Who is Miss Abigail?

Abigail Grotke
Silver Spring, MD
email: missabigail at missabigail dot com
twitter: @DearMissAbigail

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Miss Abigail has a collection of over 1,000 classic advice books, spanning from 1822 to 1978 and covering a variety of topics, from love and romance to etiquette and charm. The collection sparked the idea for this site, then a book, Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage, which has inspired an Off-Broadway production of the same name!


Posts Tagged ‘1840s’

Ball Dress

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

the attraction of modesty[Written back during 42nd’s second inauguration…] Well, it’s inaugural weekend here in Washington, D.C., and the city is just swarming with cowboy hats and security forces. I’m terribly excited to have been invited to the “Popular Vote Inaugural Ball,” sponsored by my lovely friends Molly, Jocelyn, and Bryan at a private location on Capitol Hill. Casual dresser that I am, I decided to consult my books to help figure out what to wear. The following is from Female Beauty, written by Mrs. A. Walker in 1840. Now where did I put my ostrich feathers?

1840: Ball Dress

The ball dress requires a union of beauty, elegance, lightness, and magnificence. All the resources of the toilet must be lavished upon it. No trivial embroidery or ornaments of gold or silver must glitter there: their place is supplied with pearls, diamonds and other jewels. . . .

For full ball dress: ~ white satin shoes; very beautiful open work silk stockings; satin slip trimmed with blonde; dress composed of the most magnificent materials, such as lace elegantly worked in colonades, with two rich flounces; figured blonde trimmed with blonde; similar materials plain but embroidered with variegated silks; the blonde trimmings raised up with flowers; trimmings formed of several bouquets of flowers, and raised by a bouquet on the knee; body ornamented with draperies of blonde, fastened on the shoulders by ornaments similar to those of the trimming (except the flowers, for nothing is in worse taste than wearing flowers on the shoulders); a bouquet at the side; head-dress of flowers, pearls, ostrich feathers or marabouts; jewels of pearl, amethyst, ruby, topez, chrysolite, or diamonds; scarf or shawl of blonde. . . .

It was formerly the custom to wear ball-dresses so low in front, as almost to amount to an indecent exposure of those charms which cease to be attractive when unblushingly obtruded. The fashion has changed, and the ball-room no longer presents a collection of semi-nude female figures.

Through a light tissue of tulle or gauze, the skin appears much whiter, more beautiful, and it conceals the perspiration and redness, which often streak the skin and the neck, in dancing. Besides the attraction of modesty, the most powerful charm that women possess, will make this simple fichu the most elegant part of dress.

Source: Walker, Mrs. A. Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress. New York: Scofield and Voorhies, 1840.
~ pp. 355-57 ~

Tightness in Shoes

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

exceedingly ridiculousSo I’ve got this weird thing ~ I’m easily irritated by the sound of loud shoes on the sidewalk behind me when walking down the street. I don’t know why, maybe it has something to do with my dislike of high heels. Ya think that could be it? Anyway, I found this little gem when reading Mrs. A. Walker’s Female Beauty: As Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress. While she doesn’t actually agree with my theory that all women should wear flat shoes ~ they’ve just got to be better than those pointy beasts! ~ Mrs. Walker does make some valuable observations.

1840: Tightness in Shoes

Ladies are very apt to torture their feet, to make them appear very small. This is exceedingly ridiculous: a very small foot is a deformity. True beauty of each part consists in the proportion it bears to the rest of the body.

A tight or ill-made shoe not only destroys the shape of the foot, it produces corns and bunions; and it tends to impede the circulation of the blood. Besides, the foot then swells and appears larger than it is, and the ankles become thick and clumsy.

The pernicious effect of tight or ill-made shoes is evident also in the still and tottering gait of these victims of a foolish prejudice: they can neither stand upright, walk straight, nor enter a room properly.

To be too short, is one of the greatest defects a shoe can have; because it takes away all chance of yielding in that direction, and offering any compensation for tightness in others, and, in itself, it not only causes pain and spoils the shape of the foot by turning down the toes and swelling up the instep, but is the cause of bad gait and carriage.

