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The Practical Photographer, December 1904 // Public Domain

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

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The Practical Photographer, December 1904 // Public Domain

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 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.” 

"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.”

 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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