In 1912 and 1913, having no sense of foresight about declaring a scientifically ideal specimen of humanity, Cornell University touted the 24-year-old, 5' 7" (1.7m), 171lb. (77.56kg), 35-30-40, illness-resistant, blue-eyed blonde Elsie Scheel as the "perfect woman."
I suspect most people would leave it at that. Skim the article, move on, perhaps reflect briefly on how physical ideals change over time, perhaps with a touch of bitterness for modern conventions of beauty.
But there is much more to be learned here.
Ms. Scheel's description revealed a woman highly engaged in her own health. Her habits included no "delicacies," no tea, no coffee, little if any candy (she had "no taste" for it), and "bracing tramps" as opposed to dances.
A student of horticulture with an ambition to grow vegetables on her father's farm, she tells the paper that she is an ardent suffragette and that 'if she were a man, she would study mechanical engineering as she likes to work about an automobile.'
The article about her, and the glowing praise of the newspaper scans, provide a valuable educational insight into the American feminine ideal of one hundred years ago -- but Scheel wasn't the "perfect woman" for 1913 Cornell University because of her body alone.
She was a well-traveled university student with a "splendidly alert mind" who followed an "Athletic, Fresh Air" lifestyle, which is a "Product of Modern Civilization."
She exhibited intelligence. Fearlessness. Happiness in simplicity.
Oh, and a firm belief in eugenics.Whoops
Frustratingly, the article scan cuts off just above where it mentions eugenics. Luckily, through the astonishing magic of Google, I found the whole page
inside the archived issue of that very newspaper: the Sunday Morning Star
of Wilmington, Delaware, February 2nd, 1913.
Let's take a look:
"But what is the secret of your own wonderful health? Did you follow any special system of living?"
"Not at all," answered Miss Scheel. "It is simply natural for me to be healthy, but the real reason is to be found in the clean living which has characterized my ancestors on both sides. None of them was rich, but they all lived clean, sane lives."
That one statement of Miss Schell is a wonderful testimony to our eugenics theories, in which, by the way, she is a firm believer. The Venus de Milo was the product of the skilled hand and brain of a single artist, but this modern "perfect woman" represents the best of the whole host of her forefathers.
"Women should be able to exact as much from the men they marry as the men demand of them, and if they must continue to passively accept men as they are, then the race will degenerate," said she emphatically."
The "perfect woman" of 1913 was a eugenicist, an academic scientific racist, like far too many intelligent people of her time.
It's like the most delicious dinner in the world, served on a plate of asbestos.
It's like the most comfortable bed in the world, built on a frame of plutonium.
It's like the most moving concerto in the world, played on vuvuzelas.
It's like... well, it's like a smart, healthy, productive person who turns out to be a racist.
, folks, is how much an ideal can change in 100 years. All for the better. All for the better.