When You Are Young, You Have the Face Your Parents Gave You. After You Are Forty, You Have the Face You Deserve

George Orwell? Coco Chanel? Mae West? Ingrid Bergman? Albert Camus? Abraham Lincoln? Edwin M. Stanton? Lucius E. Chittenden? Albert Schweitzer? Maurice Chevalier? William H. Seward? Edward Lee Hawk? William Shakspeare? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A person’s true character can be deduced by the careful study of the face according to believers in physiognomy. This notion dates back to the ancient Greeks, but nowadays it is often considered pseudoscientific. Believers contend that the human visage changes over time, and authentic character eventually emerges. Here are three pertinent remarks:

  • At forty you have the face you deserve.
  • A man of 50 years is responsible for his looks
  • After thirty you have the face you have made yourself.

This family of statements includes elaborate multipart assertions. Here are two examples:

  • At 20 you have the face God gave you, at 40 you have the face that life has molded, and at 60 you have the face you deserve.
  • Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.

Remarks of this type have been credited to U.S. statesman Abraham Lincoln, fashion maven Coco Chanel, political writer George Orwell, French existentialist Albert Camus, movie star Ingrid Bergman, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in “Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration” by Lucius E. Chittenden who served as U.S. Register of the Treasury during Lincoln’s presidency. Chittenden told an anecdote about Edwin M. Stanton who served as Secretary of War for Lincoln. Stanton would sometimes judge a person harshly based on facial features. In the following dialog Stanton was conversing with an unnamed military officer about an underling in the War Department. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1891 Copyright, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration by L. E. Chittenden; Lincoln’s Register of The Treasury (Lucius Eugene Chittenden), Chapter 24, Quote Page 184, Harper & Brothers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

“Did you ever in all your life see the head of a human being which so closely resembled that of a cod fish?”

He is not responsible for his head or his face. But why do you say he is a fraud? The newspapers call him a reformer, and give him credit for great efficiency.”

“I deny your conclusions,” he replied. “A man of fifty is responsible for his face! Yes, I know he is courting the newspapers: that proves him a humbug and presumptively a fraud.”

A few months later the official in question was found guilty by a court-martial of peculation and fraud in the management of his bureau and dishonorably expelled from the service.

Chittenden’s book of recollections was published in 1891. However, the episode above reportedly occurred many years earlier during Lincoln’s presidency which ended with his death in 1865. The accuracy of the quotation attributed to Stanton was dependent on the veracity of Chittenden who may have heard the tale second-hand.

This family of sayings has remained popular for many decades. Coco Chanel employed a multipart version in 1938. George Orwell penned an instance in one of his notebooks in 1949. Albert Camus published a version in 1956. Ingrid Bergman referred to the saying in 1957. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Physiognomy maintains that character constructs the face, but William Shakspeare was aware of a counterpoint; sometimes makeup creates the face. In “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” the character Hamlet says the following to Ophelia:[ref] 1797, The Plays of William Shakspeare (Shakespeare): Accurately Printed From The Text Of Mr. Steevens’s Last Edition, Volume 8 of 8, Containing: Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark, Act 3, Scene 1, (Hamlet speaks to Ophelia), Quote Page 412, Printed for T. Longman, B. Law, C. Dilly and more, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another . . .

In 1880 a newspaper article in “The Daily Memphis Avalanche” of Tennessee expounded the theory that one’s face changes over time to mirror one’s inner thoughts:[ref] 1880 October 24, The Daily Memphis Avalanche, Of Beauty, Dress and Women (Parisian), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Memphis, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

It is certain that thought sculptures the face, it chisels out the features, it makes over the mask; your physiognomy betrays you in spite of yourself; at eighteen you have the face of your nature; at twenty you have the face of your occupations; if the thoughts to which we habitually abandon ourselves are great and generous, no matter what the irregularity of the features may be, the physiognomy will be intelligent, the look imposing, the attitude frank and noble.

If, on the contrary, we live from vanity from foolishness, from troubles, no matter how pure the features may be, no matter how much charm in the oval contour, the physiognomy will be false, the look empty, the attitude ignoble.

Nothing renders us so beautiful as always to think of beautiful things!

In 1891 Lucius E. Chittenden published an anecdote which reportedly occurred before 1865 during which Edwin M. Stanton stated the following:[ref] 1891 Copyright, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration by L. E. Chittenden; Lincoln’s Register of The Treasury (Lucius Eugene Chittenden), Chapter 24, Quote Page 184, Harper & Brothers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

“A man of fifty is responsible for his face!”

In May 1891 the journal “Public Opinion” of Washington D.C. printed an anecdote during which an unnamed U.S. Senator employed the saying:[ref] 1891 May 23, Public Opinion, Volume 11, Number 7, Miscellaneous: Responsibility for Our Looks, Quote Page 152, Column 2, Public Opinion Company, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The question of how far the mind forms the face is always an interesting one and not soon to be settled. According to a newspaper story now in circulation, a well-known United States Senator decided it “off hand,” in the case of a witness before an investigating committee. The witness in question was so forbidding in countenance that it was said “his looks ought to hang him.” This elicited the usual defense in such cases—that a man is not responsible for his looks—to which the Senator replied: “But a man of 50 years is responsible for his looks.”

