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

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.”

 

How 19th-Century Photographer Anna Atkins Changed the Way We Look at Science

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state & in fruit, from Part
XI of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state & in fruit, from Part XI of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

When Anna Atkins finished the first part of her book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, she signed the introduction “A.A.” Nowhere among the nearly 400 hand-printed images of the final collection does her full name appear. A scholar studying her work decades later assumed that the initials stood for “anonymous amateur.”

Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae, produced between 1843 and 1853, was the first book illustrated exclusively with photographs and the first application of photography to science—making Atkins the first known female photographer. Atkins worked in an early kind of photography called cyanotype, which she learned directly from its creator, the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel, at the moment of its invention. An avid botanist, she even collected many of the seaweed specimens herself. But, despite her place in history, comparatively little is known about her artistic and scientific ideas.

“We know she was a reticent person,” says Joshua Chuang, co-curator (with Larry J. Schaaf and Emily Walz), of “Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins,” a new exhibition opening October 19 at the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwartzman Building. “Even though she spent a long time and a lot of energy and resources making these photographs, she did not seek recognition or fame.”

Anna Atkins, Furcellaria fastigiata, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Furcellaria fastigiata, from Part IV, version 2 of Photographs
of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1846 or later, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Born in 1799 in Tonbridge, Kent, England, Anna was the only child of John George Children, a chemist and mineralogist, and later the keeper of zoology at the British Museum. Anna’s mother died a year after she was born. Anna and her father remained very close (his own mother had also died when he was an infant), and through him, Anna was introduced to the leading scientists and innovations at the turn of the 19th century.

In her first artistic undertaking, Anna assisted her father by hand-drawing more than 200 scientifically accurate illustrations for his translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells, published in 1823. Anna’s marriage in 1825 to John Pelly Atkins, a wealthy West India merchant, gave her the time and freedom to pursue her passion for botany. She joined the Royal Botanical Society and collected seaweeds on her trips to English beaches; she also obtained specimens from botanical contacts around the world. By 1835, Children was enthusiastically promoting his daughter’s botanical collection and scientific interests to his colleagues, including William Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of negative-positive photography; and Sir John Herschel, the most famous scientist in England, who happened to be Children’s neighbor.

Herschel published a paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions describing his cyanotype process in 1842. The technique involved two iron-based compounds, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which were brushed onto regular paper and left in the dark to dry. Then, the photo negative or flat object to be photographed was placed over the paper and exposed to sunlight for several minutes. The paper was then washed in plain water. The combination of the iron compounds and water created a chemical reaction that produced Prussian blue pigment, revealing a deep blue permanent print with the item remaining the same color as the paper.

Anna Atkins, Halyseris polypodioides, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Halyseris polypodioides, from Part XII of Photographs of
British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Herschel taught Atkins his formula around 1842, and she began experimenting with the process then. Herschel's instructions gave her an advantage over other artists, Chuang tells Mental Floss. “There were DIY manuals, almost like cookbooks, for early photographers explaining how to mix the chemicals. But every one of these manuals mistranslated the cyanotype recipe, so no one was able to do it successfully. But because Atkins learned from the inventor himself, she was able to do it,” he says.

As Talbot and Herschel continued to develop their photographic methods, William Harvey, one of England’s most famous botanists, published A Manual of the British Marine Algae—without any illustrations. “All he had to distinguish one species from another, besides the different names, was a kind of visual description of what these things looked like, felt like, what the texture was,” Chuang says. “Atkins must have thought, ‘That’s insane, we have this new thing called photography—why don’t I use that to try to illustrate it?’”

At the time, books depicting botanical specimens were embellished with either hand-drawn impressions or actual specimens that had been dried, pressed, and glued to the pages. The first method was time-consuming and expensive; the results of the second were usually short-lived. “The cyanotype process would have appealed at once to Atkins,” Schaaf writes in his 1979 paper, “The First Photographically Printed and Illustrated Book.”

She recognized the potential of photography to improve scientific illustration in particular. “The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects so minute as many of the Algae and Confervae has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of cyanotype to obtain impressions of the plants themselves,” Atkins wrote in the introduction of Photographs of British Algae.

Atkins mixed the chemicals and prepared her own photosensitive paper. Some of the plates have tiny holes at the corners, suggesting that she pinned each plate to a board for drying. Her closest childhood friend and collaborator, Anne Dixon, shared Atkins’s zeal for collecting and photography and may have helped produced several of the later plates in Photographs of British Algae.

