How to Be Beautiful in Old Mobile

Born in 1865, Frances V. Beverly toiled away at her home on Government Street throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, writing what she hoped would become the almanac of Mobile. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Beverly died in Mobile in 1954, leaving behind piles of manuscripts hidden from the very audience whose lore and customs she so tirelessly documented for posterity — that is, until now. In this series, MB presents the Frances Beverly Papers.

In scanning the pages of the old Mobile directories from 1839 to 1850, barber shops [for men] were quite as numerous as beauty shops [for women] are today. In those days, women would never have gone into any public place for beauty treatment, because it would have been considered just as immodest as it would have been to powder one’s face on the street.

We will go back to the days when hairdressers visited homes, and complexions, which were far more beautiful than they are today, did not cost a week’s salary. If a girl was anxious to be particularly lovely and alluring, she would go into the privacy of her own room, tie her hair back in red flannel curlers, and cover them with a large towel. Then she would apply a liberal coating of honey and the white of an egg or just plain flour and water paste, and remain behind closed doors until it had done its work of beatification, which took about two hours. [By using] warm water and Castile soap and a flannel cloth, all traces of the beautifier were removed, and she powdered her face with “prepared chalk, ” which was a most ghastly white. It was either prepared at home or could be bought at the drugstore. Usually it was prepared at home by placing a quantity of the crude chalk in a platter filled with water near a window where there was plenty of sunshine. After about three days, the water was allowed to dry; then another quantity of water was added, and it had to be stirred with a silver spoon several times a day to ensure smoothness. It took about four days to become perfectly dry, and the girls who were inclined to be a little reckless of criticism would add a few drops of cochineal (a red food coloring derived from insects) swiped from the kitchen, where it was used in icing cakes, and it was a dead secret, because if her friends ever found it out they would say that she was “fast.”

Cosmetics like this were all that were used, except occasionally a very rash young lady would dampen a red ribbon, or a red rose, with cologne and rub it on her cheeks, and it did produce a very fine imitation of “rosy cheeks” and all of the old women would snicker behind their fans and whisper: “I always did say that she isn’t any better than she ought to be.” The writer had a sister-in-law, who used this method of producing a “healthy color, ” for 10 or 15 years, and even her own mother never knew it.

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Of course, present day beauticians, as they are pleased to call themselves, ridicule the old-time beauty aids, but they cannot improve on them. The simple home treatments did the work, and the most beautiful women in the world were our grandmothers, whose faces were not plastered with base creams, powder, rouge and lipstick, to say nothing of the shadow creams and adjustable eyebrows, which always inspire one to say: “Laugh, Clown, laugh, ” just to see if the face will hold together.

During the years preceding the Civil War, there was a perfectly legitimate and respectable way of having a beautiful complexion, if one was so unfortunate as to have an ugly, muddy skin … If there was enough in the family exchequer, the face was taken to New York and “enameled.” It made the face look like a wax doll and lasted for several months, or as long as there was money to pay for it. A light enamel could be had to last for a week, and as it grew thicker, it grew more expensive. It had its disadvantages, for the face could not be washed during its occupancy; a slightly damp cloth removed all dust, and it would have been fatal to laugh. A very discreet Mona Lisa-ish smile was all that could be indulged in. For some unknown reason, the art of enameling never reached Mobile, and the belles who had to have it had to go north for it. Men object to kissing lipstick now, and there certainly could have been no thrills kissing a “plastered face” in the 1860s.

Men at that time (1839) indulged in quite as many vanities as women, as they wore toupees, wigs, goatees, side burns and whiskers, to say nothing of the horrible moustachios, which decorated men’s faces and were such a nuisance at meal times that somebody had to invent a “mustache cup” which held the offending ornament out of the coffee cup. Some old men’s whiskers were so long that at meal time they would open their vests and tuck the foot-long whiskers in and put them away for safe keeping.

The barber shops did all of this beauty work, keeping the whiskers soft and luxurious, and using all kinds of ointments and creams on the faces, and soaking them with Bay Rum and scented soaps. In those days, there was a favorite expression, “smells like a barber shop, ” if anyone came around too highly perfumed.

Men dyed their hair then more than women did, and it was seldom a successful operation. Often they would dye both heads and whiskers, and in many instances it proved fatal … a great deal of sugar of lead was used and, if applied too frequently, it caused insanity. Grey hair was so allied to old age that people became panic stricken if they discovered one grey hair and were willing to take all kinds of chances.    

One of the favorite barber shops of 1839 was called The Temple of Adonis, and it was in the basement of the Alabama Hotel, with entrance on St. Francis Street, and had 15 barbers on duty. In the 1880s, this was also called the “ladies entrance” to the Battle House because ladies did not go through the lobby of any hotel.

John Reed, who had a barber shop at 47 Royal Street, was another popular [barber]. There were numbers of them all the length of Dauphin Street, as far up as Lawrence Street, and another funny thing about a barber shop was the fact that ladies must not look in one. Barber shops, pool rooms and saloons were places to be passed with averted eyes. The saloons had halfway doors and so did the pool rooms, and one could only see dozens of feet on sawdust-covered floors, which was very much more provocative than open doors. Barber shops always had a spiral red, blue and white sign in front, sometimes it was stationary and sometimes it kept up a perpetual spinning. Little girls were taught to look at the barber pole and never glance in where men did not have on their coats and collars. That was in 1839. In 1939, if one looks into a barber shop, they can see just as many women in the chairs as men, and not even noticing each other.

text by Frances V. Beverly (Frances Beverly Papers, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama) • illustration by Colleen Comer

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