A Sparkling Vintage Life


T is for Tonic

I became interested recently in the concept of a “spring tonic,” something I’d run across now and then in historical fiction, but was never too sure what it was. So, belatedly, I looked it up. One of the dictionary definitions of “tonic” is “something that invigorates, restores, refreshes or stimulates.”


So I dug further. Turns out a “spring tonic” is a tincture, tea, or soup made by boiling the early greens of spring, such as dandelions, rhubarb, sassafrass, and nettle. According to the trusty Farmer’s Almanac, “The early settlers were firm believers in the tonic effects of eating spring greens: they were said to stimulate the digestion, purify the blood, cure scurvy and ague, combat rheumatism, and repel kidney stones after a long cold winter of inactivity.

“Rich in vitamins and trace minerals, these cleansing greens and roots were prepared and drunk in early spring, providing much-needed nourishment and energy after a nutrient-poor winter. Tonics also stimulated the appetite, the circulation, and bodily functions as settlers got ready for physical farm labor.”

If you’d like to try making a spring tonic of your own, the Internet abounds with simple recipes. Just be sure you know what you’re doing; don’t use chemically-treated plants, and use only the stalks of rhubarb, never the leaves, as the leaves are poisonous.

S is for Skirts

I love to wear skirts. I think they’re so much more comfortable and flattering than jeans or slacks (on my admittedly zaftig shape). I like the way skirts swish around my legs in summer, creating their own breeze when I walk. I like tucking my legs up underneath for warmth when I sit (of course, it has to be the right kind of skirt for this kind of maneuver … a pencil skirt won’t do the trick).

Skirts are versatile. In 1964, Genevieve Dariaux wrote, “With several skirts, blouses, sweaters, and an assortment of belts it is possible to be very attractively dressed and even to create the impression of possessing a rather vast wardrobe, all for a minimum investment.”

But for a reason I can’t fathom, she goes on to say “a skirt can be worn with a sweater or blouse day in, day out, from one end of the year to the other, almost anywhere at all–except on a city street (unless it is covered by a coat). What? Why would a skirt be considered inappropriate on a city street in 1964? That makes no sense to me. If anyone knows the answer to that puzzling statement, please post it in the comments.

Q is for Quality

Quality, when applied to clothes, is another of those words that can sound fusty and outdated to a modern ear. In an age of fast fashion, cheap materials, and instant everything, who has time to bother about quality? I’ve certainly worn my share of “great deals” that faded or fell apart after two or three washings, or shoes that looked fabulous only on the shoe rack and were sheer torture to wear.

In Ain’t Misbehavin’, Dot Rodgers experiences something similar: “Dot caught the bride glancing her way and lifted her rouged lips in what she hoped was a brilliant smile, all the while striving to rise above the scratchy lace trim torturing her collarbone. This gown is the absolute limit. The dainty shoes, too, that had looked so scrumptious in the footwear display at Marshall Field’s, proved no match for the length of Pastor Rooney’s droning remarks about the blessings of holy matrimony and whatnot.”

The question of high quality vs. cheap is not a new one. In The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance (1943) Grace Margaret Morton wrote, “The importance of good fabrics cannot be overemphasized, as good lines cannot be achieved in cheap or shoddy materials. As fabrics play an important role in style, so do fit and workmanship; cheap workmanship and poor fit can never be concealed.”

Veronica Dengle (1946) says it more colorfully: “Do not buy clothes of such poor material that they are ‘sleazy looking’ and out of shape after a few wearings. Cheap materials come back from the cleaner with crooked hems, shrunken sleeves, and gaping necklines. Learn the difference between ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive.’ ”

Money doesn’t necessarily equal quality, though. There’s plenty of high-priced schlock out there, as well as sturdy, well-crafted bargains. Genevieve Dariaux (1964) reminds us, “A dress marked down to half price and worn only once is sheer extravagance, while a perfect little custom-made suit costing six times as much and worn with confidence day in and day out during eight months a year for several years is an outstanding bargain.”

