Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a history show about why people resist new things. I’m Jason Feifer. Imagine having never seen yourself before. Imagine having no idea what you look like. It was part of the human condition for most of human history. And so it was with a woman named, Mary Paik Lee. She was born in Korea in 1900, but her family fled the Japanese takeover in 1905 and ended up in California. Life was hard there. To feed her family Mary would often go to a local slaughterhouse and scour through discarded animal organs while butchers laughed at her. And when she was 15, she was hired as a kind of living housekeeper for a plumber and his wife named Mr. And Mrs. Jenkins. But things did not start well. On Mary’s first evening at the house, Mr. Jenkins invited Mary to sit next to him at the dinner table. But Mrs. Jenkins fumed about this because she thought Mary should eat in the kitchen. And well… I’ll let Mary pick it up from here.
Voice Clip (Mar…: After dinner while the family was in the living room, I could hear them talking about the situation and I wondered what would happen to me then. I was shown the room where I was to stay. It had a single bed where all the unused household articles were stored. There was a bureau with a large mirror on top.
Jason Feifer: And okay, let’s pause here for a second. The mirror had become a standard household item only in the mid 1800s. And Mary is now walking into this room in 1915. So that means the mirror had been around for decades at this time. Certainly long enough for them to feel commonplace to people like Mr and Mrs. Jenkins. But Mary came from a poor family. She didn’t have access to something like this. So just consider how monumental this is. In all her life, like almost certainly everyone who had come before her she had never stood before a full length mirror and actually seen herself. And now here it, and here she was.
Voice Clip (Mar…: My first look at myself in the mirror was shocking. I had never seen a full view of myself before. At home, mother had a very small pocket mirror that didn’t show more than a few inches of our faces. I didn’t even know what I looked like. And I had to admit, I was a strange looking thing. Our family’s main goal was to earn enough money to buy food to feed all of us. There was never any leftover to do anything about our appearance.
Jason Feifer: She saw herself and instantly also saw the way others saw her too. This comes from a memoir that Mary wrote called Quiet Odyssey. She moves on after that, talking about how the bed was so uncomfortable that she had to sleep on the floor. And she never mentioned the mirror in the book again. But I have to say I was totally struck by this moment. The ability to see ourselves, to look into some reflective surface and see a mirror image of us staring back is so woven into our world today and so core to understanding us, that it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that there would be a moment in time in which this was new. But of course it was, everything is new at some point. And so is this, the ability to see ourselves in full. And what a transformative moment to look at something and say, “Oh, that’s me.”
It must feel like someone just assigned you a body. You didn’t grow up with an image of yourself. You didn’t get to watch it age and evolve and make decisions that shaped it along the way. You were just the handed the image of a human being, a random human that you’d never seen before. And then you’re told, “You are inside of that thing, you are that. It is so foreign that I struggled to even imagine it. So the world has presented this really transformative innovation. The ability to see yourself. You’d think we’d be in awe, you’d think we’d understand. But of course that asks too much.
Voice Clip (New…: Although the worship of images is forbidden in the Decalogue, vein and pretty women will idealize the counterfeit presentments of their fair faces and dainty features as reflected from their looking glasses.
Jason Feifer: That’s a newspaper called the New York Ledger, writing in 1890 and calling women, “A species of self devotion.” And here’s the Chicago Record, 1895.
Voice Clip (Chi…: Vanity was born when the mirror was discovered.
Jason Feifer: And here’s another from the London Chronicle in 1905.
Voice Clip (Lon…: Was anything more entirely provocative of human vanity ever invented than the many sided shaving glass?
Jason Feifer: There was a lot of this stuff back then. They condemned people, mostly women for looking at themselves in little mirrors and big mirrors and mirrors at home or in cars or in elevators, basically anywhere. The mirror was seen as a problem, a distraction, a corrupting influence, an embarrassment. And the moralizing scold’s weapon of choice was to call someone vain, to condemn their vanity. But when I hear all this after just hearing Mary Paik Lee describe the very first time she ever gazed upon herself, I can’t help but wonder, “How is it possible that we went so quickly from looking at ourselves in interest to condemning those who do it?” And the answer is, we need to back up and understand what people back then even meant when they talked about vanity, because it’s not the same as we mean today. They were basically saying this.
Susan Matt: You’re going to die. And that too means that you shouldn’t be too enamored of yourself because you’re going to pass away. All your accomplishments, all the things you’re proud of, they’re just ephemeral.
Jason Feifer: That’s Susan Matt, a historian at Weber State University, who co-wrote Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid, that inspired and really informed this episode. And she says that the concept of vanity and the fear of vanity played a far deeper, more terrifying, more ever present role in our lives back then. The mirror was a big part of changing that. The mirror helped us rethink not just vanity, but rethink our relationship with ourselves. And once you see all of this unfold, you will start to see today’s arguments about vanity a little differently because we do this today too don’t we? Maybe not with mirrors, but we do it with social media and selfies and YouTube and any opportunity we have to condemn someone who seems just a little too interested in how they appear to others. But why, where does this attitude come from? And can we expect it to change again?
So that’s what we’re going to do on this episode. We are looking back at the history of the mirror as a way of understanding the history of our relationship with ourselves. It’s kind of like Carly Simon said…
Voice Clip (Car…: You are all so vain.
