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There once lived a fiend in feminine form who wrote under the pen name Sylvia of Hollywood. Sylvia, author of 1939’s Streamline Your Figure and the 1936 classic Pull Yourself Together, Baby!, made every woman’s business her own.
Here’s Sylvia on getting your man: “You’ve all heard the old saying, ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ Well, let me tell you, the looks of yours has a lot to do with winning his heart.” Sylvia on weight loss: “Take up handfuls of flesh, squeeze hard, then let it slip through your fingers like mashed potatoes. You can squeeze off fat cells in this manner….” Sylvia also knew the key to good posture: “[F]ind a friend who when she finds you slumping will give you a good, hard whack between your shoulder blades.”
Sylvia, whose surname turns out to have been Ullback, is one of many dispensers of dubious wisdom celebrated in Monica Dale’s Advice from the Attic: Perilous Pearls of Wisdom on Beauty, Charm and Etiquette. Dale, a 46-year-old music and dance instructor from Ellicott City, self-published the compilation of antiquated tips for women this month.
Dale got her first glimpse of social decorum in action when she was still young: She grew up in a cottage on the campus of Connecticut College, then an all-female institution that she remembers as “a white-glove kind of place; they had mixers with the Coast Guard cadets.” But her first real interest in old-time etiquette took hold about 10 years ago, when she discovered Maud Cooke’s 1896 Manual of Social Forms. Cooke warned women against undue laughter, moving the hands while talking, and using long words. Dale became a collector on the spot.
“I just thought it was hilarious, though it wasn’t meant to be satirical,” she says. Today, her library of beauty and etiquette publications numbers more than 200 volumes, many bearing cringe-inducing titles such as Ugliness Is a Sin, The Ugly Girl Papers, and Talks With Homely Girls. She started her own advice book when she realized that her e-mails excerpting her collection had her girlfriends collapsing regularly in fits of mad giggling.
Dale originally subtitled her book Dusty Pearls of Wisdom, but her sister, Karen Dale Dustman, author of a primer on ferret care, pointed out that such an expression, however tongue-in-cheek, might lead to lawsuits. “I wanted to make sure nobody would use any of this advice,” says Dale. “I have a big disclaimer in the front, but also I thought ‘perilous’ would help convey that idea.”
Among the tidbits that prudence didn’t permit Dale to reprint were recipes for a gasoline shampoo and a five-day face peel “that just burned your skin off,” she says. Still, danger isn’t altogether missing from Advice: Dale includes instructions for making a turpentine face wash and for singeing the eyebrows with a hot hairpin to promote better growth. There’s also a particularly questionable cure for hair loss: arsenic injections.
Even discounting the deadlier recommendations Dale discovered, Advice documents enough speech and behavior dictums to prove that early-20th-century women faced one constant danger: a tedious, micromanaged lifestyle dictated by henpecking advice writers. And perhaps that’s what the publishers wanted, says Dale.
“I’m not an expert by any means on the serious study of women’s issues,” she says. “But it seems that by giving women a lot of stuff to think about, like exactly what their toenails should look like, or whatever, it gives them something to do so they don’t have wider ambitions.” John Metcalfe