8 Odd Beauty Standards in Turn-of-the-Century Photographs

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This is the third installment in a short series of articles on photo manipulation in the days before computers. The first explained how photo retouching worked before Photoshop, and the second discussed hoaxes and fads in early photography.

Slimmed noses, banished blemishes, nipped-in waists, and other common photo modifications existed long before computers. At the turn of the 20th century, retouching was done by hand, with the majority of the work performed directly on the negative. Glass plate negatives offered wide latitude to retouchers, who could draw on them with pencils or etch into them with sharp tools. According to the Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography, a 1909 guide for beginning photographers, “The general public demands considerable work on the portrait negative.”

People who went to the trouble of having their portraits taken wanted to look good, and photographers or specialized retouchers would alter images, sometimes drastically, to please their customers, following prevailing ideas of beauty. Our culture still shares some of these ideals—smooth skin, slenderness—but others might seem bizarre to a modern audience. 

1. THE HEAD

Phrenology—head shapes. Image credit: The Complete Self-Instructing Library // Public Domain

 
Turn-of-the-century retouchers relied, either explicitly or implicitly, on cultural ideas not just about beauty but also about how the human body is supposedly marked by personality traits. Phrenology (the pseudoscience of judging a person’s character from the size and shape of their head) and physiognomy (a similar practice of judging character based on facial features) influenced retouchers’ ideas about “pleasing” versus “objectionable” physical features.

“The cranium of each individual has its elevations and depressions which indicate to a great extent, if not all, the intellectual and moral character of the man,” Clara Weisman stated in her 1903 guide to photography and retouching. The author of The Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography agreed, noting that the retoucher should understand the basics of phrenology in order to be able to “retain all of the good qualities of the individual” and “alter or modify the predominating undesirable qualities” when retouching portraits. 

For any skeptics, the author reassured, “Physiognomy, phrenology and character reading are actually sciences.” (They are not.) He then offered a hypothetical scenario to convince doubters: 

The Complete Self-Instructing Library // Public Domain

Some people are of the opinion that heads mean nothing, yet in order to let you judge for yourself, we desire that you compare the two accompanying figures in Illustration No. 37. Fig. 1 is an outline of the head in which the thinking, moral and esthetic faculties stand out the strongest. In fact, all of the higher faculties are more strongly developed. This is exemplified by a high forehead, the high frontal top head, the broad temples, and the expansion of the upper half of the back head. In these portions are located all of the better, unselfish, humane, cheerful, moral and spiritual faculties. When these exist strongly in the individual they shape the head as illustrated. Whatever is the shape of the head so will be the shape of the face. Notice the face in particular and see the happy, tender, true, refined, friendly, generous and cheerful expression.

Compare Fig. 2 with Fig. 1. Notice in particular the shape of the head. It is exactly the opposite of that in Fig. 1. Observe also, how the face corresponds. Now, which of these two persons would you rather meet on a lonely highway? Your preference, we know, will be for the first one. When it comes to a practical test, a test of life or death, or a test of dollars and cents, then prejudices are immediately dropped and physiognomy and phrenology are at once accepted.

Putting aside the author’s attempt to argue the inescapable correspondence of head-shape and facial features using as evidence a sketch that he drew, there’s also the fact that the unnamed author of The Complete Self-Instructing Library seems to have copied these heads and other such sketches directly from a 1902 book on phrenology called Vaught’s Practical Character Reader. What head shape indicates plagiarism?

However, most retouchers were likely just trying to make their clients look more attractive, rather than trying to read their heads for hints of criminality. Per Finishing the Negative, such retouchers worked to subdue bony “prominences” in the skull and cultivate “that much desired quality in a portrait—roundness.” Luckily, according to Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, the forehead “can be altered more than any other part of the face.”

Note how the subject’s skull has been rounded in the second photo. Image credit: Finishing the Negative (1901) // Public Domain

2. WRINKLES

Gender and age were the most important considerations in determining what and how much to retouch. “The subject has everything to do with the amount of work applied to the negative,” noted the Complete Self-Instructing Library. “For example, negatives of aged persons, whether man or woman, require less lines to be removed than younger people, and negatives of men require less retouching than those of women, regardless of age.”

