Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Broad In The Beam

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 27, 2010

This phrase “broad in the beam” is actually a nautical term beam that describes the widest point of a ship.   It originated in the 17th century and the word.

Back in the day, part-owner Captain Christopher Jones called the Mayflower a square-rigged brigantine, double-decked, broad in the beam, with upper works rising high in the stern.

For nearly 300 years, the phrase “broad in the beam” referred to a ship.  However, as the 20th century came about, the phrase referred to a woman’s hips.

The New York Times published an article by Henry Norman on December 30, 1900 entitled “The Beauty of Georgian Women.”  In his article, he wrote:

When they become matrons, which is at an early age, they are stout and broad , in the beam for beauty, but in their youth, I should see from glimpses at windows and passIng faces, there may well be extraordinary loveliness among them — the loveliness of perfectly chiseled features …

By 1939, the phrase “broad in the beam” was established with its negative connotation.  On Tuesday, January 24, 1939 an article entitled “Designing Women:  How Can I Look My Best?” published in The Pittsburgh Press, the journalist reviewed a book by Margaretta Byers and Consuela Kamholz on the subject.  The journalist wrote:

Pleats are no panacea although they do help the thigh.  Because they tend to make you look broad in the beam. As for culottes, it is a popular fallacy to suppose that they are as becoming as skirts.  They aren’t and they never will be. 

A divided skirt lets in fullness at the front and back rather than over the hips.  So culottes, like pleated shorts, don’t do much for the derriere.

It continued to be an insult when, on June 23, 1948  Robert C. Ruark wrote in Philadelphia’s The Evening Independent newspaper:

It may be my dewy innocence speaking but there seems to be more lady delegates than men delegates.  Back in the days of Mark Hanna, I understand, this was not so, but in this fevered clambake, you are drenched in the languorous scent of toujours lasqueeze and a fine film of powder hangs in the air.  And for some odd reason, all the distaff delegates seem to be awful broad in the beam.  This is probably a symbol of the times.

While the expression has fallen out of favour in nautical circles, it lives on in the current day negative description of women’s hips.

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