dollars that made spending a major operation to him. Final diagnosis was, for that reason, a long time coming, pending tests on quality, style, and price, and the endurance of the patient was sorely tried. However, when the operation was over, the result was usually satisfactory. Father had excellent taste and we were quick at recovery. I remember one exception, when he bought me a coat that was not in line with the family’s standard of high quality. It was a bleak day in November. The skies were overcast as if snow might be intending to clean up the landscape by morning. The wind whistled around the corner and an occasional pedestrian dove into the street to capture a hat that had gone careening. Father had told me to meet him after school at his office for a shopping tour. I knew when we started out that my chances were slim. Father’s face reflected his emotions when he was out of sorts. He had a trick of straightening his back and pushing his arms out in front of him as if to ward off unpleasantness. Today’s case proved to be an acute attack of thrift with economical implications.
We started at the best store where I saw a coat I liked, a sort of greyed blue called ‘elephant’s breath.’ Mr. Lewis, the owner of the store, buttoned it on me, commending its quality as he did so. Quality was usually Father’s undoing. I saw his mouth set when the price was mentioned and it wasn’t long before we were off to cheaper emporia.
It was dark when we made the last stop and I tried on a dingy brown coat with a figure something like a spider’s web woven through it. I disliked brown; probably because everyone told me that blue was my color. This coat was so long it made me look like something the cat dragged in, but the price pleased Father and without asking if I liked it, he bought it, handed me the box, and hurried back to his office. I was very disappointed, but Mother and Father planned and bought our clothes and we wore them.
When I reached home in the dusk Mother was outside watching for me. She could see that I was not enthusiastic as we walked into the house, so she asked me to put on the coat and parade for her benefit. I watched her expression very critically as I walked up and down, for Mother’s face registered her thoughts like a typewriter. I can see her now, her eyes blue with emotion, as she reached out her arm and enfolded me as she did so,
“You would look sweet in anything.”
The disappointment I had felt suddenly vanished and I would have been happy wearing a burlap sack for the glory of the reward. That is the only compliment I recall her having given me as a child. It was like a candle in the dark and I relighted it again and again to mitigate moments of discouragement over my appearance.
One of the most trying processes to which we were subjected for beauty’s sake was bang-cutting. Father was the family tonsorial artist. He had a barber’s scissors and comb and attacked the job with all the energy he put into trying a case. Except for the length of time consumed and a few minor indignities, we had no complaints, each of us was expected to cooperate.
“Mary, bring me the kitchen stool, will you please?”
“Sade, where are my long scissors and comb?”
“Lilly, will you get me an apron please? I can’t afford to have hair all over my good suit.”
“Come Una, you are first. Get up on the stool.”
And I complied. When the paraphernalia was finally assembled, with a sheet on the floor to catch the surplus hair that didn’t drop in my eyes, down my neck, or in my mouth, Father combed my bangs straight down and then stepped back to survey me with a critical eye. Once he had begun, conversation was out, and he lifted the hair on his comb and clipped away with the sang-froid of the Barber of Seville. Occasionally he whistled but that slowed his tempo appreciatively.
The two operations that I disliked most were the straight-across trimming when the shears dug into my frontal bone; and when Father blew in my face. He did it very politely but he invariably caught me unexpectedly and I lost my breath. I didn’t like the idea anyway. When I finally received his official approval however and climbed down from my perch to survey myself in the mirror, I could rest secure in the thought that it was a professional cut. No one would look at me with derision and say,
“Hello, Sis, did your pappy cut your hair?”
Hair had an exaggerated importance in our family because the Bible extolled it. Once Mother had been offered forty dollars for her braid and the idea so impressed us that we persuaded her to have a photograph made of it unfurled. She was so particular about our locks that we wore silk nightcaps with fringed puffings tied under our chins.
Keeping my hair in order was a chore and I spent lots of time standing like a stork, brush and comb in hand, waiting for Mother to braid it. Once after I had learned to care for it myself, I had a lesson that burned a large hole in my self-esteem.
