I’ll never forget how my paternal grandmother smelled like yellow Dial soap, or how she always (even up into her 80s) wore bright blue eyeshadow to bring out her eyes, and, perhaps most miraculously of all, how she had a perfectly coifed perm at all times. But when it comes to beauty memories of my mom’s mom? I come up blank.
I don’t have any memories of watching my maternal grandmother apply red lipstick at a vanity, nor do I remember smelling a whiff of Chanel No. 5 after she hugged me. She passed away when I was five—a time when I was perfectly content to run around with tangled hair—meaning that we never got around to going over her beauty routine. While she did not pass along her beauty secrets (like why she applied Vaseline all over her face before bed?), I have the next best thing: her 1950s beauty culture textbook.
Before getting married, my grandmother enrolled at a New York City cosmetology school in 1949. In a stroke of luck, my mom stumbled across the book and gave it to me, assuming I’d enjoy the flipping through it given my career as a beauty editor.
The binding of the book is falling apart and the front and back covers are filled with notes written in cursive from her fellow classmates. It was like flipping through someone’s yearbook, and I spent hours trying to decipher the faded inscriptions before even getting to the table of contents. Every few pages, I’d find things like her notes on the muscular system, sketches of bones in the face, a dried corsage.
Seeing as this textbook was, in a sense, the only beauty advice I received from my grandma, I decided to spend a week reading the book and testing out its rules. Unsurprisingly, I found a few things interesting and a few more absolutely insane things along the way.
Lesson #1: Brushing Your Hair
Um, apparently I’ve been doing it wrong my entire life? The book says the outside bristles of your brush should first touch the scalp and then the rest of the bristles should make contact with your scalp—with pressure—before you pass it through the lengths of your hair. You are also supposed to brush your hair thoroughly before any shampoo to “remove any superficial dust and dirt and free the scalp of accumulated scaliness.” In my normal life, I would literally never do this. I found this to be tedious and unnecessary, though really concentrating on having the bristles touch my scalp did feel like a mini massage.
Lesson #2: Shampooing
The qualities of a successful shampoo? “A good soap, good water, and good technique.” I had to re-read the pages on what constitutes a decent “shampoo soap” approximately 17 times, and I still came away confused. The only thing I was left with was that, in 1950, shampoo soap with olive oil was considered to be best for the hair and skin, and I couldn’t find a single passage about the importance of conditioning and rebuilding the hair shaft after damage. Not using conditioner sounds like torture. And duh, sulfates weren’t mentioned at all. I gave up and did my own thing.
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Lesson #3 Egg Rinses
You know that age-old DIY about washing your hair with eggs to add shine? There was an entire section devoted to egg rinses, which were reportedly used to help correct dry, over-bleached, or badly dyed hair. This consisted beating the egg yolks and whites together and working it through the hair. I live in New York City. Eggs are expensive. I’m stubborn (a family trait that, I've been told, I also share with my grandmother), and I skipped.
Lesson #4 Painting My Nails
“Brilliantly colored, long tipped nails on broad, stubby fingers or a short hand look like claws.” Damn. That was way harsh, beauty textbook. I dig a neon purple polish, but the book told me that natural-looking nails without very long free edges are “usually” the most attractive in an almond shape, so I went with pale pink nail polish instead. Snoozeville, but whatever. (For the record, my grandmother always had long, strong nails.)
(A photo of my grandmother and grandfather before they got married)
Lesson #5 Applying Rouge.
Not blush. Rouge. It’s the same thing, but we’re attempting to follow the rules, OK? To pick out the best color for my skin tone, the book told me to pinch the skin on the back of my wrist until it was red. Whatever color my skin turned, I should reach for a blush—sorry, rouge—in the same shade. Crude, but effective: The shade was a pale rosy pink and I was told to apply in a broad crescent shape to the full parts of my cheeks under the middle of my eyes with my ring finger. Conclusion? The blush shade and placement was strangely flattering. The process, however, sucked.
Lesson #6: Applying Lipstick
The chapter on applying makeup sounded familiar enough: according to the book, the trend for makeup is all about embracing the client’s personality and accentuating their natural features. Finally, something I’m into!
So, for lipstick, I was instructed to look for a color that was basically my lip color but better. To find out the best match, I had to turn back my lower lip and try to mimic the color of the inner mucous membrane, which for me is a light fleshy pink. Again, sort of a weird process, but the end result was quite flattering.
As you can expect, I found my immersion class in 1950s beauty to be somewhat antiquated. (Using only powder instead of foundation and nixing neon polish? No, thanks.) While I’m not sure how grandmother felt about her beauty textbook, I did learn a few things about her along the way. She took countless notes and her handwriting was beautiful. (Girlfriend can sketch the human anatomy like it’s nobody’s business!)
While I may not have had my own beauty routine forever altered, spending a week with my grandmother’s textbook convinced me that, if we had the time, we would have spent many nights having thoughtful conversations about eye creams, face masks, and lots of pink rouge. Like grandmother, like granddaughter.