The Gibson Girls: The Kardashians of the Early 1900s

Forget about Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was all about Evelyn, Camille, and Irene, the original "Gibson Girls" and the models for the drawings that changed the way America thought about women.

Though the 1890s may seem buttoned up by modern standards, they were anything but. Independent, well-read, and urbane, a new class of woman was emerging in America's cities. This "New Woman" did not care to be chaperoned in public. She was athletic and free-spirited. Above all, she was educated, taking advantage of new access to secondary school and college.

She was also scary. By the 1890s, the reform fervor of suffragists and their sisters had ceased to be cute and started to be all too real. The status quo was being challenged by Progressive politics, new divorce laws, and women who chose to work outside the home. Charles Dana Gibson, a popular illustrator, looked down on reform zeal in women. And so he created "the Gibson girl," a catch-all representation of a kinder, gentler New Woman—one who rode bikes, wore casual clothing, and flaunted her attitude, but was above all beautiful and anonymous. By the 1910s, to visit Gibson's office was to push your way through hundreds of gorgeous models with big hair and small waists, each vying for a go as one of Gibson's girls.

If ever there was a figure that expressed ambiguity about its subject, it was the Gibson Girl. Gibson's creations poked men with pins and looked at them under magnifying glasses, towered over infatuated suitors, and even played golf—all while rocking gigantic pompadours and chignons, crisp shirtwaists and impeccably corseted hips. You wouldn't see her at a settlement house or a suffrage rally, but you might spot her by the Ouija board or by the sea, working her hose and bathing costume with all of the self-conscious hauteur of a Kim K. selfie.

"Wear a blank expression/and a monumental curl/And walk with a bend in your back/Then they will call you a Gibson Girl." Camille Clifford, a Belgian songbird, sang this tune with great irony in 1907, long after she won an international magazine contest in search of the woman who best embodied Gibson's girl. Known for her 18-inch waist and her signature walk, she took the theatrical world by storm without benefit of acting skills or much more than the rumor that she had eloped with a British lord. She can also be blamed for the high-maintenance fashion craze that was the S-curve, an overtly sensuous look achieved by a corset laced nearly to the knees.

Evelyn Nesbit, another one of Gibson's models, boasted of a career that started as the first supermodel and ended with the first "trial of the century" of the 1900s. Like many others, Gibson was entranced by her luxurious, over-the-top hair, which he molded into a question mark for one of the most famous Gibson Girl drawings, entitled "Woman: The Eternal Question." A recent book claims that a photograph of Evelyn even inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery to write Anne of Green Gables.

Getty Images

Evelyn appeared on magazine covers, pouted as a "Florodora girl," and was eventually seduced by notorious womanizer Stanford White, who infamously placed her on a red velvet swing in his apartment so he could admire her before deflowering her. Eventually, she married millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, who shot White to death after spotting him at Madison Square Garden. The trial that ensued put O.J. Simpson's to shame, with wall-to-wall tabloid coverage and a deadlocked jury. After her husband was convicted, Evelyn went on to work in silent films, burlesque, and even operated her own Prohibition-era speakeasy.

Ironically, the least famous of the Gibson Girls was probably the original, and Irene Langhorne Gibson was far closer to the independent New Woman than her husband liked to admit. Known for her supermodel looks and her Virginia fortune, Irene fended off plenty of proposals before falling in love with Gibson. But though her tall stature and haughty, almost arrogant looks inspired her husband, Irene was far more noteworthy for her passion for Progressive politics. Her philanthropic efforts helped troubled women and children, and her ability to use her society connections effected real change. While Gibson turned women back into Girls, Irene quietly and tirelessly showed just what a woman could achieve. 

Additional References: The Bystander: An Illustrated Weekly, Devoted to Travel, Literature, Art, the Drama, Progress, Locomotion, Volume 12; Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women's Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism; Gibson Girls and Suffragists: Perceptions of Women from 1900 to 1918; The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894-1930; Early College Women: Determined to be Educated; Nancy: The Story of Mary Astor; Encyclopedia Virginia: Irene Langhorne Gibson; Leslie Stuart: Composer of Florodora; American Eve; Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L. M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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