It happened in the fall. While we were at supper Nell Eberhart burst in our door and said,
“The Busch Conservatory has a pupil’s recital tonight. Can Una go with us, Mrs. Howell?”
I hadn’t had piano lessons for a long time and Mother inquired,
“Would you like to go, dear?”
I was eager so Mother said,
“Very well, she can go, Nellie.”
And I dashed off to get my hands and face washed. My hair needed to be combed but Nell was in a hurry.
“Oh, your hair’s all right,”
“Nobody will notice.”
“I’ve got my old shoes on too,”
“Oh, who cares? Come on or we’ll be late.”
Nellie prodded. I looked in the glass. My hair was fuzzy, and I decided to do what I had never done before, brush it back to the braid and then tie my bow at the neck. Such a process always left rough hair under the bow, but I was sure the hall would be dark. Besides other girls did it all the time, as I well knew.
The hall was filled and the program ready to begin when we arrived. A number of children I knew were on the program and I enjoyed the music so much that I found myself wishing I could have lessons again. Suddenly Mr. Law whose pupil I had been, stepped to the platform and said,
“Una, won’t you come up and play something for us?”
I was overwhelmed. I was very fond of Mr. Law but I hadn’t practiced for weeks. Then Mother’s admonition,
“Never let yourself be teased to play; just do it.”
pounded in my ears.
I walked with burning eyes and trembling solar plexus down the aisle. The studio was lighted with hanging lamps that seemed brighter than usual. As I headed for the piano, all I could think of were my old shoes and that I hadn’t combed my hair. Mr. Law met me halfway.
“What would you like to play?”
he inquired as we walked up on the platform.
“Whatever you say,”
“How about ‘Gypsy Rondo’,”
“or the ‘Valse Styrienne’.”
I could play the rondo in my sleep. My sole thought was to get it over with as quickly as possible so I sailed in at high speed. Every time I used the pedal and felt my soft soles, my face grew a little redder. I could visualize my untidy hair too, as I looked at the ceiling, like a rising sun sticking out under my hairbow and I rattled the keys faster and faster to the end.
Mr. Law was gratified. He asked me to play a second time and thanked me with suavity. As I walked home I was elated at having been invited to perform without preparation for an audience. Then the memory of my shoes and hair would settle over me like a cloud. It was not so much my appearance that had shamed me as the fact that I could never measure up to the standard I had set for myself. An experience that might have increased my confidence, had, through a wrong emphasis, turned sour. More and more personal dissatisfaction was creeping into my every activity. Everything I did had a bad taste.
Cymric Strain, by Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)
Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapter 2 - Father
Chapter 3 - Dartmouth
Chapter 4 - Killolog
Chapter 5 - America
Chapter 6 - Arrival
Chapter 7 - Gracious Living
Chapter 8 - I Am Born
Chapter 9 - My Name
Chapter 10 - Neighbors
Chapter 11 - The Cyclone
Chapter 12 - The Old Cemetary
Chapter 13 - Music
Chapter 14 - Religion
Chapter 15 - The Circuit
Chapter 16 - Hero No. 1
Chapter 17 - Pageantry
Chapter 18 - Mommy
Chapter 19 - Mental Quirks
Chapter 20 - Decoration
Chapter 21 - Domestic Animals
Chapter 22 - Episode
Chapter 23 - Barn Life
Chapter 24 - Vanities
Chapter 25 - Happy Hollow
Chapter 26 - New Horizons
Chapter 27 - Disciplines
Chapter 28 - An Experimenter
Chapter 29 - Health
Chapter 30 - Murder
Chapter 31 - Misunderstandings
Chapter 32 - Charm
Chapter 33 - Problems
Chapter 34 -Coming Events, Etc.
Chapter 35 - The Wedding
Chapter 36 - At Home
Chapter 37 - Cross Currents
Chapter 38 - A Baby
Chapter 39 - Dr. Winston
Chapter 40 - The Visitor
Chapter 41 - Buffetings
Chapter 42 - Agenda
Chapter 43 - David
Chapter 44 - Exit