The tale above was popular, and it was reprinted in other periodicals such as “The Dayton Evening Herald” of Ohio in June 1891[ref] 1891 June 25, The Dayton Evening Herald, Responsibility for Our Looks, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] and “Good Health: A Journal of Hygiene” of London in July 1891.[ref] 1891 July, Good Health: A Journal of Hygiene, Volume 26, Number 7, Moral Hygiene of the Face, Start Page 196, Quote Page 196, Good Health Publishing Company, London, (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In 1899 “The Sunday Journal” of Indianapolis, Indiana presented a curious variant viewpoint attributed to an unnamed photographer who believed that inheritance specified the right half of the face, and character specified the left half:[ref] 1899 May 14, The Sunday Journal (The Indianapolis Journal), The Face in the Photograph (Chicago Evening Post), Quote Page 10, Column 5, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

His theory was that the right side of the face represented the family and the left side the individual. That is to say, the right side is what you are born with; it reveals the hereditary traits you have inherited from past generations. But the left side expresses your own character. It is the face you have made for yourself or that life has molded for you, with all its pleasures and sorrows, its ideals held to or abandoned, its struggles and risings or falls.

In 1923 a Monroe, North Carolina newspaper ascribed the saying to Edwin M. Stanton, but the number of years was changed from fifty to forty:[ref] 1923 October 16, The Monroe Journal, Your Reflector, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Monroe, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Edwin M. Stanton, who thought he was running the war because Mr. Lincoln made him secretary of war, is said to have once turned down an applicant for office on the ground that he did not like his face. Being told that a man could not be held responsible for his face, Stanton replied that every man over forty was responsible for his face.

In 1924 an article in “Woman’s Home Companion” tentatively credited the saying to William H. Seward who was the Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln. QI conjectures that Barton confused Seward with Stanton:[ref] 1924 April, Woman’s Home Companion, Volume 51, Number 4, He Takes the Part of Jesus: An evening with Anton Lang by Bruce Barton, Start Page 13, Quote Page 13, Column 1, The Crowell Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Someone, in talking to Seward, I think, remarked that no man is responsible for his face. And Seward—if it was Seward—answered positively, “The man of fifty is responsible for his face.”

God starts us out with no telltale marks—a scroll, soft and responsive and unsoiled. And day by day we scratch upon it the record of our thoughts and acts.

In 1925 a piece in “Good Housekeeping” magazine attributed the saying to Abraham Lincoln. QI hypothesizes that a jumbled memory caused someone to shift the remark from Stanton to Lincoln:[ref] 1925 May, Good Housekeeping, Volume 80, Number 5, A Story of Friendly Flags by Frances Parkinson Keyes, Start Page 30, Quote Page 164, Column 4, International Magazine Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

. . . a story told of Lincoln, and of an applicant for office whom a member of his Cabinet had urged him to appoint. Lincoln objected. “I don’t like his face,” he kept insisting.

“But, Mr. President,” the Cabinet officer replied, “the man isn’t responsible for his face.”

“Every man,” said Lincoln, “—every man over forty is responsible for his face.”

In 1935 a vocational specialist addressed a group in Muncie, Indiana and employed a two-part version of the saying:[ref] 1935 March 22, The Muncie Morning Star, Faces Express Character Developed By Individuals, Quote Page 11, Column 2, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“Until the age of fourteen or thereabouts you have the face God gave you, but after thirty you have the face you have made yourself,” Edward Lee Hawk, human analyst, vocational advisor and salesmanship coach, told his first-night audience in the Delaware Hotel ballroom last evening.

In July 1938 a columnist in “The San Francisco Examiner” of California printed a two-part instance described as an old adage:[ref] 1938 July 27, The San Francisco Examiner, The Good Neighbor: For Your Personal Problems by Anita Day Hubbard, Quote Page 16, Column 7, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

An ancient saw recites: “When you are young, you have the face your parents gave you. After you are forty, you have the face you deserve.”

In September 1938 “Vogue” magazine of Paris printed a collection of “Maximes et Sentences” credited to Gabrielle Chanel, i.e., Coco Chanel. Here is the original three-part saying in French followed by one possible translation into English:[ref] 1938 Septembre (September), Vogue, Maximes et Sentences (Maxims and Sentences) by Gabrielle Chanel, Quote Page 56, Condé Nast, Paris, France. (BNF Gallica Bibliothèque nationale de France) [/ref]

La nature vous donne votre visage de vingt ans; la vie modèle votre visage de trente; mais celui de cinquante ans, c’est à vous de le mériter.

Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; life molds the face you have at thirty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.

In March 1939 “The Globe and Mail” of Toronto, Canada attributed a somewhat different three-part saying to Chanel while citing a French periodical:[ref] 1939 March 20, The Globe and Mail, Section: The Homemaker Page, This and That: Warning! by I. E. McK., Quote Page 15, Column 3, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest) [/ref]

Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; life models the face you have at thirty; but the face you have at fifty, is the one you deserve.
Mme. G. Chanel (in Les Annales, Paris.)

