I picked up a book at the Bottom Shelf the other day: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1873), by Isabella L Bird.
Some time ago, I had read her account of her travels in
“The next morning, when the steward unceremoniously turned us out of our berths soon after sunrise, we were running down upon the
Naturally that reminded me of Mark Twain’s little riff on the appearance of Mormon women:
“With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here [regarding the practice of polygamy]—until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly, and pathetically ‘homely’ creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, ‘No—the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure—and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of openhanded generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.’” (Roughing It, 1872)
I decided to check if any other 19th-century travelers had felt compelled to comment on Mormon women. Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t say anything about them in Across the Plains. I had no other readily available resources of my own, so I turned to the Internet. After a bit of searching, I found a reference to someone named Katherine Bates, a British (or so I gather) traveler who, during her journeys, spent a short time slumming in the
“As a rule, the men and women are hard-featured, careworn and anxious-looking. . . . I never saw so many ‘homely’ (we should call them ugly) looking women in all my life. Polygamy must indeed be looked upon as a sacred duty to induce the men to take more than one wife from amongst them.”
It sounds to me like she had read Mark Twain and was trying to be witty, too, but failed.
Anyway, I started thinking what a great idea it would be to write a book about 19th-century travelers’ reactions to Mormons, and call it “The Women Were Ugly”. Isn’t that a great title? I think it is.
Alas, the more I researched it, the more references I found to a number of journal articles and dissertations written about just that subject. So never mind.
I’ve decided instead to investigate the curious reference Isabella Bird makes to the women’s “hideous blue dresses”.
“Hideous” is defined as “horrible, frightful to the senses, repulsive, very ugly, shocking, revolting to the moral sense, distressing, appalling, grisly, grim, repellent, detestable, odious, monstrous, dreadful, ghastly”. So my first question is, are those the words you’d use to describe clothing? Wait, before you answer, I mean clothing from the 1870s. Pioneer clothing is ugly, maybe. Grim, maybe. But revolting, grisly, monstrous, ghastly?
My second question is, why would all those ugly women be wearing hideous blue dresses? Was there a Hideous Blue Dress Shoppe where they all went to purchase clothing? Did they all go to the local dry goods store and ask for six or eight yards off the hideous blue cloth bolt? Not very likely. Something just doesn’t ring true here.
I took another look at Bird’s statement and began to wonder: could she possibly have gotten her words mixed up and really meant to say that the women were hideous and their shapeless blue dresses ugly? That would make more sense. Someone with a grisly or monstrous face wearing a grim or ugly dress is a lot easier to find an explanation for. And here’s how I do it:
She said she passed “several” cabins. Several can be two, maybe three, right? But not “many”. And there were two or three ugly women in hideous blue dresses coming out of each cabin. That means four to nine ugly women in hideous blue dresses were visible from Bird’s train window, or, as I believe it should be, four to nine hideous women in ugly blue dresses.
Now here’s the explanation: she didn’t see women in dresses . . . she saw men in smocks!
Because men, unless they try really hard and have a special talent for it, make hideous women. So, what could four to nine men all dressed the same and leaving their cabins early have been up to? Isabella Bird says farm work, but I disagree. I'm thinking they could've been going out to practice a Morris dance, or play baseball, or animate mice, or destroy the one ring; or if there were four, they could've been going out to build a railroad, or start a rock group; or, if there were on the average, say, seven of them, they could've been going out to save a town from a ruthless gang of robbers. Either that or Isabella Bird really did see what she said she saw, and she just happened to look out the window right when she was passing through Uglyville.
By the way, from what little I could read of those articles and dissertations, just as many other 19th-century travelers said Mormon people were quite handsome. But my favorite description—one that even Isabella Bird might think was exaggerated—is this (I found it here) by an army doctor who was in the territory during the Utah War. He said all the Mormons looked alike, with the following features: “albuminous and gelatinous types of constitution,” “yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage,” “greenish-colored eyes,” “thick, protuberant lips,” a “low forehead” and “light, yellowish hair.”