The fashions of the past, whether of dress or of thought, help to make it seem remote from today. How can people ever have worn such clothes or had such ideas? They must have been very different from us, mustn't they?
As an example of how things have changed, it is not easy to imagine many modern childcare experts proposing - as Constance J Foster does in this book - that parents should be encouraged to put the beauty of their children ahead of almost any other consideration. We would tend to sneer at those who behave as it suggests, and feel sorry for their offspring. Take the case of a child unfortunate enough to have the habit of hair-twisting or stammering: this, says Foster, is a grave affair:
Frequently psychiatric help and advice is needed, since only a thorough analysis of the child's emotional problems will clear up the difficulty.
Those emotional problems couldn't have anything to do with neurotic parents fussing over one's appearance, surely? But a nervous tic is not the only crime against attractiveness. Equally frowned on is the young woman who displays her natural shape:
There are girdles designed for every age and posture problem, ranging from the brief “panty” girdle for the girl who still wears socks and needs no garters, to the all-in-one garment that helps to distribute excess plumpness more evenly so that it seems practically to disappear. Made of lastex fabrics, some of these little girdles look no bigger than a postage stamp but they have a way of smoothing the needlessly prominent contours of the hips and abdomen.
Rough boys are not required to be girdled, but they need to be dealt with cunningly if one is to persuade them to wear hand-cream to bed at night:
Your son will have no objections if you furnish him with a pair of heavy white furnace gloves from the ten-cent store for this purpose. They will seem sufficiently masculine to suit his taste.
There is also plenty of specific advice for those whose child is not quite up to the mark, beauty-wise. Regarding the “short, stocky child”, for example:
Let this child indulge her passion for gayness by wearing slightly giddy hats, unusual shoes, and carrying a fairly large, bright pocketbook. If she is plump, pumps will cut into her instep and make the flesh bulge over unbecomingly. Monk shoes are excellent for her. Strap on shoes should be well up toward the ankle, never over the instep.
Trimness is essential for the stocky type. Collars and cuffs must be immaculate, buttons in place, snaps sewed on securely, slips where they belong, gloves newly laundered. She, even more than most girls, needs to look always tidy with that just-out-of-a-bandbox appearance.
Ugh. Passages like this may also raise modern hackles:
A highly intelligent girl, majoring in biology, said, “My college course in eugenics has made me realise the importance of choosing a mate who is physically as well as mentally superior. These traits are passed on to future generations and I want my children to have the benefit of them.”
How utterly charming and romantic. (Listen, darling they are playing our song, the one about Horst Wessel.) Equally nauseating is this:
The modern emphasis on the outer shell is not mere superficiality. Back of it lies a profound meaning. We feel beauty is the hallmark of a lady or gentleman. It represents the true distinction of breeding, good grooming and personal fastidiousness. Like the lovely glow on cherished silver, or the patina on old, loved furniture, it stands for a background of cultured living. It means the opposite of haste and waste and carelessness. Our admiration for the beautiful woman, the attractive girl and boy is no casual snobbery. We are reacting to all that is inherent in the finer things in life.
(In other words, my snobbery is better than yours... )
For those of us who have children of course, this book does have a certain appeal: it recalls a golden age, long, long ago, when kids would wear the clothes chosen for them and do as they were told.
“Attractive?”, maybe, but “respectful, polite and QUIET”, oh, yes please.