In 1942 H. L. Mencken’s valuable compendium “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles” included the following entry:[ref] 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Face, Quote Page 375, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

A man of fifty is responsible for his face.

In 1945 a “Chicago Daily Tribune” columnist printed a saying with a young final age contributed by a correspondent:[ref] 1945 October 5, Chicago Daily Tribune, White Collar Girl by Ruth Mac Kay, Quote Page 19, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

. . . “after 30 you have the face you deserve to have.”

In 1947 the tale of Lincoln rejecting an applicant continued to circulate in the “Minneapolis Sunday Tribune” of Minnesota:[ref] 1947 September 21, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, Section: This Week Magazine, The Picture by Frances Parkinson Keyes, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“I don’t like the man’s face,” Lincoln explained briefly.

“But the poor man is not responsible for his face,” his advocate insisted.

“Every man over forty is responsible for his face,” Lincoln replied shortly, and turned quickly to the discussion of other matters.

On April 17, 1948 George Orwell wrote a brief instance of the saying in one of his notebooks:[ref] 1968, George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950, Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Section: Extracts from a Manuscript Note-book, Date: April 17, 1949, Start Page 515, Quote Page 515, A Harvest/HBJ Book: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.

In 1955 humanitarian Albert Schweitzer received credit for a three-part instance:[ref] 1955 December 4, The Pittsburgh Press, What’s Your Face? (Filler item), Section 5, Quote Page 11, Column 2,Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

A very noble thought, from Dr. Albert Schweitzer: “At 20 you have the face which God gave you; at 40 the face life gave you; at 60 the face you deserve.”

In 1956 Albert Camus published “La Chute” (“The Fall”) which included an instance of the saying. Here is the original French[ref] 1986 (Copyright 1956 and 1986), La Chute by Albert Camus, Edited by Germaine Brée (Kenan Professor Emerita, Wake Forest University), Series: Classiques d’aujourd’hui; Annotated French Classics, Series editor: Tom Bishop (Professor of French Literature, New York University), (Text in French; commentary in English), Quote Page 61, Gallimard/Schoenhof’s, Paris, France. (Verified with scans) [/ref] followed by an English translation:[ref] 1956 Copyright, The Fall: A Novel by Albert Camus, Translated from French to English by Justin O’Brien, Quote Page 56 and 57, Originally published in France as La Chute in 1956 by Librairie Gallimard; This edition published by Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Hélas! après un certain âge, tout homme est responsable de son visage.

Alas, after a certain age every man is responsible for his face.

In July 1957 the “Los Angeles Times” interviewed Ingrid Bergman, and she referred to the saying while disclaiming credit:[ref] 1957 July 21, Los Angeles Times, Ingrid Bergman Now Shows Interest in Clothes, Styles by Lydia Lane (Times Beauty Editor), Section 4, Quote Page 9, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“I think clinging to youth is terrible. No one wants to grow old, naturally, but you must accept it. Anxiety about wrinkles causes them—it sets your mouth down. What is it they say—after 40 you have the face you deserve.”

Actress screenwriter Mae West included a germane remark in her 1959 autobiography “Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It”:[ref] 1959, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It: Autobiography by Mae West, Chapter 21: A Real Star Never Stops, Quote Page 268, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

A man has more character in his face at forty than at twenty. He has suffered longer, and the more love, the more suffering, the more character.

In 1962 a gossip columnist printed remarks from Bergman during which she used the saying again:[ref] 1962 March 23, Vineland Times Journal, Voice of Broadway: Rock Hudson Seems Determined To Marry Marilyn Maxwell by Dorothy Kilgallen, Quote Page 8, Column 8, Vineland, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

MORE PHILOSOPHY FROM INGRID BERGMAN: “I realize I am no longer a young woman. I don’t feel that age has anything to do with years. I know people who, at 25, are older than I am, and when all is said and done, after 40 you have the face you deserve anyway”. . .

In July 1965 the “Los Angeles Times” interviewed French actor Maurice Chevalier, and he employed a three-part instance:[ref] 1965 November 23, Los Angeles Times, Monkeys, Gnomes on Disney Slate by Philip K. Scheuer, Section 4, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“I like to say that at 20 you have the face God gave you, at 40 you have the face that life has molded and at 60 you have the face you deserve!”

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current evidence. This evolving family of sayings has been difficult to trace because of its expressive variability. The 1891 citation indicates that Edwin M. Stanton crafted the short saying circa 1865. By 1880 a two-part version of the saying was circulating. In 1938 “Vogue” published a collection of maxims from Coco Chanel which included a three-part version of the saying. A variety of people received credit for using instances during the ensuing decades.

Image Notes: Two separate studies of the face by William-Adolphe Bouguereau circa 1898. French title: Étude de Tête de Femme Blonde de Face.

(Great thanks to Steven Strogatz whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Casper Hulshof who pointed to the helpful research of Ralph Keyes whose efforts on this topic were recorded in the books “Nice Guys Finish Seventh” 1992 and “The Quote Verifier” 2006.)

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