Jason Feifer: You probably think this podcast is about you and in a way, you’re right. It’s all coming up after the break.
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All right, we’re back. So our ultimate mission here is to understand why everyone freaked out about mirrors in the 1800s and the early 1900s. But that wasn’t the only time that people freaked out about mirrors. In truth, mirrors have baffled us in one form or another for centuries. They’ve caused murder and mayhem and other worldly experiences. So let’s put this all in context and back up to the very first mirror we know about. It is 8,000 years old, and it was found in a woman’s grave in what is now Turkey.
Katy Kelleher: The first mirrors were small black obsidian disk shapes that had been polished until they shone in the sun, until they catch the light and catch a reflection in them.
Jason Feifer: Then that’s Katy Kelleher. She’s a journalist who recently wrote a fantastic history of the mirror for Longreads. And this obsidian disc mirror she’s talking about, we still have them today, but of course now they’re mass produced and available on Amazon for 30 bucks. So Katy bought one because she wanted to get a sense of how people from 8,000 years ago could actually see themselves in these things.
Katy Kelleher: I could see my face, I could see sort of the lines of myself, but you can’t see the color. Obviously you can’t see that much to it. It’s not very clear, which actually is probably one of the reasons they work so well for divination purposes. There’s sort of a shadowy murkiness to them still.
Jason Feifer: Right. Divination purposes, because for most of the 8,000 years that humans have had mirrors, it’s likely that they weren’t just used to fix our hair and pluck our eyebrows though, people in ancient Turkey did have some form of makeup, so who knows? But largely speaking, historians think that people used mirrors for religious and spiritual purposes.
Katy Kelleher: In ancient China, they had a religious function, the ancient Mayans used them in as symbols of the fire god. And there’s something about the way that mirrors are tied to light that kind of makes them naturally a source for thinking about religion, because light is such a potent metaphor in so many different world religions.
Jason Feifer: And at first when I heard this, I thought, “Right. Yeah, naturally. In ancient times when everything had some kind of mystical explanation, of course they would see the mirror as a kind of portal.” But then I thought, “Oh, wait a second. We still do this.”
Voice Clip (Sno…: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?
Jason Feifer: And not just that, doesn’t basically every horror movie have a scene where someone stares into a mirror and… Ah, it’s a creepy child. Why is it always a creepy child? And remember being a kid in summer camp daring each other to stand in front of a mirror and summon Bloody Mary? These are all remnants of our ancient relationship with mirrors. In some way, even today, we see them as a portal into something that’s like us, but also not. Though, of course today, we also have modern science to explain the whole thing. So little side note in 2010, a scientist named Giovanni Caputo at an Italian University, ran a little experiment. He had 50 people sit in a dimly lit room and look at themselves in the mirror. 10 minutes later, most of them might as well have been on acid. Here is from his report.
Voice Clip (Gio…: The descriptions differed greatly across the individuals and included a huge deformations in one’s own face reported by 66% of the 50 participants, B, a parent’s face with traits changed, 18% of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased and C, an unknown person, 28%.
Jason Feifer: People also saw cats, pigs, lions, fantastical monsters, old women, ancestors, and of course children. So what’s up with that? The running theory is something called the Troxler effect, which is a weird thing our neurons do because they’re programmed to recognize new stimuli. So if you stare at the same unchanging thing for too long, your brain just starts to ignore it and fill in other visuals around it. Go ahead and try or better not don’t. Okay. Back to our mirror timeline.
As the centuries wore on, we stopped polishing rock and started making mirrors out of glass. The ancient Greeks did it. You create a flat glass surface and then pour some kind of shiny metallic coating on it. But it wasn’t easy to do this without cracking the glass. And so for centuries, mirrors were super expensive and also very small. It just seemed impossible to make large versions of this thing. But then in the 1400s, glass makers in Venice cracked the code. They made long panes of glass and coated it with a mercury and alloy backing. Now they had something that the entire world wanted and only they knew how to do it. And France was like, “Oh, hell no.”
Katy Kelleher: So in the 1600s, French government started trying to get their hands on the secret of mirrors. And they tried to lure over, they tried to bribe glassmakers from Venice to come over. They tried to blackmail them. They tried all sorts of ways to get them to come over and work for them in France. And they wanted to set up a shop, a huge glass making shop in France that would rival those of Venice. And it took a while, but eventually they got it going. There were some possible murders of defected glass blowers from Venice. And there were problems with spying and a lot of worry about poisoning.
Jason Feifer: You look in the mirror and see a child. And that child is actually a 17th century Italian assassin. This goes to show you how unbelievably desirable mirrors were and also how understandable it was to want one. Nobody goes luring a Venetian mirror maker to France and then fighting off spies and poisoning attempts just so that some bitchy newspaper writer can go, “Oh, vanity was born when the mirror was discovered.” No, there is nothing more natural in the world than wanting to see ourselves. But mirrors were very expensive, so they were thought of mostly as the play thing for the rich. It would take a few 100 years for commoners to get ahold of one. But that finally happened, thanks to a German chemist in 1835, who figured out a way to put silver plating on glass, which eventually allowed for its mass production.
