Dorothy Parker? Jean Kerr? Charles Whitehead? Simon Suggs Jr.? Sam Stackpole? Abe Martin? Kin Hubbard? Herbert Spencer? Mort Walker? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Beauty is only skin-deep according to an adage that can be traced back to the 1600s. This assertion has inspired a wide variety of twisted reactions and elaborations. Here are three closely related instances:
- Beauty’s only skin-deep, but ugliness goes to the bone.
- Beauty is only skin-deep and ugly goes clear to the bone.
- Beauty is only skin-deep but ugly goes clean through.
This insight has often been attributed to the prominent wit Dorothy Parker. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1824 “American Farmer” of Baltimore. Maryland published a piece by “A Backwoodsman” about a fictional court case. An instance of the adage appeared together with the phrases “trite saying” and “I have heard it said” signaling familiarity and anonymity. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
It is a trite saying that beauty is but skin deep, yet I have heard it said that ugly goes to the bone, and I am sure there is nothing in this doctrine so beautiful as to prevent its penetrating even to the marrow.
Dorothy Parker died in 1967, and the earliest linkage, known to QI, between Parker and the saying occurred in 1977. This evidence was not substantive, and QI believes that the attribution to Parker is currently unsupported.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1829 a newspaper in Exeter, England printed an anonymous short item containing a partial syntactic match for the saying; however, the semantics were different: 2
“Beauty is but skin deep,” quoth an old maid, who had no pretensions to it; “and so is ugliness,” replied a young lady who had no pretensions to that.
In 1840 a collection of essays and illustrations titled “Heads of the People; or, Portraits of the English” was published in London. The piece “Tavern Heads” by Charles Whitehead included dialog containing the twisted adage: 3
“When beauty was shared, I was behind the door, and my portion came through the keyhole, I’m sure: but beauty’s only skin deep, after all, they say.”
“But ugliness goes to the bone, they say also,” remarked Mrs. Chatham, laughing. “Ah! Susan, you’re a sly girl.”
In 1854 a newspaper in Prattville, Alabama published “Sam Stackpole’s Adventure” by the pseudonymous Simon Suggs Jr. which included an instance. The phrase “magnum bonum” meant “great good” in this context: 4
She was a magnum bonum gal, at that time; a little faded now, you see, but that’s to be expected. Beauty’s only skin deep, but ugliness goes to the bone.
The English philosopher Herbert Spencer disagreed with the simple adage from the 1600s. He employed a variant in his essay “Personal Beauty” which was reprinted in the 1858 collection “Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative”: 5
In the meantime, my own conviction may be expressed in a formula in which I have often before uttered it:—The saying that beauty is but skin-deep is but a skin-deep saying.
In 1859 the “North Carolina University Magazine” published an article titled “The Choice of a Wife” which included an instance presented as a verse: 6
“Beauty’s but skin deep,
Ugly’s to the bone;
Beauty ever fades away,
While ugly holds its own.”
In 1899 a newspaper in Olathe, Kansas published an instance using the word “clear”: 7
At the supper at Pleasant Prairie school house last Saturday night Dr. H. B. McCall won the cake for being the ugliest man there. Doc, you can congratulate yourself on the theory that beauty is only skin deep but ugliness goes clear to the bone.
In 1902 a newspaper in Alton, Illinois printed a collection of sayings under the title “Stray Scraps” including the following variant: 8
Beauty may be only skin deep, but it is very satisfying to the eye.
In 1904 a Jackson, Mississippi newspaper published this variant as a filler item: 9
Beauty may be only skin deep, but the impression it makes penetrates to the heart.
In 1918 “The Atlanta Constitution” of Georgia printed a piece about cosmetics which included an instance of the saying: 10
“Beauty is only skin deep and ugly goes clear to the bone,” is an old saying and one that certainly is true in a good many cases; but all men and women will admit that the beauty of a clear, smooth, healthful skin is far superior to the “camouflage” kind made by covering disfiguring pimples and other evidences of impure blood with powders and paints.
In 1922 Abe Martin, the popular alter-ego of syndicated humorist Kin Hubbard, presented a variant saying: 11
Beauty is only skin deep, but it’s a valuable asset if you haven’t any sense.
