How Women Look: Standards of Beauty and Female Stereotypes in Product Advertising

Today’s post was written by Laney Stevenson, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’ve gathered together some registered patent labels representing standards of beauty for women in the first half of the 20th century as well as depictions of women reinforcing stereotypes commonly held at the time. All of the labels are from Record Group 241, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Case Files for Registered Product Labels, 1874-1940, NAID 563415. These patent labels have been digitized and will soon be available in the National Archives Catalog.

8208 – The Baroness Cigars – Schmidt & Co., 1901 (NAID 45648769)

The Baroness Cigars, 1901 – This label depicts a series of women in the style of Charles Dana Gibson’s creation of the “Gibson Girl.” She reflects the standards of feminine beauty from the turn of the century with her fine features, upswept hair, and demure gaze.

42888 – Miss Sophomore Slip – The Durable Undergarment Company, 1933

Miss Sophomore Slip, 1933 – By the mid-1930s, the ideal female figure was small-waisted and slim-hipped to accentuate the elegant and form-fitting clothing styles. Of course, this silhouette was unrealistic for most women and was achieved with corsets, slips, and other undergarments.

47205 – Squeeze Me Oranges and Grapefruit – International Fruit Corporation, 1935 (NAID 18573624)

Squeeze Me Oranges and Grapefruit, 1935 – The bobbed hair and youthful features of the 1920s continued to be a popular look for women well into the 1930s and her alluring gaze is an added enticement in this playful advertisement for citrus fruit.

50783 – Zip-O-Wrap Dresses – Matsil Brothers, 1937 (NAID 24282276)

Zip-O-Wrap Dresses, 1937 – More evidence of the often unrealistic proportions of the ideal female silhouette of the 1930s, which is not very different from the beauty standards of today.

49235 – Duchess Fresh Citrus Fruits – Polk County Citrus Sub-Exchange, 1937 (NAID 21717448)

Duchess Fresh Citrus Fruits, 1937 – Another product label for citrus fruit with an altered depiction of female beauty. While this woman retains the popular bobbed hairstyle, her clothing and features are soft and subdued and her gaze is modest and reserved. She presents an ideal standard of beauty for women in the years beyond their youth and certainly reflects the “duchess” of the product label.

50177 – Pot of Gold Chocolates – Moirs Limited, 1937 (NAID 23907359)

Pot of Gold Chocolates, 1937 – Bobbed hair and a tasteful amount of bare skin, with a look that is very glamorous and elegant from the late 1930s.

45225 – Corona Health Lemons – Corona Citrus Association, 1935

Corona Health Lemons, 1935 – From a young age, girls learn that appearance is paramount and are taught to aspire to often unrealistic beauty standards, resorting to drastic means to achieve the figure and fashions popular in a given time period.

The following three labels were selected in order to feature women of different backgrounds whose representation in the patent labels fed into commonly held stereotypes in order to best market and sell a particular product.

43591 – Creole Pecan Pralines from New Orleans – New Orleans Roosevelt Corporation, 1933

Creole Pecan Pralines from New Orleans, 1933 – The product claims to be “made from the treasured recipe of the old plantation mammy” and the African American woman is depicted in the clothing of a servant rather than the fashions of the 1930s.

Chippewa Kosher Salt, 1934 – This label for kosher salt depicting an older Jewish woman preparing meat is likely intended to convince shoppers that those with age and wisdom choose this product based on years of experience.

49264 – Hong Kong Chop Suey Vegetables – Hong Kong Food Products Co., 1936 (NAID 21717453)

Hong Kong Chop Suey Vegetables, 1936 – These two Chinese women are depicted in the qipao, the fashionable modern dress of the 1930s featuring a slim fit and mandarin collar. The introduction of Western culture and fashion through cinema influenced Chinese styles and brought them more in line with the beauty standards of the West.