Friday, February 15, 2019

Revisiting the 1960's and Hairstyles from my Youth

          I recently bought granddaughter Amalia a sticker book from the Usborne Series about 1960's fashion history, and became fascinated reading it.  I realized that I am a living fossil who experienced every fashion fad of that decade--especially in the two years ('68 and '69) when I was living in London and met Mary Quant. And I own a mini-dress that was worn by Twiggy in a fashion shoot--although I gave it to daughter Eleni, since I am no longer the size of Twiggy.
          The sticker book inspired me to re-post this essay from nine years ago about my peculiar hairstyles of the period.  I just wish I had as much hair now as I did then, and I don't go to the hairdresser twice a week any more--just once.  I may even re-post a related photo essay about my memories of real-life sixties fashions.

Horrible Hairdos from my Youth

Last Thursday in The New York Times Style section, a page of photographs showed the six steps to achieving a retro ‘60’s beehive hairdo. According to a hairstylist at Bumble and Bumble “The key to make this look modern and not too retro is haphazardness.” He had prepared the models at Vera Wang’s fall show with “slightly messy” beehives with tousled locks at the nape of the neck. According to The Times, “Amy Winehouse offsets hers with tattooed arms.”

Ever since “Mad Men” ushered in a widespread nostalgia for the naughty 1960’s I have been bemused as young people who were not born then celebrate that era of sin, pointed bras and three-martini business lunches.

One of the few skill sets I have down pat is how to make a beehive hairdo. The sight of the “retro beehive” whisked me down Memory Lane, recalling the sight of myself and half a dozen freshman girls lined up at the mirrored wall in the dorm bathroom, carefully teasing our long hair until it stood straight up. Lots of hair spray was involved. My daughters think that I was solely responsible for the hole in the ozone layer due to my lavish use of hair spray.

No tousled retro ironic beehives for us. Ours were as smooth and as stiff as a football helmet—hence all the urban legends about girls who never took down their beehives and ultimately learned that mice or something worse had nested within.

After teasing the hair into a state suggesting the Bride of Frankenstein, I would carefully fold it into a high French twist, securing it with a handful of hairpins and then, after using an afro pick to achieve maximum bouffant-ness, spray some more.

In my youth, a hairdo would come into fashion and we all would immediately have to have it, whether it was flattering or not. The first one I remember was the duck tail (also called D.A. for “Duck’s Ass”), the signature of “greasers” and their leather- jacketed girlfriends in the 1950’s. It took a long time for me to talk my parents into letting me have one—I was about 13 at the time—and even longer to convince them to let me add the peroxide streak that was de rigueur to go with it. I’m just sorry I don’t have a photo to show you how truly awful it looked.

Even more unforgiving was the pixie cut which I am told is now enjoying a renaissance on celebrities like Victoria Beckham. Less glamorous people, like me, ended up looking like someone who was just past chemo, or like those French women who fraternized with the Germans and were punished by having their hair cut off. I vaguely remember Jean Seberg as bringing the pixie cut into fashion. The unfortunate photo of me here in my pixie cut dates from 1958 when I was a junior in high school. 

Then I went to college in Wisconsin and mastered the non-ironic beehive. Two years later, in 1961 I transferred to U Cal Berkeley where I first encountered full-out ethnic Afros and white men with Jesus hair and beards. In graduate school in Manhattan, I remember other girls (not me) ironing their long blonde hair on an ironing board to straighten it and also setting it at night on empty orange-juice-concentrate cans.

After getting a Master’s from Columbia in 1964, I got a job in New York women’s magazines and hung around with editorial assistants who were dating those Mad Men types and drank martinis at lunch. I usually ate lunch at my desk.

Soon the Beatles came to the U.S. and Vidal Sassoon cut Twiggie’s hair into an asymmetrical bob and we all had to have some version of it. You can see my would-be Sassoon cut below. I wish I still had that mini-dress and that brooch. The photo is dated Feb. 1967.

Several haircuts have become all the rage since then—think Farrah Faucett’s feather cut and Jennifer Anniston’s whatever it was. And Kate Gosselin revisiting Sassoon. But I got married and had children and never had time any more to become a haircut fashion victim.

Now my hair has become so thin that I couldn’t possibly tease it into a beehive, ironic or not. Twice a week, first thing in the morning, I go to my hairdresser Roy Hurwitz of London Lass, because I am incapable of doing anything with my own hair. He trained under Vidal Sassoon.