Susan Matt: By the end of the century, you can get a 10 inch by 10 inch mirror for 50 cents. And so people are talking about, “Is this good or is this bad? Is it going to spoil our morals or what effects will it have on our character?”
Jason Feifer: That’s Weber State historian, Susan Matt again. But it’s important to know that the mirror didn’t cause these questions to come up. In fact, by the time the mirror showed up, the people of the 1800s were already actively wrestling with them. So before we really see how the mirror made its entrance, let’s back up to understand the world the mirror was entering because it is a world defined by a fear and loathing of vanity.
Susan Matt: Going back to at least early Christianity and probably farther back than that, vanity and pride were identified as deadly sins which were the result of thinking too much about yourself. And theologians argued that human beings are inherently flawed. They’re marked by original sin that they’re prone to mess up, there’s not much to celebrate. So to look at yourself adoringly is to overlook your inherently flawed nature.
Jason Feifer: Today, when we say life is short, we mean to live life to the fullest. But back then when they said life is short, they meant, “Eh, don’t get too invested.” And consider how fundamentally different that worldview is. For centuries, the concept of self-esteem and self-worth just didn’t really exist. Instead, people heard sermons like this one from 1752 delivered at a funeral by Solomon Williams.
Voice Clip (Sol…: We are for a great part of our lives, deceived with vain and empty hopes of some comfort, which we never obtain. Abundance of the pleasures of life are in our imagination and chiefly the fruits of our own fancies.
Jason Feifer: Culture was constantly reflecting this message. There is, for example, that famous painting called Vanitas from 1640. It shows a book and some other nice possessions on the same table as a skull and a burned out candle. It’s as if to say, “Guys, sue what’s even the point?” In America, people read books like this one called, The History of Caroline or A Lesson to Pure Vanity. It told the story of a young girl who was excited to show off her new dress. So her friends decided to, “Mortify her vanity,” by leading Caroline through muddy fields that ruined her dress. And keep in mind, they are the good guys in this book.
Susan Matt: So there were all these warnings going into the 19th century that had been repeated for centuries telling people, “Don’t celebrate yourself, don’t be too proud of yourself. Remember you’re flawed and you’re finite.”
Jason Feifer: But then new innovations began to challenge this way of thinking. The 1840s brought what’s known as the Postal Revolution where sending letters a long distance suddenly became affordable. Now family and friends could stay in touch, but they faced a quandary.
Luke fernandez: Yeah, the older moralists were telling you don’t be prideful, don’t be vain. And then you try to sit down and write a letter. And you’re thinking about what your preacher told you last week. You might not be inclined to say very much about yourself.
Jason Feifer: That’s Luke Fernandez, a Professor at Weber State School of Computing and the coauthor with Susan to the book, Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid. He and Susan looked through tons of letters that people wrote at the time and found that people were at first super apologetic and almost embarrassed to write about themselves. So they often start letters by affirming that they were alive, which seemed innocent enough. For example, this guy in 1841 began a letter by writing, “My dear brother, you see that I am still in the land of the living.” But then they try to navigate this moral hazard of communicating without appearing to be too self interested. For example, there’s this 1840 letter from a woman named Jenny MacNeven. And she wrote to her mom about all the exciting things she’s been up to. But then she said…
Voice Clip (Jen…: I suspect my organ of egotism… Is there such a one? Will develop itself largely during my visit.
Jason Feifer: Meanwhile, in Kansas, a man named Allen White was writing to his future wife and told her about his family background. But then he added…
Voice Clip (All…: You did not ask me for my history, but I concluded the volunteer trusting that you will not deem it improper or egotistical of me.
Jason Feifer: To calm everyone down, these guidelines started springing up. Books and newspaper columns and etiquette experts who were mostly telling people…
Susan Matt: It’s okay to write about yourself. What else are you going to write about people you’re sending letters to, want to hear how you are.
Jason Feifer: And in doing so, the idea of vanity began to shift. Beforehand, any focus on the self was condemned, but now society was reconsidering. To write a letter about yourself wasn’t vain because you were giving someone what they wanted. This form of vanity was actually a gift. And that meant maybe there were other ways to focus on yourself without it being a deadly sin. That was about to be tested. Around the same exact time, the first form of photographs were becoming available. People would go into a studio and take what’s called a degere type, which was like a little profile shot that you can mail along with your letter. And at first these were simple portraits but then, studios started making props available. Women who wanted to appear more educated, could pose with books for example, and immigrants who wanted to send a note back home would pose with symbols of wealth and prosperity.
Luke fernandez: Photographers, if a woman had particularly thick ankles would have in the studio, a set of thin ankles which the woman would be invited to place under the hem of her dress so that she would appear in the picture as if she had slim ankles, which were fine as long as you kept your real ankles back. But if you put them forward, there’s these hilarious accounts of women appearing with four feet underneath the hem of their dress.
