Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South

Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South

Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South

Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South

Excerpt

In her autobiographical novel, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, fugitive slave Hannah Crafts provides a damning portrait of the planter class that kept her in bondage until her escape to the North in 1857. Although a few of the white women for whom Crafts worked displayed a paternalistic kindness that softened the cruelties of her life’s station, most were consumed by the evils of slavery. Mrs. Wheeler, the last mistress Crafts served before escaping, was one of these. From the moment the two women met, Crafts felt uneasy. “Notwithstanding her sociality and freedom of conversation,” Crafts writes, “there was something in her manner that I did not like.” Crafts’s suspicions were well-founded. Mrs. Wheeler was an impulsive, manipulative mistress, the embodiment of the excesses of power afforded by her class and race. After just a few days in her service, Crafts concluded that “[t]here seemed no end to her vanities, her whims, and caprices.”

But Mrs. Wheeler got her comeuppance, one that nearly ruined her life. It came in a small box sold by a chemist to Crafts. And it was not, as we might expect, a poison, at least not in the traditional sense. The Wheelers had moved to Washington, D.C., from their plantation in North Carolina so that Mr. Wheeler might secure a position in the federal government. Having had no luck himself in the matter, the hapless Mr. Wheeler convinced his wife that she, as a beautiful woman, might succeed where he had not by persuading the gentleman in charge of patronage that her husband was deserving of an office. She agreed, but before undertaking the mission she asked that Crafts retrieve the box recently procured from the chemist. In it was a very fine and soft white face powder, which when applied, Mrs. Wheeler had been told, would produce a “most marvellous [sic] effect.” “The skin, however sallow and unbeautiful,” Crafts wrote of the product’s promise, “would immediately acquire the softness and delicacy of childhood. Tan, or freckless [freckles], or wrinkles, or other unseemly blotches would simultaneously disappear.” Wanting to look her best before going out into the world to attend to this most important task, Mrs. Wheeler applied the powder. According to Crafts, it seemed to work: “I had never seen her look better.”

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