In 1924 “The Manchester Guardian” of England published a laudatory advertorial about “The Waldorf Restaurants”. The piece included a variant saying using the word “goodness” instead of “ugliness”: 12
Yet the restaurants feel spacious. Each one has its own note of design and decoration, and everything is in keeping—no jarring note. But there’s a saying “Beauty is skin-deep; goodness goes to the bone.” The secret of a restaurant lies behind the scenes. Here, behind the scenes, is the real triumph of the Waldorf organisation.
In 1960 Irish-American author and playwright Jean Kerr published a collection containing the piece “Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, I Don’t Want to Hear One Word Out of You”. She included the following comical variant: 13
I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want—an adorable pancreas?
In 1968 the comic strip “Beetle Bailey” by Mort Walker employed an instance with the word “clean” in its third panel: 14
WHY IS IT THAT BEAUTY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP BUT UGLY GOES CLEAN THROUGH?
In 1977 the influential collection “Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong!” by Arthur Bloch included an instance labeled “PARKER’S LAW”. QI believes that some readers attributed the saying to Dorothy Parker based on this ambiguous designation. This instance used “clean”: 15
Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.
The 1979 collection “1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles” included the following instance: 16
Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes all the way to the bone.
In 1986 a columnist in a Hattiesburg, Mississippi newspaper attributed an instance using “clear” to Dorothy Parker: 17
Ah well, perhaps old Dorothy Parker, a hotshot humorist of those troubled times, had it right when she wrote: “It is true that beauty is only skin-deep – but ugly goes clear to the bone.”
In conclusion, the saying under examination appeared in print by 1824, but the context signaled that it was in circulation beforehand. A version appeared in dialog written by Charles Whitehead in 1840. Currently, the connection to Dorothy Parker is weak. The linkage occurred after her death and many years after the saying was crafted.
Image Notes: Painting of “Echo And Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse circa 1903. The image has been cropped and resized to focus on Narcissus and his reflection.
(Great thanks to Luma923 whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to John Baker who located the important 1824 citation and Jonathan Lighter who located the entertaining 1859 verse.)
Update History: On September 26, 2020 the citations dated 1824 and 1859 were added to the article.
- 1824 January 23, American Farmer, Volume 5, Number 44, To the Editor of the American Farmer from A Backwoodsman, Pleas Before the Hon. Chief Justice Rational, In the Vale of Kentucky, Start Page 349, Quote Page 350, Column 1, Printed by J. Robinson, Baltimore. Maryland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1829 February 5, Trewman’s Exeter Flying-Post, Varieties, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Exeter, Devon, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1840, Heads of the People; or, Portraits of the English, Drawn by Kenny Meadows, With Original Essays by Distinguished Writers, Tavern Heads by Charles Whitehead, Start Page 113, Quote Page 142, Robert Tyas, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1854 January 19, The Autauga Citizen, Sam Stackpole’s Adventure by Simon Suggs Jr., Quote Page 1, Column 4, Prattville, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1858, Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative by Herbert Spencer, (Reprinted Chiefly from The Quarterly Reviews), Number VII: Personal Beauty, Start Page 417, Quote Page 424, Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1859 March, North Carolina University Magazine, Volume 8, Number 7, The Choice of a Wife, Start Page 327, Quote Page 329, Jas. M. Henderson, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1899 May 5, The Olathe Register, Lenexa, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Olathe, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1902 July 24, Alton Weekly Telegraph, Stray Scraps, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Alton, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1904 September 9, Jackson Evening News, (Filler item), Quote Page 7, Column 2, Jackson, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1918 April 9, The Atlanta Constitution, Healthful Beauty in Woman Is More Charming Than “Camouflage”, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1922 January 23, The Shreveport Journal, Abe Martin by Kin Hubbard, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Shreveport, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1924 December 2, The Manchester Guardian, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1962 (1960 Copyright), The Snake Has All the Lines by Jean Kerr, Chapter: Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, I Don’t Want to Hear One Word Out of You, Start Page 122, Quote Page 122, A Crest Reprint: Crest Book: Fawcett Publications, Greenwich, Connecticut. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1968 March 30, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Comic Strip: Beetle Bailey by Mort Walker, (Third Panel), Quote Page 5C, Column 3, Fort Worth, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1977, Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! by Arthur Bloch, Chapter: Humanship, Quote Page 84, Price Stern Sloan Publishers Inc., Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 108, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1986 August 14, Hattiesburg American, High school to college transition can be painful by Elliott Chaze (a novelist and retired city editor of the American), Quote Page ??, Column 5, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com) ↩