“I learned to dress from the skin out”: An excerpt from Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s American Vaudeville

At the heart of American Vaudeville is one strange, unsettling fact: for nearly fifty years, from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, vaudeville was everywhere—then, suddenly, it was nowhere. This book tells the story of what was once the most popular form of entertainment in the country using lists, creation myths, thumbnail biographies, dreams, and obituaries. A lyric history—part social history, part song—American Vaudeville sits at the nexus between poetry, experimental nonfiction, and, because it includes historic images, art books.

In this excerpt from Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s new book (available and shipping now when ordered from our website), the author conjures Julian Eltinge, who achieved fame as a female impersonator in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Hilsabeck will read from American Vaudeville at White Whale Bookstore on June 16.

The door to Julian Eltinge’s dressing room is painted black. When knocked, it rattles in its frame. He stands in front of a mirror, whitening his face and neck with powder. He’s taken off his clothes (a brown suit hovers against the wall, a pair of brown loafers snug below), his bathrobe hangs loosely off his waist, and he’s dipping a sponge into a cigar box full of white powder and touching it to his skin. He works with the semiconsciousness of an expert. At each touch of the sponge, his body becomes softer, rounder. Curves emerge.

. . . next day decided that I would wear skirts at the entertainment to be given in Reading. Mrs. Wyman became interested, and I worked hard three hours a day for weeks at a time. I learned to dress from the skin out.

All the time he talks, he works away. By now the first layer of powder has stiffened and a second has been loosely applied. He rubs cold cream into his cheeks and forehead, over his nose with two smooth strokes, over his ears and behind them under the little cap covering his hair and then down to his neck, grabs a rag from the dressing table and wipes off some excess cream and then puts more powder on his face with the sponge and on top of that a layer of rouge. “It depends on where you put the paint, not how much you splash on,” he says, not looking at me, focused entirely on the transformation at hand. He rubs blue-black grease paint around his eyes and works it into the rouge and powder, adding contrast to his face, blackens his eyebrows, reddens his lips. Like a painter he dips a sharp little stick into a metal cup, which has been heated over a candle, and transfers beads of a black, sticky mixture to his eyelashes, a little black bead on each trembling lash.Read More »

Pink pork and “the housewife’s most wholesome sink”: Waste and taste in American history

J. L. Anderson’s Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in American History is on its way to bookstores and available now from our website and online retailers. A contribution to WVU’s publishing program in environment, agriculture, and food politics, the book is—according to Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig—“the story of how pigs made America, and how America remade the pig.” In this piece drawn from his research for the book, Anderson looks at how consumer preferences and waste practices have intersected with health concerns about pork over the course of US history.

Fifteen or so years ago a waiter at a fashionable restaurant asked how I would like my pork loin cooked. “I beg your pardon?” I replied. The server clarified that I could have it prepared rare, medium, or well-done. Of course I knew about the different temperatures for preparing and serving meat. The problem was that for me, born in the 1960s, the very question was absurd. Pork was cooked until done or it wasn’t. People who grew up in my era knew that consuming rare pork was a health risk.Read More »

The Argument about Things in the 1980s: A Cultural Playlist

Tim Jelfs is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the author of The Argument about Things in the 1980s: Goods and Garbage in an Age of Neoliberalism—a contribution to WVU Press’s publishing programs in environmental humanities and studies of US culture. Here he talks about eight cultural moments that inform his book.

Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence Speech, July 15, 1979

When did the 1980s begin? One of the arguments The Argument about Things in the 1980s makes is that such a simple question is quite hard to answer. If it’s worthwhile—as I think it is—to frame the 1980s as part of a longer “age of neoliberalism,” it’s tricky to pinpoint the exact origins of that era.

But something certainly happened in the 1970s, and Carter’s famous speech is an example of it: the intensification of a centuries-old argument about things in American life, in which Americans debate the proper place of material things in their existence. It’s as old as the Puritans—older, in fact—and Carter’s speech is a great illustration of what one tradition within it can look and sound like.Read More »