Odd 1920s Beauty Practices That Definitely Weren’t In The History Books

June 18, 2020
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Strange beauty trends have been around since people first looked in the mirror. Many resorted to any external products to change the way they looked, and that’s still the case to this day. From tattooed eyeliner to surgery to fit into designer shoes, the public definitely obsesses over their appearances, no matter what it takes.

However, the 1920s were a different time for looks. While flappers were certainly focused on beauty, mainstream society hadn’t quite caught up with science — or hygiene. These gross, and oftentimes downright bizarre, beauty practices from the Roaring Twenties are enough to make any person cringe.

1. For most of history, sporting a tan was not considered attractive. It meant you worked outside and were thus a member of the lower class. This all changed after Coco Chanel fell asleep on her yacht, as her sunburn suddenly convinced millions of women that tanning was cool.

2. Believe it or not, back in the twenties, x-ray machines were used not as a medical test, but as a method of removing hair for cosmetic purposes. When customers came back extremely ill, manufacturers realized this was probably a bad idea.

3. Even crazier, makeup products made out of radium used to be all the rage. “An ever-flowing Fountain of Youth and Beauty has at last been found in the Energy Rays of Radium!” claimed one 1918 commercial. Unsurprisingly, users of the questionable products experienced serious health problems down the road.

4. The first iteration of the hair dryer became popular during this era, but this initial attempt was actually incredibly dangerous. Poor construction and iffy mechanics resulted in severe burns, electrocution, and in some cases even death.

5. Everyone’s looking for a quick way to shed pounds without exercise, but the “fat soap” of the 1920s is by far the weirdest attempt. This strange product promised to help women lose weight and achieve the lithe body standard of the time. Spoiler: it didn’t work.

6. And of course, 1920s beauty practices wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the flappers. These daring ladies actually applied rouge to their knees in order to draw more attention to them while they were dancing.

7. Flappers also had a clever method of storing their makeup — they had shoes made up with special buckles that held compacts. This was an intentionally discreet hiding place because, while women were definitely wearing makeup at the time, it was still somewhat taboo to flaunt it.

8. Another place these flashy trendsetters would store their beauty products was in the tops of their stockings — not only to hide the them, but also to make admirers take a glance at their legs when they reached to retrieve the items.

9. It’s well-known that flappers popularized the bob, but we didn’t know just how controversial the style was. In the 1920s, short hair on women was about as shocking as shaved-off eyebrows would be today.

10. In order to achieve the curls sought by so many bob-wearing women, a seriously creepy contraption was invented: the permanent wave machine. Hundreds of tubes ran from the ceiling straight down to the wearer’s head. Talk about commitment to beauty.

11. Many beauty trends signified class. Only the well-off could afford to get their nails done, as they wouldn’t run the risk of chipping them at a grueling job. The very rich even had their friends’ portraits manicured onto their fingertips.

12. In the twenties, everyone wanted lips with a perfectly shaped cupid’s bow. Demand was so great that someone even designed a stencil to make it easier for women to achieve the coveted shape.

13. Today’s makeup trends are all about contour and cheekbones. But a century ago, round blush was all the rage. Women used it to make their faces look fuller and healthier.

14. After the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb, Americans became obsessed with Egypt. This led to a trend of very heavy eyeliner, all in an effort to emulate the beautiful Cleopatra.

15. “Vampy” makeup is still around today, but back then it had a much more literal meaning. The vampiric looks represented women’s desire to become femmes fatales, capable of dominating men and, possibly, even sucking their blood.

16. Women began shaving their armpits in the twenties, but for a pretty strange reason. Gillette’s main client during World War I was the U.S. Army. When the war ended, they shifted their marketing efforts towards the ladies and, soon after, cleanly shaved pits became the norm.

17. The Roaring Twenties was also when deodorant became a thing. Up until this point people had embraced their natural scent, but all it took was one commercial that showed a man recoiling from a kiss due to his lover’s apparent stench to send women rushing to the stores.

18. Thin brows were extremely popular during this time, a far cry from the thick ones we embrace today. This trend was inspired by silent movie actresses, who had to keep their brows thin in order to be as expressive as possible on screen.

19. Yet another crafty way women came up with to disguise their beauty compacts were clutches that looked entirely normal on the outside, but were actually used to store makeup.