Jason Feifer: This would seem to violate all sorts of rules against vanity and many moralists said exactly that. They said the photographs were prideful, unnatural. In 1885, the Iola register of Kansas called these photos, “The latest contribution of science to vanity.” A German newspaper said that any man who gets photographed must, “Consider himself even wiser than the creator of the world.” But then yet another shift occurred. A conversation began about all the benefits of photographs. This new technology was arriving in the first half of the 19th century, which was also an era in which Americans moved more than during any other period. So you could make the argument that photos were a thing of vanity, but a thing of connectivity. They staved off loneliness. They soothed broken hearts. They gave people a way to remember each other when it was possible that distance meant they’d never see each other again. For example, there’s this 1849 diary from a woman named Arozina Perkins who wrote about spreading the photos of her loved ones across a table.
Voice Clip (Aro…: I talk to them and look at them. Till I fancy, they are real and almost expect their lips to move an answer to my questions.
Jason Feifer: People started using photo studios as a way to preserve memories. When someone died, the family would literally haul the dead body into a studio for a final photo. Photographers started arguing that these photos were a gift and that even those props, which would make someone look more learned or accomplished, or a little more slender in the ankles, that these were kind of gift too. If you moved away, you could send a photo home that made you appear happy, and that in turn would make your family happy. In 1919, a photography company called the Heyn Elite studio advertised itself with just this kind of thinking, here’s what it wrote.
Voice Clip (Hey…: It isn’t a sign of vanity to visit a photography studio often, it’s a sure sign that one has awakened to a realizing sense of obligation to family, friends, and society.
Jason Feifer: And there was even a moral case to be made. Frederick Douglas was the most photographed American in the 19th century. And he said that being in front of a camera made him self-conscious. But he did it because at the time, the images that most Americans saw of Black people were created by racist White people. So Frederick Douglas combated those images with one of his own to show Americans what a dignified Black man looked like. Now, this is the era into which the mirror enters. This is the conversation that mirrors continue to advance. It is finally time to bring our two threads together, the history of the mirror and the history of vanity to see how they collide. But first, a quick break.
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Jason Feifer: And I also want to tell you about a podcast I love called the The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast. And I discovered this podcast because, Oh, I don’t even know. Like a million people kept telling me to listen to it until I finally did, because if you love history and New York city the way I do, then this is it. This is the show. In each episode the Bowery Boys hosts Greg Young and Tom Myers dive into some aspect of New York’s incredible history. Like for example, recent episodes included a two-part history of Brooklyn Heights, AKA America’s first suburb, AKA, where I used to live. There’s a history of sanitation in New York, which frankly feels like a history that’s still being written around here.
And then there’s Greenwich Village in the 60s, Boss Tweed’s House of Corruption and more. The Bowery Boys actually just released their 300th episode on the Forgotten Father of New York City. There’s a man named Andrew Haswell. He’s responsible for the construction of Central Park, was instrumental in creating the New York Public Library and other major institutions. And he led the effort for the greater New York area to consolidate into one huge city in 1898. And yet crazily New Yorkers don’t know his name. I didn’t. Why is that? You’ll have to check out the show to find out. It is called Bowery Boys, and once you listen, you’ll never see New York the same way again. Check it out. All right, we’re back.
So as we’ve now established, it’s not like the mirror just arrived out of thin air and everyone starts looking into it like…
Speaker 30: I feel pretty. Oh, so pretty.
Jason Feifer: No. Instead, Americans in particular and surely others around the world, were in the middle of a decade’s long reckoning over just how they were supposed to think of themselves. For literal centuries. They’ve been told that they were worthless slabs of meat. Now they’re the subjects of other people’s interests. They should write letters about themselves and take photos of themselves and doing so will make other people happy. The rules of vanity had been rewritten, but it’s not entirely clear what the new rules were. So people look at the mirror and think, “Okay, well there two ways to look at this. Here’s Susan Matt again.
Susan Matt: It was okay to look in the mirror if you’re going to do so somewhat critically. That, “This is showing me my flaws but not necessarily my physical flaws, but my moral flaws.” But if you’re looking in the mirror and just loving what you’re seeing, then you’ve crossed the line into vanity.
Jason Feifer: And how did that play out? We dove into the newspapers of the time and found a few recurring themes. So here’s number one, mirrors are so distracting that they’re dangerous. For example, we found this 1912 piece in the Chicago Tribune called, “Those deadly little mirrors,” which starts with the tale of a woman named Helen who’s crossing the street to meet her main squeeze Jack when she is struck by the need to look at herself.
Voice Clip (Chi…: She pauses, flurried by the realization that Jack is waiting. She dives into the little white handbag, holds forth a pocket mirror and powder reg and begins to powder her little pink nose. Traffic stops, a chauffeur grinds his brakes and the wheels skid dangerously into the gutter. Helen gazes about in astonishment and wagons are lined up, waiting for her to move. She blushes prettily gives a little, “Oh,” and then moves hurriedly on the meet Jack. Unusual? No. Every day this happens not once, but 1,000 times. Mirrors, mirrors are the most dangerous thing in traffic ridden Chicago.
Jason Feifer: The story goes on to say that many accidents from sprained ankles to painful bruises are the result of the, “Deadly mirror habit.” And here’s the next theme. Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere. Mirrors were showing up in store windows in every room in people’s homes, and even on the backs of gloves. Moralists were concerned about all the temptation that this created, which is how you get stuff like this 1904 piece in an Illinois newspaper called the Rock Island Argus about how elevator operators, jobs are being impacted by all these vain women looking at themselves in the mirrors.