Most retouching manuals cautioned against erasing the wrinkles of older people, lest they end up looking uncanny. An 1881 guide to photography observed, “An old man without wrinkles is an unnatural and ghastly object—the ‘marble brow’ of the poet should be left to literature.” In portraits of older women, however, wrinkles were sometimes almost entirely erased. 

Older woman heavily retouched. Image credit: The Practical Photographer, Dec. 1904 // Public Domain

 
Retouching guides concurred that female subjects require a heavier hand, particularly “In cases of ladies who have been noted for beauty, but whose beauty has somewhat faded,” according to one 1895 photography guide. An instructive article on retouching in the magazine The New Photo-Miniature noted that forehead wrinkles are “lines and marks of age or thought or worry” and that “In women under fifty they should generally be removed almost completely. In men they are generally merely softened, as often expressing character and individuality.” Women’s wrinkles, apparently, do not express character or individuality as men’s do. 

Older woman’s wrinkles, before. Image credit: The Practical Photographer, Dec. 1904 // Public Domain 

Older woman’s wrinkles, after. Image credit: The Practical Photographer, Dec. 1904  // Public Domain

 
Within the pseudoscience of physiognomy, wrinkles were believed to reveal specific character traits. While The Complete Self-Instructing Library generally advocated softening wrinkles, lines thought to communicate positive qualities were to be preserved. In particular, “Long vertical furrows across the whole front of the forehead are indicative in most cases of benevolence,” while “The perpendicular wrinkles between the eyebrows above the base of the nose denote honesty, and as this is a valuable attribute to the individual the greatest of care should be exercised in having them reproduce as near their natural state as possible.” 

Mustachioed man, unretouched, over-retouched, and correctly retouched. Image credit: Photo-Era, Oct. 1919. // Public Domain.

 

3. THE NOSE

Nose widened and straightened. Image credit: The Practical Photographer, Dec. 1904 // Public Domain

 
The magazine The Camera called the nose “the most important feature of the face,” but noted that it can cause trouble for retouchers, since “its irregular shape and size generally constitute the most glaring defects of the sitter’s personal appearance.” Wilson’s Photographic Magazine cautioned against altering the nose, as “The form of the nose is the most essential attribute toward a good likeness.” Of course, “Artists who idealize the face, are sure to idealize the nose,” Clara Weisman realistically observed.

Nose straightened on portrait of young man. Image credit: The Practical Photographer, Dec. 1904 // Public Domain

 
Victorian and Edwardian ideas of what constituted a beautiful nose were imbued with racism. “The fineness of the nose is indicated by the cultivation and advancement of the race,” Weisman asserted. “The noses of the Ethiopian and the Mongol,” she continued, are “shorter and compressed” in comparison with the noses of “the Caucasian, or the white race.” According to Finishing the Negative, “A narrow straight line gives the effect of a fine sharp-cut feature often found in the English aristocracy: a broad and spreading band shows the sort of nose one would imagine to belong to a more plebeian type of face.” Short or broad noses indicated one was of a lower race or a lower class, in the minds of many retouchers of the time.

The Complete Self-Instructing Library provided a chart of noses that the author claimed corresponded to different personality traits. This chart, the author contended, “enabl[es] you to reproduce the very best character in the individual” by minimizing parts of the nose that indicate negative personality traits and building up the ones that indicate positive traits. 

Table of nose shapes. Figure 1. Positive and Masculine; Figure 2. Antagonistic; Figure 3. Motive; Figure 4. Balanced; Figure 5. Thinking; Figure 6. Vital; Figure 7. Imitative; Figure 8. Erratic; Figure 9. Good and Bad; Figure 10. Looking; Figure 11. Commercial; Figure 12. Selfish and Hopeful; Figure 13. Negative; Figure 14. Feminine; Figure 15. Neutral; Figure 16. Cunning; Figure 17. Peculiar; Figure 18. Deceitful and Pessimistic; Figure 19. Intellectual; Figure 20 shows the three divisions of a well-balanced nose. Image credit: The Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography

 

4. THE CHEEKS


“Sophie Braslau." Image credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

 

“Sophie Braslau,” close-up.