The work was published in parts, beginning in October 1843. Over the course of 10 years, Atkins regularly issued new plates as well as some replacement plates, an index, title pages, and handwritten assembly instructions to a selection of friends, botanical colleagues, and scientific institutions. Atkins intended the final three-volume collection to contain 14 pages of text and 389 plates measuring about 8 inches by 10 inches. Each recipient was responsible for adding the new plates and sewing them into the binding, which explains why the few existing copies of Photographs of British Algae are in different stages of completeness.

Portrait of Anna Atkins, ca. 1862
Unknown photographer, Portrait of Anna Atkins, ca. 1862, albumen print
Nurstead Court Archives

The book had little impact on the scientific world, though. William Harvey makes no mention of Atkins in subsequent editions of his book, which Atkins used as inspiration for hers. “They must have known each other or at least heard of each other,” Chuang says. “Harvey knew Herschel, and Herschel definitely would have told him about this project. But Harvey never mentions it.” A critic praised the book’s use of cyanotype for rendering delicate specimens, but within a few years, Photographs of British Algae and its anonymous author were forgotten.

Atkins continued to experiment with cyanotype, printing lace, feathers, ferns, and other botanical objects. But in the 1850s, botanists began using a more commercially viable printing process called nature printing, in which a specimen was pressed into a sheet of soft metal. The sheet could be inked and pressed onto paper, revealing previously unseen textures.

It wasn’t until 1889—18 years after Atkins’s death—that scholar William Lang, in a lecture about the cyanotype process before the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, identified Anna Atkins as the author of Photographs of British Algae.

Anna Atkins, Alaria esculenta, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
Anna Atkins (1799–1871), Alaria esculenta, from Part XII of Photographs of British
Algae: Cyanotype Impressions
, 1849-1850, cyanotype
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

“The fact that her story and her work has survived is quite miraculous,” Chuang says. In the New York Public Library’s exhibition, its copy of Photographs of British Algae—which Atkins inscribed and gave to Herschel—will be on display, as well as new details about her life and the significance of her work.

“The book that she created is not only handmade, but there are no two copies that are alike,” Chuang adds. “It’s almost impossible to know what’s complete. And that’s true of what we know about her life; it’s a story that constantly in formation.”

Additional source: Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins

Cottingley Fairy Photos That Fooled Arthur Conan Doyle Sold for More Than $26,000

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Decades before the advent of Photoshop, two girls from England fooled the world with images that appeared to depict fairies dancing in their garden. The story they told has since been debunked, but the Cottingley Fairies photographs remain famous for being one of the most successful hoaxes in history. Interest in the photos is still so strong today that The Guardian reports two of them were just sold at auction for $26,000—more than 10 times their projected value.

Nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her 16-year-old cousin Elsie Wright took the photographs at Wright's mother's house in the village of Cottingley, England in 1917. Wright's father, the owner of the camera and an amateur photographer, suspected they were fakes, but his wife Polly was convinced they were the real thing.

After attending a lecture on fairy life at the Theosophical Society, Polly shared the pictures with the speaker and they were made public for the first time. The photographs might have stayed within spiritualist circles if they hadn't caught the eye of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1920. The Sherlock Holmes author was writing an article about fairies for Strand Magazine, and he featured the photos in his piece as proof of their existence. The story of the Cottingley Fairies quickly made global headlines.

Wright and Griffiths maintained that the pictures were authentic until 1983, when they confessed that they had faked them by copying images from a children's book and propping up the cut-outs with hatpins. The two cousins disagreed on the story behind the fifth photograph, however, with Wright saying it was a hoax like the rest of them and Griffiths insisting it was genuine until her death.

When the first two of the original photographs recently hit the auction block at Dominic Winter Auctioneers in Gloucestershire, England, they were expected to sell for between $900 and $1300. The price the UK-based buyers paid for the images far exceeded the auction house's expectations.

Despite the auctioneers' low estimates, this isn't the first time that Cottingley Fairy artifacts have sold big at auction. In 1998, prints of the photographs and a first edition copy of Doyle's book on the subject, The Coming of the Fairies, were auctioned off for £21,620, or about $28,300.

[h/t The Guardian]

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