Very bright coloured shoes, except in full dress, are in very bad taste, and make the foot appear large.

Wearing slippers down at the heel, is a slovenly habit, exposes the heel to cold, and causes an unbecoming development of it.

Source: Walker, Mrs. A. Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress. New York: Scofield and Voorhies, 1840.
~ pp. 345-46 ~

What to Wear to the Senior Prom?

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

where the bosom is smallQ Dear Miss Abigail:

What do you suggest that I can wear to my senior prom? I’m 1.76m and 50kg, but kinda flat and thus relatively heavier on the bottoms.


A Dear Natalie:

Hmm…if I were to translate those dimensions into “American” terms, lets see, you would be…um…well, in any case, I think I can help with the flat chested/heavy bottom problem. I’ve been dying to use an excerpt from this 1840s book given to me by a friend. Female Beauty, written by Mrs. A. Walker, has a much longer title than I can possible fit here. It is also completely falling apart (there is a huge chunk missing from the middle, unfortunately), but what I do have is wonderful. Make sure you look at the illustrations (below) ~ you won’t regret it!

1840: Peculiarities of Shape, &c.

Many peculiarities must depend upon fashion; but still more on the style of the figure.

Tall thin women may wear a great deal of clothing, or loose flowing drapery, bright coloured dresses of silk, and several rows of trimming; whilst short stout women will appear to the greatest advantage in dark coloured gowns close to the shape of the body, and merely easy in the skirt, with very little trimming, &c.

Apparent width may be given to narrow shoulders, by having the epaulettes of the dress, when epaulettes are worn, very full on the extremity of the shoulders, and the bosom and back of the dress running in oblique folds, from the point of the shoulder to the middle of the bust.

A waist which is neither long nor short, neither compressed unnaturally above nor below, will always be most agreeable to the enlightened and cultivated eye; while it will, at the same time, give the power of adjusting the dress in the most graceful manner. On such a waist, dresses disposed in the stomacher form may be very happily adopted, or the full plaitings of the blouze disposed to advantage. In either case, if the waist is but even a little too long, the line of beauty is lost, and that loss will not be compensated by the mere circumstance of being slender.

A long waist is unbecoming to a short figure, where the bosom is small; but where there exists considerable plumpness and fulness, the waist should have its natural length.

If the hips are large and high, the body of the dress should be long, whatever the stature.

By wearing the dress full at the shoulders and at the hips, the waist will by contrast appear smaller; and this is a much better plan than tight lacing.

If the waist still appears thick, a stomacher in front will further relieve it; and, behind, the dress may be plain and wide across the shoulders, and drawn in gathers to a narrow point at the bottom of the waist. ~ See Plate IV [below]. where, though the waist is not naturally too thick, it is further reduced by such means.

Female Beauty is blessed with having beautifully colored illustrations, depicting, as far as I can tell, the “before” and “after” pictures of young ladies in certain fashion dilemmas. I scanned a two-page image of the book to show you what it’s like ~ notice the cutout on the page on the right.

2 page spread

This allows you to flip back and forth. Bad, good! Bad, good! Oooh, lovely! Now, I must admit that I had a bit of trouble figuring out which was the “good” version, and although I thought it was the one on the right (below), friends consulted insist the better dress is the one on the left. And the caption for the one on the left, by the way, says “Management of Thick Waist,” crediting J. T. Bowen of 94 Walnut Street in Pennsylvania with creating the lithographs, so they must be right.


Source: Walker, Mrs. A. Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress. New York: Scofield and Voorhies, 1840.
~ pp. 331-32 ~

The Breath

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

fatal to friendship and to loveQ Dear Miss Abigail:

Sometimes I get self-conscious when talking to people because I have bad breath. It has lasted about three to four years now. I’m sixteen. Will I ever talk “carefree” again?


A Dear Viv:

According to Mrs. A. Walker in this excerpt from her book Female Beauty, you might want to think about consulting some kind of “medical man.” Take action soon ~ before all of your friends turn away, no longer willing to hear your carefree “whispers of confidence.” We certainly wouldn’t want that to happen!