 
Unlike today, when YouTube videos and fashion magazines promise to help you fake prominent cheekbones with contouring, turn-of-the-century retouchers saw prominent cheekbones on women as a flaw to be minimized. “The hollow or angular [cheek] expresses more of the masculine or muscular,” Clara Weisman argued. The Complete Self-Instructing Library agreed, noting, “The cheeks which present a quite full and round outline, are usually the most pleasing and tend greatly toward beautifying the face. Men’s faces, which are usually quite muscular, are, as a rule, more hollow or angular.”

As roundness was considered feminine, retouchers would lessen the degree of shadow under a woman’s cheekbone by shaving away at the negative. The 1901 photographic guide Finishing the Negative advised that “In the case of ladies, it is safe to err on the side of over-roundness,” while The Complete Self-Instructing Library warned, “A high cheek-bone suggests more of the animal nature in the individual; a lower cheek-bone, which gives by far more beauty to the face, denotes mildness of character and a more congenial nature.” Sharp, prominent cheekbones imply too much forcefulness of character to be considered attractive on women, it was thought.

5. THE MOUTH

Phrenology mouth shapes. Fig. 3: a deceitful mouth; Fig. 4: a mouth showing strong self-esteem and firmness; Fig. 5: a mouth showing strong friendship, Fig. 6: a deceitful chin; Fig. 7: an honest mouth and an honest chin; Fig. 8: an impulsive mouth. Image credit: The Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography // Public Domain

 
“Ladies especially will not admit, even to themselves, that their mouths are large or badly shaped,” Robert Johnson observed in his 1895 book Photography: Artistic and Scientific. In her guide to retouching, Clara Weisman advised, “If lips are too thick and too noticeable, they may be narrowed by bringing down the light on the upper lip and shortening the lower, narrowing it.” Of course, lips may also be too thin—a problem because “lips that are narrow and close” indicate a lack of affection, Weisman said.

For retouchers who subscribed to physiognomy, the mouth revealed a lot about a subject’s character. According to The Complete Self-Instructing Library, “The more the teeth are shown the more love of applause,” but luckily The Practical Photographer offered instructions for hiding visible teeth. 

The Practical Photographer, Dec. 1904

 
Primarily, retouchers were concerned with the mouth’s emotional expression, especially any downward lines or shadows, which Finishing the Negative dubbed “objectionable from the depressed and spiritless expression thus given to the face.”

6. THE CHIN

Chin dimple diminished. Image credit: The Complete Self-Instructing Library // Public Domain

“A well developed chin is a sign of love,” according to The Complete Self-Instructing Library, while “A square chin is the sign of honesty” and “A strong square chin is indicative of a strong heart.” A retoucher had the opportunity to improve weak chins, which was especially important for men, given that, according to Clara Weisman, “The chin is usually considered as being indicative of voluntary action or will-power.” As roundness was more desirable for women, their chins and jawlines were usually given a softer curve.

Retouchers at the turn of the 20th century were also not fans of chin dimples. “Dimples in the chin are nearly always too deep and large,” Weisman wrote. Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, The New Photo-Miniature, and The Complete Self-Instructing Library agreed that chin dimples should be softened but not eliminated. 

7. THE NECK, SHOULDERS, AND DÉCOLLETAGE

Smoothing out the décolletage. Image credit: The Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography // Public domain

The Complete Self-Instructing Libraryopined

, “Many retouchers have made reputations, not only for themselves, but also for their employers, by the skillful manner in which they eliminate and build up a faulty neck and bust, giving a pleasing appearance to the subject.” What makes a neck or bust “faulty”? Lines or angles of any kind, it turns out.

The guiding aesthetic principle of The Complete Self-Instructing Library was “Remember, curved lines are always pleasing, while straight lines and angles are ugly.” Following this principle, any visible bones, tendons, or muscles must be either softened or eliminated, especially in portraits of women. 

“In portraits of ladies in décolleté gowns the bust should be absolutely smooth. All protruding bones should be entirely removed,” instructed Wilson’s Photographic Magazine. According to a writer in The Photo-Miniature, “The usual custom is to obtain what may be termed a marble or alabaster polish to the shoulders,” but while he called this approach “a case of overdoing it,” he still asserted that “Where the bones or muscles of a neck show they may be almost entirely removed.” 