Voice Clip (Roc…: This young man said that every day the women were accustomed to adjusting their hair, arranging their headgear and even powdering their complexions in his elevator as they went to either up or down. Not only this, but arranging at the floor where they wanted to leave the elevator, they would detain it until they had finished their toilet and would then leave it with an air of independence as if the mirrors were placed in position for their special benefit. And the elevators were no more than toilet rooms.
Jason Feifer: Oh, you’ve got to hear the headline on that story. It was…
Voice Clip (Roc…: Are Rock Island women vain? Elevator boy decides they are.
Jason Feifer: Yes, one elevator boy decides that all women in his town are vain and that is enough to make the news. But this does lead us nicely into what is really the overarching theme of all this mirror moralizing though, I’m sure you’ve already noticed it. The theme is women.
Katy Kelleher: People fixated on women looking at mirrors.
Jason Feifer: That’s journalist, Katie Kelleher again. And in Katie’s story on the history of mirrors, she ticks off so many examples of art and culture designed to shame women for using mirrors. There were for example, so many paintings created around this time with paintings showing women staring vacantly into mirrors or kissing their reflection or whatever. But after listing off a whole bunch of these in her story, she made this point that I found really powerful. She wrote that the artists failed to see, “The significance of mirror gazing for women.” It was and still is a survival technique. In reality, she writes, “A woman at the mirror is practicing. She’s seeing herself how men see her, how society sees her. She’s assessing her value in figuring out how to enhance her worth, her power.” So when we talked, I asked Katie to expound on that more.
Katy Kelleher: The mirror is a place where we learn about our worth because in our current culture and I think probably in a lot of cultures, we’ve linked together, ideas of goodness and beauty. That’s another thing that you see in fairytales is that the good people are beautiful and the bad people have scars and they’re ugly and they have skin conditions and they’re dwarves. And all these other things that the villainy is somehow linked to looking a certain way. And that being good is linked to being beautiful. And when you live in a culture where that’s the dominant narrative, it’s really important that you can look and see how other people see you, because that’s going to tell you, not only do they find you attractive, do they want to meet with you? It’s going to tell you, do they think you are a good human? Do they think you’re a worthy human? And that is especially true for women and has been forever.
Jason Feifer: Here’s an interesting piece of context. A lot of the old newspaper stories that talk about women staring into mirrors also mentioned floating soot. In one story, for example, a woman says she comes home from a shopping trip, looks in the mirror and sees her face polka-dotted with soot. As the mirror was being popularized in America, many cities were actively burning coal. The air pollution was so bad that your face would be smudge just by walking around. So yeah, if you’re a woman, who’s very aware that people will make judgements about you based on your appearance. You might want to get the soot off your face, but that doesn’t seem to factor into the disapproval from all these male writers and painters.
Katy Kelleher: I bet you anything, those male writers were sitting down writing their articles about the vanity of women and these silly women in their compacts, looked in their mirrors to groom their mustaches or to shave. Men have always used mirrors too. Mirrors are something that most everybody uses, but we only get upset with a certain kind of person for using it.
Jason Feifer: In fact, at least one person at the time was willing to call this out. There was a piece in 1885 called the Vanity of Men, which seemed to go about as viral as something in 1885 could go. It was reprinted in newspapers across the country. And the whole thing is just a little scene set inside what was called a Notion Shop. It features a reporter talking to the shop owner, and here’s the beginning of it.
Voice Clip (The…: “Who buys them?” asked the reporter in a Kearney Street Notion Shop pointing to a lot of tiny pocket mirrors with nail cleaners, toothpick and comb, all complete. “I suppose you think the ladies are our best customers,” said the Notion man, “But it is not so. Men sir. Vain men are the pickers up of these unconsidered trifles.” “Pretty men?” Inquired the reporter. The salesman grinned. “It don’t matter much how they look,” he said. “Whether they are ape or Apollos, they want a pocket mirror all the same. They retire every hour or so to some secret place to admire themselves. Talk of the vanity of woman, indeed it pales sir, it fades away into insignificance by comparison with the admiration, the majority of men have for their own mugs.”
Jason Feifer: So you had men condemning women for using mirrors, but you also had men using mirrors as much as women if not more. The hypocrisy just couldn’t hold for long. And it didn’t, sort of. Which means it’s time to look at how we finally came to embrace the mirror and then shift our concerns about vanity somewhere else. Because much like how letter writing and photography created a subtle but important shift in culture, the mirror started having an impact as well. You know those little compact mirrors that people carried around in their pockets? By the early 20th century, people started giving them a new name. They called them vanities. Here’s Susan and Luke again.
Susan Matt: So the word is becoming a more positive word. It doesn’t have all the negative, sinful associations and maybe it’s meant somewhat in jest, but merchants would market their mirrors as vanities shows you that there’s this kind of move away from the paradigm of sin and how people are thinking about mirrors.
Luke fernandez: And it’s accompanied too by the sort of development of a consumer culture in America. Advertisers start to even just play off the word vanity and there’s advertisements that are titled, “Have you tickled your vanity lately?”
