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Bustles, Bear Grease, & Burnt Brandy: 19th Century Self-Improvement Manuals in the Art & Architecture Collection


Rapidly evolving developments in printing technology and paper manufacture during the 19th century were a democratizing process which lowered costs and made books of all kinds accessible to a wider audience. In that context it is interesting that, even early on, one of the most popular genres of these inexpensive books was self-improvement. The selection that follows is the barest tip of the iceberg of what is available in the Art & Architecture Collection in this genre. These books can be charming, informative, and at times appalling, but they are always fascinating and all are worth checking out.

The Art & Architecture Collection has a sizeable collection of 19th century materials which includes many manuals on dress and behavior for ladies and gentlemen. From 1811 (before the age of the bustle) there is The Mirror of the Graces written by “A Lady of Distinction” which offers “…the most Efficacious Means of preserving Beauty, Health and Loveliness”. It features a number of attractive hand colored engravings which illustrate various ladies’ costumes for different purposes and times of day. The garments and accessories are described at length in the introductory text.

When not discussing the “all conquering power of taste” The Mirror of the Graces offers recommendations such as “…gentle and daily exercise in the open air”, and country air as “the finest bracer of the nerves and the surest brightener of the complexion”. Should that fail there is a section at the end of the book which offers recipes for various unguents and potions to clean hair and skin, remove a tan, heal “chopped” lips (note the use of spermaceti – wax from the head cavities of the sperm whale), and relieve the pain of corns. Besides these and other cosmetic mainstays such as lavender and rose waters, there are concoctions such as Madame Récamier’s Pomade which promises relief from “exercises which require…great exertion of the limbs [such] as dancing”, and which calls for “the fat of a red stag”.

Dress as a Fine Art by Mrs. Merrifield (1854) begins with a lengthy discussion of dress throughout history and is illustrated with simple line drawings of historical and contemporary garments (there are also some very charming initial cap illustrations). Mrs. Merrifield also offers her opinions on “the practice of tight lacing” and compares a woman “binding her waist by the pressure of stays” to Chinese foot binding – “the same bad taste which insists upon a small waist…decrees that a small foot is essential to beauty”.  An interesting feature of Dress as a Fine Art is the chapter “Thoughts on Children’s Dress”. It advocates clothes that do not encumber movement and notes that “Girls… were less free in their movement than boys” in the garments of the day. Mrs. Merrifield discusses binding the waist of very young girls and describes it as an “evil practice”. Evidently a bandage 3 inches wide and 2 or 3 yards long was wound around the body of the child as “breaking in for the tight lacing” which is “frequently begun so early in life”.

Taste versus Fashionable Colours by William and George Audsley (1863) praises French women as being “far superior to those of our own country” regarding “all matters of taste in costume”. They seek to remedy this discrepency by offering tips on color choices based on complexion (a common approach in many of these handbooks) as “the science of colour” – a science that includes only “four classes of complexion”. The reader is provided with lists of “good harmony” and “poor harmony” regarding color combinations for dresses, bonnets, and all the trimmings. Appropriate colors for various seasons are also thoughtfully included.

From “Putnam’s Handy-Book Series” comes Hints on Dress or What to Wear, When to Wear it, and How to Buy It by American author Ethel Gale (1872). Ms Gale offers practical advice for the budget concious as well as hints on colors and styles appropriate to hair and skin coloring, age, and body type such as “many colors at one time are to be avoided” or “no woman who respects herself, and has any appreciation of the beautiful and fitting, will dye her hair”. She also comes down hard on “tight lacing” to the point of mentioning “sudden death” as a possible deterrent – “for the woman who has drawn her waist into the meagre bounds admired by a perverted taste and who is thus everyday violating her own constitution…is incorrigible”.  An English counterpart to Hints on Dress is How to Dress on £15 a year as a Lady written by “A Lady” (usually identified as Millicent Whiteside Cook, an author of other practical household manuals) and published in 1874. This book offers a no-nonsense approach to managing on a very limited budget noting that “a ‘lady’ will always look like one” regardless of how frugal her wardrobe budget might be. There are lists of “Imaginary Wardrobes” (5-6 pair of kid gloves, 1-2 pair dog-skin gloves…) and tables of expenditures, advice on choosing fabrics, sewing (the would-be lady was expected to make her own bonnets),  and mending hints. The discussion of stays and crinolines is limited to concerns of costs and maintenance – at no point is the idea of not wearing one of these devices considered. The author advises taping the bottom steel of a crinoline to prevent “the sharp edge of the steel from cutting through the material, and also from injuring your boots”. Injury to the wearer is not mentioned.

Now that one is properly attired, The Behaviour Book (1853) by Miss [Eliza] Leslie offers many chapters of advice on all situations that a lady might encounter. This advice includes how to address viscounts, baronets, bishops, and various other noblemen and women as well as what to do when a chambermaid is not up to par when visiting a country house. Miscellaneous advice includes: “To listen at door-cracks and peep through key-holes is vulgar and contemptible”.

Not to be left out there are a number of these handbooks for gentlemen as well such as The Whole art of dress! or, The road to elegance and fashion, at the enormous saving of thirty per cent!!! &c.  by “A Cavalry Officer” (1830).

This is a small handbook which discusses a civilized approach to dress for gentlemen accompanied by “beautifully engraved illustrations”. Coats, waistcoats, pantaloons, shirts, cravatiana, pocket “hankerchiefs”, gloves, hats, shoes, boots and stockings are all discussed in detail and illustrated with simple but charming black & white plates. As in the ladies’ manuals, hints are given for tall and short men, fair and dark complexions, and tips on the care of skin and hands. Recipes for hair and skin products are included as well with ingredients such as beef marrow and burnt brandy for a hair cream.

Other items for gentlemen include Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How to Choose it by Edward Arnold (1898), and The Gentlemen’s Art of Dressing with Economy by a Lounger at the Clubs (1879 - British Library facsimile 2012).

This is a very small selection of the many self-improvement and personal development titles from the 19th century in the Art and Architecture Reading Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. For any questions or queries please email us at Many of these books are available in digital format online. Please refer to the NYPL Catalog entries for links to web sites such as the Hathi Trust and others.


History of publishing”. (2014) Encyclopaedia Britannica


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Quite entertaining.

Quite entertaining.

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