"Subject in Décolleté," unretouched. Image credit: The Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography

 

"Subject in Décolleté," retouching completed. Image credit: The Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography // Public Domain

 
The outline of the neck and shoulders also demanded attention. “[V]ery few necks are perfectly formed,” lamented The Complete Self-Instructing Library. Square necks required rounding, while thick necks must be thinned, particularly given that “a large neck” is a “sign of selfishness,” according to phrenology.  

As for the shoulders, they should be “Give[n] a graceful curve,” with their outline “shaved a trifle, so as to give a soft blending or rounding away of the flesh.” Retouchers during the Victorian and Edwardian periods sometimes gave women’s shoulders such a downward slope that it looks like something is wrong with their skeletons.

Shaving down the shoulders. Image credit: The Complete Self-Instructing Guide to Practical Photography // Public Domain

Retouchers were also instructed about subduing cleavage, should any appear. “In some subjects inclining to plumpness the shadow between the breasts will be pronounced,” The New Photo-Miniature noted. “Properly the shadow should be softened so that the bust will appear neither flat nor swollen, its naturally beautiful curves being presented by a pleasing balance of light and shadow.”

8. WRISTS AND HANDS

Retouching of hand. Image credit: The Camera

“Frequently the curve of the wrist is quite angular,” The Complete Self-Instructing Library stated—a problem, as all angles are ugly—whereas “Sometimes the wrist is exceptionally large, and looks bad.” The retoucher could remedy these objectionable wrists by shaving the negative to create a slender wrist with a “graceful curve.” The “veins and lines on the hands” were to be “entirely eliminated” for young people, “especially women,” and to be softened considerably even for older patrons. Clara Weisman warned that “overdoing” retouching on the hands “makes them look weak, insipid and flabby.”

 

This Outdoor Lantern Will Keep Mosquitoes Away—No Bug Spray Necessary

Thermacell, Amazon
Thermacell, Amazon

With summer comes outdoor activities, and with those activities come mosquito bites. If you're one of the unlucky people who seem to attract the insects, you may be tempted to lock yourself inside for the rest of the season. But you don't have to choose between comfort and having a cocktail on the porch, because this lamp from Thermacell ($25) keeps outdoor spaces mosquito-free without the mess of bug spray.

The device looks like an ordinary lantern you would display on a patio, but it works like bug repellent. When it's turned on, a fuel cartridge in the center provides the heat needed to activate a repellent mat on top of the lamp. Once activated, the repellent in the mat creates a 15-by-15-foot bubble of protection that repels any mosquitos nearby, making it a great option for camping trips, days by the pool, and backyard barbecues.

Mosquito repellent lantern.

Unlike some other mosquito repellents, this lantern is clean, safe, and scent-free. It also provides light like a real lamp, so you can keep pests away without ruining your backyard's ambience.

The Thermacell mosquito repellent lantern is now available on Amazon. If you've already suffered your first mosquito bites of the summer, here's some insight into why that itch can be so excruciating.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

27 Awesome Vintage Photos of Moms

Turns out leash kids aren't a new phenomenon.
Turns out leash kids aren't a new phenomenon.
General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While you celebrate your mom, take a look back at mothers through the ages. 

1. January 1860: A mother and children in the parlor.

Mother and children in the parlour
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

2. 1876: A mother with her adolescent daughter.

A mother with her adolescent daughter
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

3. 1885: A young couple take the opportunity to have a cuddle while mother is asleep over her paper.

 A young couple take the opportunity to have a cuddle while mother is asleep over her paper
Otto Herschan Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

4. 1890: Collecting peat in the Killarney countryside, County Kerry, a barefooted mother carries a basket on her back while her young children sit at her feet.

Collecting peat In the Killarney countryside, County Kerry, a barefooted mother carries a basket on her back while her young children sit at her feet
Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

5. 1900: A Native American mother of the Hopi tribe with a child on her back.

American native mother of the Hopi tribe with a child on her back.
Edward S. Curtis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

6. 1900: A mother gives her daughter a drink at the bar of a public house, while the baby sleeps in a pram beside her.

A mother gives her daughter a drink at the bar of a public house, while the baby sleeps in a pram beside her
Fox Photos/Getty Images

7. 1910: A child sits quietly as his mother knits Shetland wool into jumpers.