Jason Feifer: By the 1930s, the mirror over your bathroom sink started to be called a vanity too, which is the language that of course still survives today. Now it’s important to note all sorts of other cultural changes were taking place around that time too. Susan and Luke lay a lot of them out in the book. So for example, many Protestant denominations were moving away from preaching about original sin and starting to really stress people’s potential for doing good. Psychologists like Sigmund Freud were saying that vanity and egotism was totally natural. And as the American economy boomed, people became very aware that vanity was a driving force of consumerism. In 1936, Delineator magazine said that vanity is sanity.
Susan Matt: There are editorialists and many stories telling women in particular that a healthy woman, a psychologically healthy woman should care about her performance.
Jason Feifer: People stopped being condemned for worrying about how they dressed and started being condemned if they didn’t worry about it. So this left a hole in our culture. We had always had some way to condemn people for being self-interested. Though, of course, only a century earlier, there was no tolerance for any self-interest, now everything had shifted. Vanity could be a gift. It was part of our celebrated individuality. It was an essential part of seeing and being seen. So what were we to do with who self-interests still offended us? We needed a new word and we got it. We use it all the time today in fact. In our repeat performance of this mirror mania. See if you can spot it.
Speaker 22: Part of the selfie generation is really the look at me generation.
Speaker 23: Taking selfies may seem harmless, but researchers warn too many of them could turn you into a narcissist.
Speaker 24: The ability to take selfies and click things is a drug, it’s no different than if you took a rat, put them in a cage and said, “There’s the cocaine.” What do the rats do? They don’t mate, they don’t eat. They just keep clicking for the cocaine.
Jason Feifer: Do you think any of those people ever pause to consider the irony that they spent their careers trying to be on camera? And now that they’re on camera, they’re using their platform to condemn other people for wanting to be on camera? Nah, probably never occurred to them. And why would it really? They’re not saying anything new. They’re not even observing anything new, but one of them use that magic word. The one that came to take the place of vanity, did you catch it?
Speaker 23: Turn you into a narcissist?
Jason Feifer: Oh, wait, what now?
Speaker 23: A narcissist.
Jason Feifer: Right. Narcissist, the word has interesting roots. It references the Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful Hunter who meets a terrible end after becoming obsessed with his own reflection in the water. Though it wasn’t reframed in our more modern culture until 1898, when a British physician named Havelock Ellis described being sexually attracted to yourself as “Narcisuss-like.” A few other medical uses followed, and then in 1914, Sigmund Freud named one of his publications on narcissism, which popularized the term. In their book, Susan and Luke have this really nice description of how our cultural lingo shifted. They write that as sin became a less common way to condemn someone’s self-interest, “The language of moralists was replaced with the labels of professional psychologists.” Over the coming decades, usage of the word vanity would drop rapidly in books and newspapers and the word narcissism would rise. And what are we to make of our modern day version of this same old story, where we’ve swapped mirrors for selfies and vanity for narcissism? On this, we could go round and round. Luke for example, sees some troubling, but intriguing aspects of it.
Luke fernandez: The threads of individualism and community it’s sometimes hard to separate them out. And I think they in some ways become even more entangled in modern exhibitions of narcissism online, where we label selfie taking as a form of narcissism of individualism. But it’s a peculiar form in that it’s always looking for affirmation through the opinion of other people.
Jason Feifer: Katy, on the other hand sees a lot of self-empowerment in selfies. She brought up the many times that underrepresented individuals or groups of people have explicitly posted selfies almost in the way that Frederick Douglas took degere types, which is to say, to get an image out into the world that nobody else was promoting.
Katy Kelleher: We are used to the idea of someone taking a picture of someone else. The artist takes a picture of his muse. There’s an idea that when a man is sitting around painting a woman or taking pictures of her, he’s creating a work of art. When a woman is taking pictures of herself, that’s not a work of art, that is an act of vanity.
Jason Feifer: As for me, my default is to do with this show does, which is to say, to look back at the origin of opposition, to try to understand the root of it. That way we can see what our original motivations were. I suppose we’ve done that already looking at the origin of the mirror and our feelings on vanity and how it traces back to a Christian message about vanity being a sin. But as I came to the end of this exploration, I started to wonder, “Why was it a sin? Where did Christianity get the idea from in the first place?” And the answer is, it’s a long story.
Rebecca Konyndy…: Vainglory as a specifically, Christian vice was named by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the third and fourth century A.D in the Egyptian desert.
Jason Feifer: Okay. Lots to unpack there. First of all, that’s Rebecca.
Rebecca Konyndy…: Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. My title is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin University.
Jason Feifer: And she’s written a few books about vices, including one called, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. And Vainglory is very close to vanity. She defines it as the excessive desire for approval from others. So now here’s the first thing to know, cultures have been condemning this stuff for centuries. The ancient Greeks did it, the Hebrew scriptures did it, but our modern understanding of this sin traces back to this group that yes, really had a name straight out of Burning Man, the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They were hermit monks that lived in the desert in the third century A.D and tried to strip away all worldly desires so that they could be closer to God. And they were the ones that came up with the idea to list out all the sins. Though back then, they were not so hardcore about it.
Rebecca Konyndy…: Their idea was not that these are the worst things that you can do, but they’re sort of the most common temptations that everybody stumbles over.