(If you’re interested in looking more deeply into cheap fashion and its surprising impact on our closets, our economy, and our world, pick up the excellent book Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline.)

With a practiced eye, it’s possible to find well-made clothes at less-than-vertigo-inducing prices. Just be patient, watch for sales, and learn to recognize signs of quality when you shop, such as straight seams and hems, securely sewn buttons, easy-gliding zippers, no weird gaps or puckers in the construction. When you find yourself reaching for your favorite garments week after week, you’ll be glad you did.

M is for Mascara (and Maybelline)

Image source: retro-advertising.com

If there’s one cosmetic I hate to leave the house without, it’s mascara. Unadorned, my pale lashes cause people to ask if I’m feeling a bit peaked, to use  an antique euphemism for you look like death warmed over.

Today on M-day I’m lumping “mascara” and “Maybelline” together because, for many years, the two words were synonymous. According to The Maybelline Story, a book written by Sharrie Williams (grandniece of Maybelline’s founder), in 1915 Tom Lyle Williams developed a compound to help his sister, Mabel, who had singed her eyebrows and eyelashes in a kitchen accident. Tom observed how she mixed coal dust with Vaseline petroleum jelly to darken the remaining hairs. Armed with a rudimentary chemistry set, Tom worked https://www.amazon.com/Maybelline-Spirited-Family-Dynasty-Behind-ebook/dp/B008RDGIVCout a more suitable substitute. Ultimately the final product–not yet called mascara but simply “Maybelline,” as in “Wait here while I put on my Maybelline”–was manufactured by the Parke-Davis Laboratories in Michigan. Tom Lyle (always the two names together) named his company after Mabel, the product’s inspiration, who was employed at the company, along with several other family members.

While some sources credit Frenchman Edouard Rimmel, a perfumer, with the inventing the product. Rimmel’s mascara also was a mixture of coal dust and Vaseline, Maybelline surely did invent the cake mascara, which consisted of a solid cake of mascara in a tin, accompanied by a tiny applicator brush. (Today Besame Cosmetics makes an up-to-date version of cake mascara, which is surprisingly versatile as an eye liner and brow darkener as well. I’ve been using it with excellent results.) Revlon, a company founded by Charles Revson, later invented the wand-type mascara in a tube we’re familiar with today.

One of the obstacles the Williams family had to overcome in the World War I years was the negative reaction to eye makeup, which at the time was associated with theater people and prostitutes, not “nice” ladies. The company helped change attitudes by hiring wholesome-looking models and film stars in their advertising. In the 1920s, the public warmed to eye makeup as the flapper darkened her brows and lashes. And mascara has been with us ever since. Great Lash, Maybelline’s want mascara in the iconic pink-and-green tube, has been a bestseller since it’s introduction in the Sixties.

I was surprised to learn that Maybelline was headquartered in Chicago for decades. Chances are my fictional characters Marjorie and Dot would have “put on their Maybelline” in the 1920s! In 1967 Maybelline was sold to L’Oreal and today is known as “Maybelline New York.”


H is for Harmony

…as in, does anyone harmonize anymore?

In this article, Tim Challies makes the point that the demise of hymnal use in church, in favor of projecting the lyrics on slides, has had a detrimental effect on people harmonizing in church. No doubt the decline of music education in the schools has had a similar effect on the general population. Here’s a clip of a congregation singing in harmony together, if you’ve never heard it done.

But do we even sing at all anymore, anywhere, much less learn to harmonize? I sing, but I belong to both a church worship team and a community choir, and I’m rather an oddball besides. 🙂 These days it seems we leave singing up to the paid professionals, as if ordinary mortals can’t find joy and satisfaction in singing just for fun.

I’ll leave you with these heartening clips of families harmonizing together here and here.

Do you ever sing in harmony just for fun?


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