A woman’s health, hygiene, and beauty routines have never been simple. Below, courtesy of Sears, Roebuck’s 1908 catalog, we offer an extremely rare glimpse into how ladies of the early 20th century dealt with some of their most private physical issues.
1. English Breast Pump
The catalog never misses a chance to boast the foreign origin of a product, as if having been imported added respectability and quality to an object. Even when it comes to breast pumps. A woman would most likely purchase a breast pump in 1908 if her child could not suckle naturally, or if she had inverted nipples and intended to pop them out with the vacuum force of the suction bulb. Still, they were a huge improvement over the earliest patented breast pumps, which were nearly indistinguishable from tiny cow milkers.
2. Nursing Corset
If you were fortunate enough to have a healthy baby and properly pointed nipples for suckling, you could nurse your own child. Not as women of today may, of course, nodding off for a precious six minute nap on the couch with a large milk stained t-shirt shoved haphazardly above their baby’s head. No, nursing did not excuse you from propriety. This nursing corset bears all the same attributes and boning of regular corsets, except that the fabric covering the breast could be unbuttoned.
3. Toilette Liquid Depilatory for Removing Superfluous Hair
Take comfort that any reference to “a woman’s toilet” in literature this old means “beauty routine.” There are no ladies’ razors in the 1908 catalog, only this liquid depilatory offered for feminine hair removal. Specifically for the “neck, face, and arms,” as these are the only parts of a woman that anyone would ever see. (Judging by the negligee section, this would have included her husband). This depilatory doesn’t list its ingredients, but most depilatories of the day were either made from rhumsa, an arsenic derivative, or from various sulphides. Both chemicals could be counted on to dissolve the keratin protein in hair, allowing it to be wiped off. Keratin is also a large part of what your skin is made up of. Which is why this product “specifically specifies” that the time limit of the application is observed, lest “irritation” occur. The price of beauty could be caustic.
4. Hair Growing Fountain Comb
Of course, the places on your body that you want to have hair will often present you with all sorts of unruly problems. This device, a squeeze bulb feeding a hollow comb, was meant to help with that. With the bobbed hair of the 1920s still 12 years and a World War away, women’s hair was long, seldom washed, and brushed with thick and soft bristles that didn’t penetrate to the scalp. The Fountain Comb did go directly to the scalp, where you could then apply tonics and perfumes and miraculous hair thickening potions without having to soak your whole head. It also allowed bottle blondes and ladies with graying hair to keep their secrets buried deep at the roots.
5. Ruby Salve and Eyebrow Pencil
What you see above is just about the extent of the Sears line of cosmetics in 1908. In addition to the rouge (used for both lips and cheeks) and the eyebrow pencil, they offered a smattering of stage make-up, and a very nice selection of face powders. Of all these products, only face powder—which was usually just perfumed talc—would be acceptable to lay next to a hairbrush or mirror at a lady’s vanity table. Make-up would be hidden down with the menstrual belt and douches. If a woman chose to artificially enhance her God-given features, people would think her vain and cheap. It isn’t accidental that both products assure buyers that they are of such high quality that their presence “can never be detected.”
6. Bust Supporters and Enhancers
Speaking of enhancement—a perfectly shaped bosom was highly desirable, despite the efforts the fashions of the era took to obscure it. Enter the bust form. They were made of wire; no padding was needed because they’d be smushed under the corset, where only metal or natural mammary were strong enough to protrude. They were there to fill in the gaps, and provide a metal structure to imitate what nature was not kind enough to provide on her own. Above is a bust supporter, one of many fore-runners to the modern bra. It was worn in addition to a corset, and promised to make up for any “deficiency of development.” It shifted the weight of the breasts to the shoulders and away from the shirtwaist (blouse). This provided the wearer “coolness and comfort in warm weather.”
7. Form Reducer Corset
But what if deficiencies of development aren’t your problem? What if you are too bountiful? Then you are in luck, because Sears provided Form Reducing Corsets. The immediate irony is that the job of all corsets, if over-tightened, was to reduce a woman’s form. But the Sahlin Form Reducer goes one better. Actually 12 better, as that is the number of individual adjustments the corset offered around the waist, hip and rump area. One interesting thing to note about this corset for the larger lady is the measurements it is available in. The largest size offered is made to fit a woman with a bust measurement (today’s bra measurement) of 40, meaning even the stoutest ladies of 1908 hovered around the lower end of modern plus sizing.
8. Hip Pad and Bustle
The turn of the century was the age of Camille Clifford and The Gibson Girl, who bookended her impossibly small waist with wide blousy hair and a fully rounded bottom. But seldom does nature provide those excruciating proportions all at once. A small waisted woman would often need to use a bustle to pad out her figure. These were modest bustles compared to earlier incarnations, thanks to a trend toward straighter, closer fitting skirts.
9. Ladies Drawers
Drawers got their name because they were underpants you could “draw” up or down. This was an advancement over pantalets that tied at the waist and covered each leg separately without connecting in the crotch. In fact most female underwear in the 19th century was crotchless, for practical (chamber pot) related reasons. Here in 1908, you see the developing option of purchasing your drawers “open” or “closed.”
10. Hygienic Sanitary Protector and Antiseptic Sanitary Towels
But if your underwear had no crotch, what would you do when you came upon your monthly unwellness? Be grateful that the modern era provided you with sanitary belts, which is much better than what your grandmothers had to work with (homemade menstrual belts, if they were lucky). No crotch required—these belts tied around your waist and suspended their own rubber pocketed crotches, in which you would place your “sanitary towel.” Or, if need be, “cotton or cheesecloth.”
An interesting issue of class played out through how a woman used her menstrual rags. Women who could afford it disposed of their soiled towels in the outhouse. Women who literally could not afford to throw that much money down the toilet had to wash, dry, and reuse the cloths. A difficult task in an era where menstruation was concealed at all costs from all people, even your own household and family. If you caught a peek at unmistakably stained cloth being hung to dry inside a home (never in public view), you could make an easy estimate of the family’s fortunes.
11. Birth Control (Sponges and Syringes)
In 1908, it was illegal to distribute information about birth control through the mail. It was certainly illegal to sell any sort of prophylactics. And you can be sure the Sears catalog does neither. They simply offer an array of hygiene products to women. Vaginal douches, which were referred to as “syringes,” consisted of a water bottle, hose, and curved vaginal nozzle. They were vaguely recommended in the catalog for good health. Some companies, such as Lysol, advertised that their product, when used as a douche, would guarantee the death of germs (or any other foreign invaders in your body, perhaps even ones that rhyme with “germ”). Sponges are sold even more obliquely, never specifying exactly why a woman might need a “Ladies Superfine Cup Shaped Sponge” (internal sponges were seldom used for menstrual control; being too small and porous to block any more than a trickle of liquid). Sears simply provided the products. How you used them was your business.