As you might imagine, I read a lot of books on aging. In general, the authors fall into two large camps. The pessimists contend that aging is a process of limitations; gradually we lose skills and eventually we die. The optimists argue that much of aging is in our minds; if we keep a good attitude, we can run marathons until we are one hundred. My generation, the never-say-die boomers, tends to take an optimistic view. But we didn’t invent this approach, as shown in this very optimistic volume on aging published in 1907.
The thesis of this book is that habits cause aging, and thus everyone should try to inject elements of surprise and adventure into daily life. It is possible to be old acting and stuck in your ways at forty; likewise, it is possible to be active and lively at seventy. What makes the difference, Bishop claims, is your approach to life. A seventy-years-young-person will find a new hobby, join a new club, and see new places. “Keep out of ruts—ruts of thinking, feeling, talking, acting, living! That is the physiological and psychological recipe for prolonged youngness.” (73)
Ever consistent, Bishop extends her ideas to the world of fashion as well. Dressing according to proper standards “results in the sacrifice of individuality, of simple sincerity of expression and of youthfulness,” she claims. (97) Older women should throw off their black dresses and wear more color. If they have the means, they should get rid of shabby old outfits and try a new style. Sound familiar? As a fashion adviser, Bishop was definitely ahead of her time (and maybe current writers are riffling through old books.)
My search for a photograph of Emily M. Bishop came up empty, but it wasn’t hard to find out about her life. Born in 1858, she wasn’t anywhere never seventy when she wrote this popular book, which went through numerous reprintings. (It is available from many sources on line.) Bishop was a Delsarte teacher, a system of gestures and movement that was a precursor of modern dance. She lectured about movement, health, and aging on the Chautauqua circuit, an adult education project in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. In addition, she penned home economics pamphlets and was part of the women’s suffrage movement.
Emily Bishop died in 1916, not quite making it to seventy. I wondered what she was wearing in the last decades of her life.