Did you know that Joan Collins always wears a wig because her hair is so thin? I’m told she has 200 wigs. So does Lady Gaga, I think. Maybe wigs will become the next Big Thing.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Valentines in the U.S.--It All Started Here!

Time to re-post my annual Valentine's Day essay. I see that in last year's New York Times there was a long article about Valentines, including two photographs of Esther Howland valentines--but no mention that she was living, and began making, Valentines in Worcester, MA!

(I recently bought these English and German-made valentines at an auction--sadly, they are not from Howland or Taft.)

Worcester, MA, the once-bustling industrial metropolis 45 minutes west of Boston where I live, is enormously proud of its rather peculiar list of “famous firsts”, including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball, the first liquid-fueled rocket and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon (starring in a soon-to-be-published tell-all book “The Saga of Smiley”, printed by the Worcester Historical Museum and written by me.)

And every year about this time, you hear about how Worcester produced the first commercial valentines in this country thanks to a foresighted young woman named Esther Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine.

Esther Howland (1828-1904) attended Mount Holyoke at the same time as Emily Dickinson. She was the daughter of a successful Worcester stationer and, in 1847, she received a frilly English valentine that inspired her to ask her father to order materials from England so that she could assemble her own.  She then convinced her brother, a salesman for the company, to show a few of her valentines on his sales rounds.

The initial demand was overwhelming and Esther gathered some of her friends to help her assemble the valentines, seating them around a long table on the third floor of her home.  The company was eventually earning $100,000—a phenomenal success.

Esther is considered significant because, according to historians, she was among the first commercially successful women overseeing a female-run business, and she basically created the assembly-line system, paying the local women “liberally”.

She introduced layers of lace, three-dimensional accordion effects, and insisted that the verses be hidden inside--something you had to hunt for. She had her staff mark the back of each valentine with a red “H”.

In the Victorian era, Valentines were wildly popular, and the elaborate cards were scrutinized for clues—even the position of the stamp on the envelope meant something. Often the valentine was intended as a marriage proposal.

On Feb. 14, 1849, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin, “The last week has been a merry one in Amherst, & notes have flown around like snowflakes.  Ancient gentlemen & spinsters, forgetting time & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles – in exchange for smiles…”

In 1879—after 30 years in business—Esther Howland merged with Edward Taft, the son of Jotham Taft, a North Grafton valentine maker.  Together they formed the New England Valentine Co. (and their cards were marked “N.E.V.Co.”)

This is where Esther Howland’s title of “Mother of the Valentine” begins to get a little shaky.
It seems, upon much study, that Edward Taft’s father, Jotham Taft of North Grafton, a small village near Worcester, started the commercial valentine business in the U.S. even before Miss Howland did,  but he didn’t like to talk about it, because the Taft family were strict Quakers and Jotham Taft’s mother sternly disapproved of such frivolity as Valentines. (Full disclosure—I live in North Grafton, about a stone’s throw from where Taft worked.)

In 1836, Jotham Taft married Sarah E. Coe of Rhode Island and two years later, they welcomed twin sons.  But in 1840, one of the twins died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Taft prostrate with grief.  Jotham decided to take his wife and surviving son to Europe with him on a buying trip for the stationer who employed him, and while in Germany, he bought many valentines supplies—laces, lithographs, birds and cupids.

When he returned, Taft began making valentines with his wife’s help, and in 1844—3 years before Esther Howland graduated from college—he opened a valentine “factory” in North Grafton (then called New England Village.)  But because of his mother’s disapproval, Taft never put his own name on the valentines—only “Wood” (his middle name) or “N.E.V.” for “New England Village”.  Some believed that Taft trained Elizabeth Howland as one of his workers before she opened her own factory
Taft and Howland merged into the New England Valentine Co. in 1879, and a year later Esther’s father became ill and she left her business to care for him.  After he died, she moved in with one of her brothers and she passed away in 1904.

Unfortunately, despite all the couples who presumably found their true love thanks to Esther’s creations, the “Mother of the Valentine” never married.

In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the combined business of Taft and Howland and it became The Whitney Co,  which dominated valentine production for many years.  Instead of cards laboriously made by hand, Whitney turned to machine- printed valentines and eventually added postcards in the 1890’s.  The Whitney designs, featuring children who resembled the “Campbell Soup “ kids, were wildly popular, although more often exchanged by children than adult lovers, and in 1942 the Whitney factory closed, as a result of wartime paper shortages.