A child sits quietly as his mother knits Shetland wool into jumpers
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

8. 1910: A mother walks with her baby and holds the new Sturgis baby carriage, which can be folded up and carried.

A mother walks with her baby and holds the new Sturgis baby carriage which can be folded up and carried
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

9. 1911: A child plays in the sand with her spade, whilst her mother and aunt look on, at a riverside spot in Fulham, London.

A child plays in the sand with her spade, whilst her mother and aunt look on, at a riverside spot in Fulham, London
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

10. 1920: Motor meeting at Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey. Competitor Ivy Cummings and her mother in their racing car.

Motor meeting at Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey. Competitor Ivy Cummings and her mother in their racing car
Topical Press Agency/Getty Image

11. 1925: A woman keeps a firm grip on a rope tied around her daughter's waist during a cliff-top walk.

A mother holds a rope attached to her daughter's waist
General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

12. 1925: A Palestinian mother in typical dress holding her child.

A Palestinian mother in typical dress holding her child
Chalil Raad/Three Lions/Getty Images

13. 1926: A mother gets all the exercise she needs pushing her pram and cycling at the same time and the baby gets a taste for speed at an early age.

A mother gets all the exercise she needs pushing her pram and cycling at the same time
Fox Photos/Getty Images

14. 1930: A mother enjoying a tea party with her young daughter.

A mother enjoying a tea party with her young daughter circa 1930's
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

15. 1930: A mother fans her baby who is lying on a cushion on the floor.

A Japanese mother fans her baby who is lying on a cushion on the floor
Topical Press Agency/Getty Image

16. 1932: A small girl in a push chair modeled on a horse-drawn carriage, out for a stroll in Hyde Park, London, with her mother and a Great Dane.

A small girl in a push chair modelled on a horse-drawn carriage, out for a stroll in Hyde Park, London, with her mother and a Great Dane
Fox Photos/Getty Images

17. 1935: Mother and daughter sunbathing in similar knitted costumes.

Mother and daughter sunbathing in similar knitted costumes
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

18. 1935: A mother towing her children to school at Burrowbridge near Bridgewater during severe flooding.

A mother towing her children to school at Burrowbridge near Bridgewater during severe flooding
Martin/Fox Photos/Getty Images

19. March 1936: June Bishop (left) who is 3 years old, seen with her mother who owns a pet shop in Alton, Hampshire. June takes her pet sheep out with her wherever she goes, rather like the nursery rhyme.

A mother walks her two children, one of whom is walking a sheep
Fox Photos/Getty Images

20. 1937: A mother fastening a notice reading "Please Mr Motorist, watch out for me," onto her son's back before he sets out on a trial bicycle ride.

1937: A mother fastening a notice reading 'Please Mr Motorist, watch out for me', onto her son's back before he sets out on a trial bicycle ride
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

21. 1940: A mother and her baby ready for evacuation from London, under a London County Council Scheme. The mother is carrying a gas mask designed especially for babies.

A mother and her baby ready for evacuation from London
Fox Photos/Getty Images

22. 1950: Mother and child looking at the monkey cage at a zoo in Puerto Rico.

Mother and child looking at the monkey cage at a zoo in Puerto Rico
Victor Kayfetz/Three Lions/Getty Images

23. 1950: A baby girl and her mother play with a harmless Indigo snake at a serpentarium.

A baby girl and her mother play with a harmless Indigo snake at a serpentarium
Three Lions/Getty Images

24. 1953: A woman seeing her newborn baby while lying inside an iron lung as part of her treatment for Polio.

A woman seeing her new born baby whilst lying inside an iron lung as part of her treatment for Polio
Keystone/Getty Images

25. 1960: Proud mother Liu Wan-Fu displays her 6-month-old quadruplets, a girl and three boys.

A proud mother displays her quadruplets
Keystone/Getty Images

26. 1963: Sixteen-year-old trainee chef Peter Maddox of Hollingworth, Cheshire, practices his hobby of fire-eating out of the window, as his mother and 9-month-old brother look on.

Sixteen year old trainee chef Peter Maddox of Hollingworth, Cheshire practises his hobby of fire-eating out of the window,
Keystone/Getty Images

27. 1970: Portrait of a mother sitting with her young girl.

Portrait of a mother sitting with her young girl, circa 1970
Dwayne Bey/Getty Images