As one can see from the majority of the posts I write, I am fascinated by 19th century American society and culture. From 1800, when a young nation was just coming into being, to 1900, when a plethora of inventions and discoveries were starting to emerge, so much was changing and happening. During those years, like many other things, fashion changed too, but the ideal beautiful woman largely remained much the same.
The American Antiquarian Society is currently showing an online exhibit titled, Beauty, Virtue & Vice: Images of Women in Nineteenth-Century American Prints. In this exhibit twelve different topics are covered and a number of examples are provided to give visual testimony to their interpretation.
Some to the topics that one might expect to see are of course explored, such as, the "Standard of Beauty," "Ideal Beauty," "Women as Objects of Beauty and Desire." But, also examined are topics such as "Variations on the Beauty Standard," which explains that even women from different ethic groups (Native Americans, African Americans, Islanders) were sometimes portrayed in a beautiful light, even though the population was largely racist. On the "Threats to True Womanhood: American Slavery" page, the amalgamation pictures vividly illustrate white America's fear of race mixing, and a different take on how important it was to them to keep white beauty "protected."
Certainly the 19th century white woman was expected to remain in her sphere of influence and not to venture into the "men's world." Women in that era were felt to be the bearers of morals to their children, and thus were held to expectations that men were not subjected to. Women had to be pious, submissive, pure, and domestic. Women who did not conform to society's standards were often mocked, shunned, and sometimes ostracised from the community. But as the page, "Women in Public Life" shows, women that demanded equal rights, participated in what were considered unwholesome occupations and habits were also sometimes portrayed as beautiful.
One thing that hasn't changed since the 19th century is the notion that "sex sells." On the page "Images of Women in Advertising Strategies" beautiful women are shown to market just about everything. From sheet music, to playing cards, to hair tonic, to soap, beautiful women adorned the packaging and advertisements of products in effort to get both men and women to buy them.
Probably the most common and beloved image of women (both in the 19th century and now) is that of mother and nurse. On the page"Idealizing True Womanhood: Images of Women at Home," beautiful women perform those age old duties of mothering and healing the ones she loves. The images on this page are highly romanticised and give the viewer the idea of what women were truly mean to be and do in the 19th century.
I encourage you to take a few minutes and view the images of women in the pictures shown. In addition take time to read the text that interprets the pictures; it is almost as interesting as the pictures. The following is a link to the exhibit: