The Secrets of Beauty & Mysteries of Health

Cover of "Secrets of Beauty"
Cover of “Secrets of Beauty”

In 1886, the wealthy New Orleans society couple James and Cora Brown-Potter visited England, where they had the privilege of spending a weekend with the Prince of Wales (the future King George V). But privately, sparks were flying: Cora had announced to James that she was going on stage, with or without his consent. There were also rumors of a love affair with the Prince of Wales himself. James soon returned to America with their eight-year-old daughter Anne, but without Cora. Though they wouldn’t be formally divorced until 1900, their marriage was over.

Cora remained in England, one of the first American socialites to become a stage actress. She made her debut in 1887 at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. Oscar Wilde, writing anonymously for The Court and Society Review, said “With regard to Mrs. Brown–Potter, as acting is no longer considered absolutely essential for success on the English stage, there is really no reason why the pretty bright-eyed lady who charmed us all last June by her merry laugh and her nonchalant ways, should not—to borrow an expression from her native language—make a big boom and paint the town red. We sincerely hope she will; for, on the whole, the American invasion has done English society a great deal of good. American women are bright, clever, and wonderfully cosmopolitan.”

Frontispiece and title page of "Secrets of Beauty"
Frontispiece and title page of “Secrets of Beauty”

Born Mary Cora Urquhart (1857-1936), Cora hept her husband’s surname for the rest of her stage career. For the next decade, Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter and Harold Kyrle Bellew had a successful partnership and toured extensively. Cora went so far as to assume management of Savoy Theatre in London, made famous in the 1880s by Gilbert & Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte, but she was not able to reverse the theatre’s declining attendance.

In 1908, when she was 51 and nearing the end of her acting career, Potter wrote The Secrets of Beauty & Mysteries of Health. Given her life story, it’s unclear why she chose the modest California firm of Paul Elder & Company to publish her book. However, this was the three-year period following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when Elder was trying to make a go of it in New York City; perhaps Elder and Potter contacted each other there.

Cora Brown-Potter in 1887, after she had begun her stage career in England. Photo by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn  (1847-1908)

From her introduction, Potter hints that she will bring what today we might call a “feminist sensibility” to the work:

We women are no longer puppets on the stage of life, placed here or there for show or effect by mere men; we are living, we are free, at last we are true citizenesses of the world, bound, not by the feudal ties of serfdom or fealty, but by the larger and ennobling bonds of citizenship and patriotism. Through centuries of darkness and oppression, through ages of doubt and despair, have we struggled and toiled till at length we have reached the glorious prize of liberty, which now is ours, ours, OURS!

However, she shies away from radical departure of social norms. In the last chapter, euphemistically entitled “The Torso,” she argues in favor of corsets (provided they are properly fitted), noting that she performed her entire stage career whilst corseted.

Dust jacket of “Secrets of Beauty”

Most notably–and dangerously–from a 21st-century viewpoint are the large number of recipes for tonics and makeup. The ingredients often read like the inventory of a compounding pharmacy, such as this recipe (Potter calls them “receipts”) for a skin lotion on page 154: “tincture of benzoin 5 drops, zinc oxide ½ dram, glycerin 1-½ dram, lime water to 1 ounce.” Displaying the medical ignorance of the era, Potter talks in near-glowing terms of such highly toxic metals as arsenic, antimony and mercury, such as an ointment made from yellow mercuric oxide for unsticking one’s eyelids in the morning. (Needless to say, please DO NOT try any of these recipes yourself.)

The reviewer for the San Francisco Call on 24 May 1908 was sanguine: “While there is little original material in the book, there is much that is interesting and some of it is no doubt valuable. The style of writing is poor, but no pretense is made for style. The book is beautifully printed and bound, and contains a number of reproduction of pictures of Mrs. Potter in her various characters of the stage.”

Cora Brown-Potter’s last British stage appearance was in 1912. She died on 12 February 1936, at the age of 78, at her villa in Beaulieu-sur-Mer not far from Monaco along the French Riviera. Shortly before her death, Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter became a French citizen.

Page 22-23 of "Secrets of Beauty"
Pages 22-23 of “Secrets of Beauty”
Page 154-5 of "Secrets of Beauty"
Pages 154-5 of “Secrets of Beauty”
Pages 234-5 of "Secrets of Beauty"
Pages 234-5 of “Secrets of Beauty”

The Art & Ethics of Dress

When you open Eva Olney Farnsworth’s Art & Ethics of Dress (1915), you are immediately struck by the pen-and-ink drawings of Audley B. Wells. But just as memorable are Olney’s exhortations that women can dress well and healthily, no matter what their shape or size. This remarkable book was ahead of its time: Olney rails against corsets and other restrictive underclothes, the fashion industry which is only in search of novelty, and high-heeled shoes and their ravages upon women’s feet (ninety-five years later and we are still fighting that battle).

If a woman has “a waist circumference that is altogether clumsy and awkward,” Olney describes how she can dress to accentuate her other features, at the same time admonishing that “she must consistently endeavor to induce all the symmetry of figure she can achieve through every means open to her in the gymnasium.” In a telling comment about the economy of the times, Olney writes:

Even an employee who is earning the most modest income may have in her wardrobe all that her business or social duties call form, and its items will be once individual and fitting the occasion. One year she may add to her store a simple evening gown and a tailor-made dress; the next she will find occasion to buy one afternoon gown and perhaps a big cloak suitable for steamer or railroad traveling, and the third she may make additions to her lingerie.

How fortunate we are to be living in a age where we need not restrict the purchase of undergarments to once every three years!

In the appendix, Olney reveals an undergarment of her own design, the “Patricia Garment,” patented on 15 December 1914. Designed for adolescent women, it is “a corset substitute, and will meet the needs of all who enjoy physical freedom. It is a four-in-one garment which combines the necessary support for the bust and clothing with room for growth and development of the torso.”

cover of "Art and Ethics of Dress"
cover of "Art and Ethics of Dress"
Title page of "Art and Ethics of Dress"
Title page of "Art and Ethics of Dress"
"Art and Ethics of Dress," page 30. "Nothing is so glaring as the latest novelty."
"Art and Ethics of Dress," page 30. "Nothing is so glaring as the latest novelty."
Art and Ethics of Dress p34
"Art and Ethics of Dress," page 34-35. Beautiful Japanesque dresses.
Art and Ethics of Dress p55
"Art and Ethics of Dress," page 55. "The Patricia Garment"