Which Country Has the Best-Looking People? Let's Ask a 19th-Century Doctor

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We’ve all heard of Emily Post, but how about Robert Tomes? Tomes was a 19th century American physician, diplomat and etiquette writer, who was known for his articles on manners appearing in Harper’s Bazar (before the spelling was Harper’s Bazaar).

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In 1870, he published a book called The Bazar Book of Decorum. The Care of the Person, Manners, Etiquette, and Ceremonials. In it, he gauges the best-looking people of different groups—including the working class and the elderly—in various countries.

The results aren’t pretty. In fact, they’re xenophobic in most instances and condescending all around. Sweeping generalizations about other races seems the opposite of good etiquette.

Here’s what he declares.

1. Americans are better looking than nearly everyone else.

If you’re American, you have been blessed with the ultimate in looks. Everyone thinks so, even non-Americans.

It is common for foreigners to praise our people for their good looks, and the American face is certainly remarkable for its regularity. It seldom presents those extraordinary deviations from the classical ideal so frequently observed in foreigners.

2. If you are German or Irish, you are likely deformed. What a pity.

While Americans’ looks are “remarkable for their regularity,” Germans and the Irish aren’t so lucky.

Those monstrous developments of the features, which are not seldom found in the German or Irish countenance, and approximate it to the various types of the lower animals, are rare among native-born Americans.

Did I mention his wife was from Germany? And that they and their three children lived in Germany for a time? 

3. Even Americans are ugly sometimes!

Americans are a diverse bunch. So, naturally, some of us will be ugly.

As people of all nations come hither, we have, of course, every kind of face. There are, accordingly, all varieties of disproportion and degrees of ugliness to be occasionally seen.

He goes on to talk about ears like “gigantic oysters” and noses like elephant trunks and really stops making sense altogether.

I’d like to reiterate: This guy is a doctor. When a patient came in with a growth, did he simply say: “I’m afraid you have a case of the uglies!”

4. Americans can be ugly in less overt ways as well.

Let’s set aside the outliers and address the more common ways Americans are ugly.

The chief faults of the American person are excessive paleness or yellowness of complexion and thinness of structure.

That’s it? That’s not so bad.

5. Every group thinks they have the best nose.

This may be the one characteristic he doesn’t have a strong opinion on.

There seems to be no absolute standard of nasal beauty.

He mentions Grecians, Ethiopians, Romans, Israelites, and the wife of Genghis Khan (really), and says they all believe they have the best nose, and this is how it should be. It is a rare moment of sanity in the book.

6. English children are more attractive than American children.

Thanks to the unfortunate American climate—and those God-given rosy English complexions!

The American complexion is surpassed in freshness and clearness by the English in youth. Our dry atmosphere is unfavorable both to the color and transparency of the skin.

What’s all this doing in an etiquette book again?

7. Americans become way hotter than the English in old age.

The English become acne-ridden when they’re elderly. (Um, OK.) On the other hand, Americans’ skin changes to perfectly complement our gray hair. Naturally.

In advanced age, however, we have decidedly the advantage. While the English complexion is apt to become pimpled and blowsy, and seems to indicate grossness and overfeeding, the American, with the progress of time ripens to a mellow ruddiness, which harmonizes well with gray hairs, and the veneration which is due to them.

It’s so sad when skin becomes blowsy.

8. The American working class is better looking than the European working class.

This seems to have something to do with the fact that we’re thinner? (Can you imagine this guy’s reaction if he saw us now?)

Compare the peasant face of Europe with that of the working people of this country. The former appears like a mass of dough rolled into a uniform surface; the latter is full of lines, distinct and expressive as those of a steel engraving.

Elsewhere he says thinness and wrinkles are unattractive, so I’m not sure how all this adds up.

9. English women are prettier than American women.

Thinness isn’t as attractive on women in general as it is on the working class at large. (But what about working class women?)

Our dames, although we do not advise them to go to bed nightly on a supper of Stilton cheese and London stout like their English sisters, would, we believe, improve their looks if they lived better. By living better we mean feeding at regular intervals upon well-cooked, nutritious food, instead of wasting their appetites upon cakes, sweets, and other indigestible articles, which fill the stomach, but starve the body.

So American women should eat more, but they should avoid cheese, beer, and sweets? All right, so the latter may be true to some extent, but it sounds like no fun at all.

10. Ancient Greek women dressed the best.

He thinks very highly of ancient Greek women in general.

The Greek woman, with a genuine contour of swelling bosom and rounded limb, was content to cover herself with a simple cloth, which, confident in her graceful proportions, she left to assume the natural lines of her figure.

He praises ancient Greeks later as well for not participating in “ear-boring”—that’s ear-piercing to us—and he can’t stop talking about how beautiful the Venus de Milo is, which makes me wonder: Does he like simple clothing or next-to-no clothing?

11. The women of the Carpathian valleys—or thereabouts—having amazing skin. But don’t be fooled—this has nothing to do with consuming arsenic!

There was a rumor in the 19th century that women of the Carpathian valley, which is an area in Eastern and Central Europe, were exceptionally good-looking. This was credited to the consumption of arsenic.

Ever since a traveler imprudently revealed the fact that some women, of the Carpathian valleys, we believe, secured for themselves beautiful complexions by feeding on arsenic, this practice, it is said, has been more or less generally adopted, not only in Europe, but in this country.

The good doctor suddenly feels compelled to do some extreme hedging, it appears more or less.

Physicians have, moreover, for a long time been in the habit of prescribing, in diseases of the skin, a preparation called “Fowler’s Solution,” the principal constituent of which is arsenic.This remedy is considered an effective one, but its danger is so great that it is given only in the smallest doses.

Fowler’s Solution, which contains one percent arsenic, was once used on everything from eczema to cancer. Dr. Tomes goes on to say, roughly: Don’t use arsenic (even though it will make your skin look great)!

By the by, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula resides in the Carpathian Mountains, so maybe the youthful looks of the ladies in those valleys had less to do with arsenic and more to do with immortality?

And that gets us to Chapter 3 in this book. If we were to continue, you would encounter such information as:

● Why the ear becomes unattractive. It’s mostly “owing to its neglect in childhood and youth,” which Tomes details in the subsection “The ear—How to make it beautiful.”
● The “cure for fatness!” It involves the sensible suggestion to exercise and avoid “fat-producing” foods, and the not-so-sensible advice of “frequent rubbing of the body with a rough towel or brush, an occasional laxative, alkaline, sea, and vapor baths, with shampooing or kneading of the flesh” to to help you lose weight.
● And sprawling gets its own subsection! Tomes’ take: “It is not customary to sit upon more than one chair at a time.”

So congrats to ancient Greek women and the ladies of the Carpathian valley—you’re the only ones who came out of this unscathed, assuming the latter survived dosing themselves with arsenic.

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July 19, 2014 - 12:00am
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