Facts for Ladies, by Mrs. Amy Ayer Kinsley, with Dr. Robert A. Gunn, was self-published in 1890 and turned up on my mother’s shelf. It was her mother’s and I commandeered it.

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It is a surprisingly thorough and forthright work, and discusses everything from “displacements of the womb” to how to decorate a “model gentleman’s den.” (Which was model, one wonders, the gentleman or the den?)

The ideal reception room

The ideal reception room

There are beauty tips — such as homemade toilet water made of barley meal — and the insistence that “beauty cannot be maintained without daily bathing, preferably two or three times a day.” Featured are inspirational “Portraits of the Queens of Beauty,” among them actresses Ellen Terry and Lily Langtry (who, like Cleopatra, is said to have bathed in milk).

 Lily Langry

Lily Langtry

Among the beauty advice, there’s a formula to get rid of freckles:

1-1/2 oz. Bitter Almonds
15 grains Corrosive Sublimate
1 qt water

“This preparation, while it contains deadly poison, does noting more or less than burn off the upper skin, or scarf skin, and of course removes all blemishes with it.”

(Many a woman in the 19th century slowly poisoned herself with arsenic creams against wrinkles.)

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By the time Mrs. Kinsley hit the presses, the vast store of women’s herbal knowledge had long been assumed by men and given over to reductive “scientific” notions and patent concoctions, many of which were, of course, plant medicines. By 1890, Old Wives’ common sense had become the property of physicians. Ergo, co-writer, Dr. Gunn, who informs Mrs. Kinsley’s audience what to every midwife and herbal healer was obvious. For example, he insists that breast-feeding is de riguer for the health of the child (although by the 1940s, doctors were discouraging nursing as hopelessly outdated and were pushing commercial formulas). Yet Gunn also advises the expectant mother to chug shots of whiskey against headaches.

Books like these preserved for Euro-American women only a smidgen of their previously held and inherited information. Facts for Ladies is admirably frank and revolutionary for its Victorian times and probably genuinely helped some women of the middle and upper classes sort through events in their lives that were not considered proper to discuss: menopause, diseases of the ovaries, celibacy, sterility, hysteria, hygiene.

I flipped open the book and found this tintype, a plump, modest woman, hardly a “queen of beauty,” perhaps an ancestor, though I didn’t recognize her. She marks a page in the section called “The Library.”

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“Let your book-cases have glass doors. This not only permits them to be seen, but affords them protection. The arrangmenet is a matter of taste entirely. You would hardly put fiction on the same shelf with your books on science and theology.”

(I’m embarassed to admit my shelves are not glassed in, and would, I’m sure, have worked up Mrs. Kinsley’s indignation.)

Gladys

Gladys

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