Jason Feifer: They didn’t call them deadly sins and they didn’t even have seven of them. They actually had eight, but over the next couple of 100 years, sins would come on and off the list, like a fantasy football team where they’d get combined with other sins. And eventually the list dropped to seven. And also Christianity eventually developed this idea called the mortal venial sin distinction. Basically they would divide each sin up into the low calorie and full bodied version. So there’s now a type of vanity that’s just sort of bad and a type of vanity that’s deadly. And that is how we ended up with the seven deadly sins. So, all right, that’s the history. Now here’s the more important question. Why vanity, what’s it doing on the list? I mean, as we can see here, the condemnation of vanity was a very human decision. It was literally hermits in the desert, sitting around writing a list. So why target vanity? Why be so concerned about how other people view themselves? Here, we can only hypothesize, but Rebecca thinks it came down to trust.
Rebecca Konyndy…: I mean, you might think of Vainglory as the condemnation of hypocrisy. So what we don’t want is for you to fake social conformity and respectability, we want the real thing.
Jason Feifer: If someone spends all their time broadcasting, their religious piety or respectability or wealth or whatever, well, maybe they’re not for real. And that means maybe they’re not worth trusting or following. And when you’re coming from a small religious community as all of our ancestors did, that is an important way to filter the people around you. But here’s another idea.
John Portmann: So each of the seven deadly sins really essentially undermines community and keeping a community unified and strong was for a very, very, very long time the goal of almost every community.
Jason Feifer: That’s John Portman, a Religious Studies Professor at the University of Virginia who wrote a book called, The History of Sin. And he says that vanity was seen as undermining community because vanity could be assigned that you don’t need the community.
John Portmann: Straying from the community is dangerous, is threatening because one person who has enough self possession, strength, courage to walk away might inspire other people to walk away with him or her.
Jason Feifer: So, all right, let’s take that tribal instinct and apply it to today. What are we doing when we condemn someone for taking selfies or 100 years ago when we condemned someone for looking in the mirror too much? I get the sense that we feel on the verge of being left behind. Maybe it’s because we thought we followed the rules. We saw what the world had available to us or what was culturally expected of us and we settled into our station in life. And based on what we got, we made decisions about what other people are worthy of as well. Then along comes someone who seems to expect more, who’s unabashedly putting themselves out into the world and seems delighted by their own creation. And we don’t like that. So I asked John about this.
That to do the same thing to somebody who is taking selfies is just essentially say, “Hey, don’t think that you’re better than us because you’re not.” And what that really is saying is, “Hey, we’re threatened by your thinking that you’re better than us.” What do you think of that?
John Portmann: Yup. Well just kind of unusual because I mean, if we’re honest, I think each of us will say, “I would like to be considered special too.” And it just seems as though people who are endlessly taking selfies of themselves, think that they’re very special and want to send these pictures to people who will tell them that they are indeed special. So it’s an interesting question. An interesting problem. Why is something so basic, so human so annoying and so threatening to many people?
Jason Feifer: It’s an important question and I have an answer, but to set it up, I have one more clip to play for you. This fall, I was interviewing the legendary fashion designer, Diane Von Furstenberg for Entrepreneur Magazine. And she said, this amazing thing. She said, “All successful people feel like a loser at least once a week.” And so I asked her, “What do you do when you feel like a loser?” Then, here’s what she said.
Voice Clip (Dia…: When you feel like a loser, you wake up and you doubt and you do this. And so my trick is always, I look in the mirror and I say, “If you doubt your power, you give power to your doubts.”
Jason Feifer: She looks in the mirror. I mean, Diane Von Furstenberg makes beautiful things. When people wear her clothing, they look in the mirror and admire themselves. They take selfies to share their joy. And Diane too has lived a glamorous life and made a fortune in the process. She has no doubt looked in the mirror countless times to admire her work or admire herself or admire her life. But sometimes she feels like a loser, so she looks in the mirror again, but this time it’s so that she can meet herself eye to eye. The mirror becomes a tool of self-reflection. The mirror in this moment is the opposite of vanity, it’s recovery. But here’s the thing. If you were to walk by Diane Von Furstenberg’s home and somehow see her staring at herself in the mirror at this moment, you’d have no idea what she was thinking.
Maybe you’d think she was vain. Maybe you’d think she’s a narcissist. You don’t know because you don’t know what she sees because none of us see what anyone else sees. We can accuse other people of vanity all day long, but we honestly just don’t know what the hell we’re talking about. We don’t. So we judge and we feel judged. And sometimes enough of us drift into some condemned version of vanity. Like we all start writing letters about ourselves, or we all start taking photos of ourselves. We all start looking in the mirror and we’re told it’s wrong, but it feels right. And so we decide, “Oh, well, if we’re all doing this, maybe it’s not so bad.” Maybe we need to redefine this thing we thought was bad so that we’re not the sinners anymore. Someone else must be the sinners. It can’t be us, it can’t be us. Here’s what I’m saying, It’s us.
We should be strong enough to admit it. We should look at ourselves. We should look in the mirror, take a long look and say, “This is me. This is us. What’s wrong with that?” And that’s our episode. As always, I’ve got one more historical moment for you. It’s a fascinating conversation from 1919, that mixes mirrors and gender stereotypes, and really shows you how far we’ve come and how much remains the same. But first important question. Have you subscribed to Pessimists Archive wherever you listen to podcasts? Please do that and leave us a rating and review, which helps us a lot. You can also follow us on Twitter at @Pessimistsarc, which is pessimists A-R-C, where we’re always tweeting out the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. Or, visit our website at pessimists.co, which has links to lots of things discussed in this episode.