20. Half moon manicures were extremely popular at this time. They’re essentially the same as a standard manicure, but the bottom part of the nail is left unpainted. Not as popular today, but definitely not as strange as getting your friend’s face painted on your fingertips.

The women of the 1920s were definitely subjected to some strange — if not incredibly dangerous — products that promised them beauty and eternal youth. But this decade was definitely not the only one guilty of glamorizing questionable habits. In fact, it’s happened all throughout history.

1. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably gotten a good chuckle from a vibrating belt gif. Taking the weight loss industry by storm, these jigglers were responsible for more giggles than gains. But it was far from the creepiest beauty invention…

2. In the 1930s, Cosmetics titan Max Factor was the mastermind behind the beauty micrometer. This torturous-looking device measured which areas of your face needed the most makeup. Charming.

3. It’s safe because it’s pink! Actually, of all the chamber-style beauty contraptions, the Vibrosaun was harmless. Inside the machine, heat and vibrations simulated exercise. While it moves those muscles, cold air was blasted into your totally relaxed face.

4. The minds behind this electric current treatment made big promises: “the equivalent of eight hours hard exercise,” they declared, “but the fortunate recipient doesn’t have to move off her comfortable couch.” Today you might call this a defibrillator.

5. There are two constants confirmed by this photo: dogs and beauty products are universal human obsessions. A person and her pooch get matching waves from a device that resembles a bunch of suspended microphones bumping into their noggins.

6. The mark of a great facial is that it involves the kind of machinery you’d see in a top dollar car wash. Really, they buffed out every imperfection.

7. Eyebrow trends are constantly changing, and back in the ’30s, an impressive arch was desirable. Electric treatments zapped out stray hairs to achieve the ideal curve. Similar processes exist today, with rising fads in brow tattooing and microblading.

8. Logistically, this product was a plain old mess. By the time you got your lashes out of the eyelash stencil, all the hard work was for naught. Though, this is probably great for scaring small children.

9. Stuck in a frumpy rut? Flag down the roadside beautician. She would give you a fresh cut right on the London sidewalks. Talk about speedy service. Admittedly, it lacked on the health code front.

10. You thought Kim Kardashian invented the contour, huh? Guess again. The trick of enhancing your best angles stretches back to the 16th century! Cosmetic entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein gave the 1935 version to her happy client.

11. Meet the shower cap’s superior: the shower hood. Basically, you enjoy all the cleansing qualities of bathing while maintaining a full face of makeup. German actress Inge Marschall gave it two thumbs up after she wiped away the mascara melting from her eyes.

12. For decades, sunlight therapy was used to combat a slew of illnesses, from glumness to tuberculosis. Members of the Arsenal football team were devotees, but the UV rays were used across the medical community, even on children.

13. If you throw a rock in Finland, you’re likely to bonk a relaxed Finn in a sauna on the head. They are sauna devotees, after all. That’s why this portable version is still manufactured today and is a popular alternative to birthing tubs.

14. Chuck your serums and hyaluronic acids in the trash. Apparently, milk is the secret salve we’ve searched for. After you finish your milk facial, drink up the rest to strengthen your bones. Or, you know, don’t.

15. New York in the 1950s hosted 24-hour health salons. If the urge to simmer in a steam cabinet struck at 3 am, you could make that happen. Glamour queens like actress Lola Fisher took full advantage of the never-closing spas.

16. Nope, not an open audition for magician’s assistants. These gals were working up a sweat in the comfort of massive steam boxes in the government-sponsored spa Roosevelt Baths in 1938.

17. What’s a twisted neck or two on the journey to sick abs? It’s not a good workout unless it’s incredibly dangerous, that was the 1930’s motto. This popular core machine fell from grace after its users suffered whiplash.

18. Before the “wet t-shirt” contest could walk, its bashful cousin, the “Neatest Figure” contest had a run. To drive their priorities home, judges put bags over the faces of contestants, successfully concealing their shame.

19. Don’t let those metal tools scare you. Maree Fox, a beauty therapist, was using ionization to smooth the skin, and it’s a proven method that continues today. This particular device was called the Electric Cathoidermie machine.

20. State of the art hair dryer or extraterrestrial brain sucker? Either way, the folks at the London Hair and Beauty Fair in 1936 were dazzled by the futuristic design. Standing dryers are undoubtedly less sci-fi influenced in current salons.