1840: The Breath

Foul yellow teeth covered with tartar, are not only frightful to the sight, but communicate foetid effluvia to the breath, which is absolutely disgusting. Of all the antidotes to love, a foul breath is the most effectual; for, under the enchantment of a gracious smile, lies a mortifying and insuperable repulse.

No female can be too attentive, or take too much pains, in averting this dreadful calamity, for calamity it really is; the fond husband turns with ill-concealed loathing from the treacherous salute, and the friend who has listened to the whisper of confidence will not again submit herself to the infectious atmosphere. The feeling of disgust is destructive, alike fatal to friendship and to love.

Extreme attention to cleanliness of the teeth and mouth, a regular life, early hours, and wholesome food, can alone preserve the natural purity of the breath.

The Tongue, Throat, &c. In unhealthy persons, a kind of mucus sometimes exists upon the tongue, which ought to be removed, as it covers and destroys the delicacy of the papillae or little eminences which are the organs of taste, and must besides be offensive.

The throat should be gargled every morning with fresh water.

If the breath be in the slightest degree unpleasant, and there is a certainty that it does not arise from the teeth, it must originate from a disordered state of the stomach or of the lungs. Attention to the state of the digestive organs is indespensable in the first case; and the last requires generally the aid of a medical man.

Above all things, it must be remembered that the teeth cannot long continue sound if the diet be unwholesome or the digestion impaired.

It was a custom of the Grecian women, in order to improve this portion of their personal attractions, to hold a piece of myrtle between their teeth. The Roman ladies of our day have still a strong predilecation for the myrtle. But the use of masticatories is a bad practice; and the pure sweetness resulting from health and cleanliness is far more delightful than all the artificial perfumes of the medicinal gums.

Source: Walker, Mrs. A. Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress. New York: Scofield and Voorhies, 1840.
~ pp. 199-201 ~

Music Etiquette

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Passing along few more etiquette rules from an 1848 book for gentlemen, featured earlier this week.

This one goes out to all the musicians (and music lovers) in the crowd!

If you intend to sing, do not affect to refuse when asked, but at once accede.
Endeavor to adapt the style of your song to the character of your audience.
If you are singing a second, do not, as it were, drag on, or tread upon the heels of your prima; people seldom attribute this to superior knowledge, but usually to want of judgment.
If playing an accompaniment, do not forget that your instrument is intended to aid, not to interrupt; that the instrument is to be subordinate to the song.
Never converse while singing or playing is going on.
When a lady is going to the piano, if near her, rise and give her your arm; if you can read music, turn over the leaves for her at the proper time.
If you are at a concert or a private musical party, do not beat time with your feet or cane upon the floor.

Conversation Etiquette from 1848

Monday, January 18th, 2010

“Be sparing of anecdote, and only resort to it when you have a good illustration of some subject, or a piece of information of general interest. Do not attempt to relate every particular; but seize upon the grand points. Never relate the same anecdote the second time to the same company.”

This tip comes from the 1848 itty bitty book (about 2 x 3 inches), A Hand-book of Etiquette for Gentlemen, penned by an unnamed “American Gentlemen.” Here are a few more miscellaneous conversation rules to keep in mind while posting on Facebook:

If you are a wit, do not let your witty remarks engross the whole conversation, as it wounds the self-love of your hearers, who also wish to be heard, and becomes excessively fatiguing.
Flattery is a powerful weapon in conversation; all are susceptible to it. It should be used skillfully, never direct, but inferred; better acted than uttered. Let it seem to be the unwitting and even the unwilling expression of genuine admiration, the honest expression of the feelings.
When conversing with young and gay women, do not discourse of metaphysics, but chat about the last fashion, the new opera or play, the last concert of novel, &c.; With single ladies past twenty-five, speak of literary matters, music, &c.;, and silently compliment them by a proper deference to their opinions. With married ladies, inquire about the health of their children, speak of their grace and beauty, &c.;
Never introduce your own affairs for the amusement of the company; such a discussion cannot be interesting to others, and the probability is that the most patient listener is a complete gossip, laying the foundation for some tale to make you appear ridiculous.