The Charmed Lives of Charm Bracelets

Mamie Eisen­hower and Count­less Amer­i­cans in the 1950’s Wore Their Hearts on Their Wrists

Forward Magazine - - Arts & Culture - BY JENNA WEISS­MAN JOSELIT

Mamie Eisen­hower had one, and if you came of age dur­ing the 1950s, chances are you had one, too. I’m re­fer­ring to the charm bracelet, that metal­lic clus­ter of minia­tur­ized icons that hung from, and of­ten strained, the wrist of ev­ery sel­f­re­spect­ing, well-dressed woman in post­war Amer­ica.

As much a fad in its day as the tat­too or the red string is in ours, the charm bracelet was once a sta­ple of the fe­male wardrobe. The first lady, then as now, a bea­con of style, rarely ap­peared in pub­lic without her trade­mark charm bracelet “jan­gling with the sym­bols of her hus­band’s ca­reer,” as the New York Times du­ti­fully ob­served.

Mamie Eisen­hower wasn’t the only mem­ber of the Repub­li­can Party to sport one. When the Repub­li­cans gath­ered in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in April 1956 to pre­pare to “dis­mem­ber the Democrats,” as the po­lit­i­cal re­porter James Re­ston re­lated, what to wear was one of the top­ics un­der dis­cus­sion. The male mem­bers of the party were en­cour­aged to don gold “Ike” cuff­links, while their wom­en­folk were ex­horted to wear charm bracelets dec­o­rated with “dan­gling ele­phants.”

To be sure, you did not have to be a Repub­li­can to own a charm bracelet. Its ap­peal went far be­yond party pol­i­tics. My Aunt Sylvia, a feisty, life­long Demo­crat, wore one for as long as I could re­mem­ber. A mem­o­rable piece of jew­elry, its con­stel­la­tion of four-leaf clovers and other sym­bols of good luck clanged as well as dan­gled. You could hear her com­ing a mile away.

These days, charm bracelets like those worn by my Aunt Sylvia and Mamie Eisen­hower are more apt to lan­guish in a drawer than adorn a wrist. I could be wrong — time will tell — but I don’t think they are poised for a come­back any time soon. In our boundary-blur­ring age, this type of jew­elry is too bound up with the pro­to­cols of pro­pri­ety and the con­straints of con­form­ity for that. Be­sides, it would only get in the way of and in­ter­fere with our non­stop tex­ting and tap­ping.

All the same, the charm bracelet is due for a re­assess­ment, not as a fash­ion state­ment but as a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. When seen from this per­spec­tive, it holds up well rather than fades away. In its ear­li­est in­car­na­tion, which stretched as far back as an­tiq­uity, the charm bracelet was worn as a tal­is­man, a pro­tec­tive shield to guard its wear­ers from harm and evil spir­its and, in some an­cient cul­tures, to pro­mote fer­til­ity as well. At some point in its his­tory, per­haps when science trumped su­per­sti­tion, the util­ity of the charm bracelet took a back seat to its aes­thetic ap­peal; func­tion­al­ity gave way to form. By the time it came into vogue in mod­ern Amer­ica, women put on a charm bracelet be­cause they liked the way it looked, not be­cause they had to.

And yet, even in the process of its trans­for­ma­tion from an amulet into an ar­ti­cle of cloth­ing, the charm bracelet re­tained some of its old magic. It bound the wearer to some­thing larger than her­self — to a po­lit­i­cal party or a re­li­gious faith, to a sum­mer camp or a phi­lan­thropy.

I have in mind here a sil­ver bracelet whose links hold 10 in­di­vid­ual, pint­sized tablets, each of which bears the text of one of the Ten Com­mand­ments. I hap­pened across this item on eBay while con­duct­ing re­search on Amer­ica’s fas­ci­na­tion with these an­cient do’s and don’ts and, well, I cov­eted it. The piece ap­pealed to me, not as jew­elry — you won’t find me wear­ing it any time soon — but as an ar­ti­fact of a mo­ment in our na­tion’s his­tory when pub­licly dis­play­ing one’s fealty to the Ten Com­mand­ments was com­mon prac­tice.

The prove­nance of this Deca­logue charm bracelet is elu­sive — it could well have been one of the many clever gam­bits that Ce­cil B. DeMille de­vised to pro­mote his out­sized 1956 film, or a prize dis­trib­uted to a fe­male Sun­day School stu­dent for hav­ing ex­celled in her bi­b­li­cal stud­ies — but its res­o­nance, its power, is un­mis­tak­able.

Equally com­pelling are two charm bracelets in the col­lec­tion of the Jewish His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety of Greater Wash­ing­ton. The first is fash­ioned out of a sil­ver al­loy of some sort; the se­cond is made of brass. The first is a sim­ple af­fair. Its as­sorted charms take the form of var­i­ous letters from the al­pha­bet. The se­cond item is more representational. Its charms pay homage to mother na­ture. Both are stun­ning ex­am­ples of what the so­ci­ety’s di­rec­tor, Laura Co­hen Apel­baum, calls the in­te­gra­tion of “al­le­giance and adorn­ment.”

Charm bracelet num­ber one be­longed to Penny Zweigen­haft who, as a young girl in the 1950s, at­tended Camp Louise, a Jewish girl’s camp in Mary­land. A me­mento of a care­free sum­mer, per­haps one dur­ing which she came into her own, Ms. Zweigen­haft’s bracelet, whose charms spell out the words “Camp Louise,” linked her to a com­mu­nity of her Jewish peers.

So, too, did charm bracelet num­ber two. The prop­erty of Celia Gross­berg, it at­tested to her char­i­ta­ble work on be­half of the State of Is­rael. As it turns out, her bracelet con­tained pre­cisely 12 charms, whose hor­ti­cul­tural and an­i­mal sub­jects — grapes and palm trees, lions and deer — sym­bol­ized the 12 bi­b­li­cal tribes. Each charm was not eas­ily come by. Rather, each charm re­flected the hard-won sale of $2,500 worth of Is­rael Bonds in post­war Amer­ica.

We speak of­ten of peo­ple wear­ing their heart on their sleeves. Peggy Zweigen­haft and Celia Gross­man, along with thou­sands of Amer­i­can Jewish women just like them, jin­gled, jan­gled and dan­gled theirs on their wrists.



She Liked Ike: First lady Mamie Eisen­hower rarely ap­peared in pub­lic without her trade­mark charm bracelet.

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