21. When they exhausted all the jiggling gadgets and beautifying tombs, some perfection chasers resorted to good ol’ fashioned plastic surgery. In the ’30s, you could get a little freshen up without leaving the beauty parlor.

Laughing at past inventions isn’t limited to the beauty field. So many items that were once normal now seem incredibly bizarre, like the bed piano. Today, when you’re sick in bed, you might pull out a laptop and watch Netflix; in 1935, you pulled out your bed piano and knocked out a few afternoon symphonies.

2. Television Glasses: Hugo Gernsback, the man known today as “The Father of Science Fiction,” dared to dream of strapping a television set to his face in 1963 — so he made it happen (and later inspired future 3D glasses, too).

3. Man from Mars Radio Hat: Speaking of entertainment on your head, in 1949, Victor T. Hoeflinch created this hat, which allowed wearers to listen to the radio on the go, so long as they didn’t mind wearing a hat that wasn’t exactly a fashion statement.

4. Dimple Maker: In the ’30s, a smile was nothing without a set of dimples to go with it. But the dimple-less were not the hopeless: the Dimple Maker could force dimples onto their smiles by digging into their cheekbones. It did not work well.

5. The First PET Scan Device: As if going in for a PET scan wasn’t scary enough, the first machine capable of performing one was this wire-wrapped monstrosity, developed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

6. Wooden Bathing Suits: These barrel-like suits were invented in 1929 and, allegedly, acted like flotation devices for swimming (wood floats, after all). But they must have been restrictive!

7. Sunscreen Vending Machine: Tennis courts, swimming pools, and beaches of the 1940s offered this vending machine, which dispensed little globs of sunscreen right into your hands. Honestly, weird as this was, it could come in handy today!

8. Cone Mask: The inventor of these masks wanted to protect the wearers’ faces from things like hail and rain. Somehow, getting pelted with rain was a big enough problem that he couldn’t just, you know, tilt his head down like three inches

9. Pedal Skates: In 1913, Charles A. Nordling understood people look for any excuse possible not to walk, so he created the pedal skates. A bit cumbersome, yeah, but unlike many other items on this list, they nobly served their purpose for a while.

10. Cigarette Pack Holder: Because smoking one cigarette at a time was totally inefficient (and totally lame by 1950’s standards), this 1955 invention allowed smokers to stop dreaming about chain smoking an entire pack and start doing it.

11. All-Terrain Car: Invented in 1936, this English automobile ascended and descended slopes as steep as 65 degrees. With, what, 12 tires, it must have cost an absolute fortune to manufacture. Speaking of all-terrain…

12. Cyclomer: With six flotation devices, the cyclomer — also called “The Amphibious Bike — was designed to function on land and in water. In practice, it was clunky on dry land, borderline deadly in the water, and no one liked it much.

13. Goofybike: So the cyclomer didn’t catch on, but that wasn’t the end of all bike-alteration efforts. The Goofybike — seen in Chicago, 1939 — sat four people, one of which worked a sewing machine that kept the bike’s weight evenly distributed.

14. Pedestrian Shield: To reduce fatalities, inventors drummed up a shield reminiscent of a train’s cowcatcher to slap on the front of automobiles. It doesn’t look like a much better alternative to the front of a car.

15. Fax Newspaper: Imagine just wanting to catch up on your daily news and waiting (and waiting) for the darn newspaper fax to show up! Cool, but a paperboy standing on the corner was probably more efficient.

16. Shower Hood: Marketed as a way to keep your makeup intact, the shower hood prevented water from hitting your hair or face, which kind of defeated the major purpose of taking a shower altogether.

17. The Baby Dangler: Today, naming your device “The Baby Dangler” would make your peers mock you at best and land you in prison at worst; but back in the day, it was the perfect name for a device that strung up a baby between mom and dad.

18. A Radio-Controlled Lawn Mower: The lawn’s not going to mow itself, so why not invent a small mower operated with a remote control? Developed in the 1950s — and later celebrated by British royalty — the device survived time and still exists!

19. Ice Mask: There were plenty of reasons to drink in the 1940s, and inventors knew it. That’s why one developed the ice mask, which advertisers touted as a cure for the morning hangover.

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