8 Odd Beauty Standards in Turn-of-the-Century Photographs
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
3. THE NOSE
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.
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.
4. THE CHEEKS
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
“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.
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
“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
The Complete Self-Instructing Library opined, “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.”
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.
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
“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.”