We also love hearing from you. So drop us a line at pessimistsarchiveatgmail.com. Thanks again to all the experts you heard in this episode, as well as our brilliant voice actors who read our archival material. They were Brent Rose, who you can find at brentrose.com and Jia Maura, who you can find at jiamaura.com. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the foundation at ckf.org/tech. Additional research for this episode by Louie Anslow. And I got pronunciation help from the Korean American Association of Greater New York. We were recorded by Charlie Culbert at DeGraw Sound and sound edited by Alex Baylis. Our webmaster is James Stewart. And now finally, this episode explored a real turning point for how we think about vanity and think about ourselves. And I loved how well that was captured in 1919, by the journalist Helen Roland.
She wrote a newspaper column whose subtitle was borrowed from the Bible with the words, “Vanity vanity, what is vanity?” It’s basically a little one-act play between a bachelor and a widow as they walked down the street wrestling with the fundamental question of the day. So to bring it to life, I asked our actors, Brent Rose and Jia Maura to perform it. So now Pessimists Archive theater, proudly presents Vanity, vanity. What is vanity?
Voice Clip (Act…: That’s the fourth mirror I’ve caught you looking into in the last 15 minutes.
Voice Clip (Act…: Yes, I wish I had a little more vanity.
Voice Clip (Act…: More vanity, Haven’t you… Haven’t women got all the vanity there is?
Voice Clip (Act…: Not even half of it. If women were only half as vain as men, they would spare themselves so much effort and agony and worry and discomfort in self-sacrifice. Women haven’t any real vanity.
Voice Clip (Act…: Oh, of course not. That’s why they spend their days in their dollars at the beauty shops and half their lifetime pondering their noses.
Voice Clip (Act…: And because you’re so vain, so vain about so many things that have nothing at all to do with beauty. If it isn’t his mighty intellect or his brilliant wit or his wonderful judgment, a man can get all fussed up over himself, just because he can lift a few more pounds than another man, or make the 18th hole in fewer strokes or beat up another in a prize fight or make a little more money in Wall Street. And if he hasn’t anything else on earth to be vain of, why he is vain, just because he is a man. It’s that perfectly beautiful cock-a-doodle-doo spirit that is born in every man and never dies out of him. Kind of why I’ve actually known dear old daughtering things of 80 or 90 to imagine that I was flirting with them.
Voice Clip (Act…: Well, perhaps you were. You’d flirt with a ghost if there were nobody else handy, but if you admire our cock-a-doodle-doo spirit so much, why don’t you women work a little of the cluck, cluck spirit, a little satisfaction to offset ours? A woman is never satisfied with anything about herself, the color of her hair, the shape of her nose, her weight, or her photograph. What woman ever admitted that her photograph did her justice?
Voice Clip (Act…: Not one of us. She wants it to flatter her, to idealize her, to glorify her, to improve on her. But a man is perfectly satisfied if the photographer can only make a picture of him that looks anything nearly as attractive as he thinks he does. “Oh, no retouching,” he insists complacently. “I want it to look like me.” What man ever thought it was necessary to improve on himself in a photograph or out off? He will stand before the camera in anything from running trunks to fishing clothes and never even stop to smooth his top hair. His aplomb is simply wonderful. That’s why I envy men so.
Voice Clip (Act…: Why?
Voice Clip (Act…: Because a man never allows a little thing like beauty or grace or arts or the horror of [inaudible] to interfere with his comfort or his fun. He always eats what he wants, wears the most comfortable clothes, sits in the most comfortable attitude and does the things he enjoys doing. And his soul is never Harold with the tormenting fear that he may be getting wrinkled or losing a dimple. He goes all through life with that superb, “Take me as I am or leave me,” attitude toward the world and then glorifies himself by calling it modesty and pointing to women as the vainer sex. And the beauty of it is he’s perfectly right.
Voice Clip (Act…: What?.
Voice Clip (Act…: He’s right. If only women had a little real vanity, self-esteem, self-confidence, conceit, aplomb, that cluck, cluck spirit or what it is, and a little less self doubt self-consciousness and all that they’d be as irresistible as, as…
Voice Clip (Act…: As men think they are?
Voice Clip (Act…: As men are.
Voice Clip (Act…: Hmm. What are you going in here for? It serves the worst tea and the worst muffins in the world.
Voice Clip (Act…: But it has the most becoming decorations and the best mirrors in the world. And I need a stimulant, for my vanity.
Jason Feifer: And scene. I found it so interesting. How much of that conversation still feels totally familiar today and yet how new so much of it was back then. And finally, one more thing. On October 13th, 2019, just a little bit before this episode came out, our nerdy little podcast hit 1 million total downloads. I just cannot express how cool and gratifying that is. So thank you. Thank you for supporting Pessimists Archive and we hope you’ll stick around to help us reach the next million because we very much intend to get there. My name is Jason Feifer, and we’ll see you in the near future.