(Preface note to New Yorkers: Prepare to be disappointed. This is not about your favorite psychedelic rockaboogie band from Brooklyn, also called The Ugly Club. Though to those that have not heard them: Google them, they’re good.)
The prayer “God grant me the serenity to accept what cannot be changed” is a statement of the obvious, I might say blindingly obvious. Nowadays society will not, cannot, take that reality. From stem cells for spinal cords to botox and tummy tucks, serenity is not an option.
In the past people were more inclined to acceptance. They took that recognition of what was their lot in life on their often malformed chins. Those whose looks were particularly unprepossessing formed Ugly Clubs or Ugly Face Clubs. The first recorded one met at Cambridge, in the ugly building of Clare College. The hall, a precursor to the Palladian gem we see now, was acknowledged to be as ugly as the members.
The Ugly Face Club of Liverpool, said to have been founded in 1743, elected a committee of seven to manage its affairs, which mostly appeared to consist of eating and drinking. It even had a latin motto, translated as: “An Ugly Face Bests All Things”.
And there was a strict test of entry. How ugly a bug did you have to be to join the ugly bug ball? You really had to be Halloween scary. The Liverpool minute book records a member had to be a bachelor with “something odd, remarkable, droll or out of the way in his phiz; as in the length, breadth or narrowness thereof, or in the complexion, cast of his eyes, or make of his mouth, lips, chin, etc — of which the majority of the society are to judge, the president to have a casting vote.”
Clubs also had brief written descriptions celebrating the unique disfigurements of the new members as they were admitted: “Joseph Farmer, merchant. Little eyes, one bigger than the other; long nose; thin lantern jaws; large upper lip; mouth from ear to ear, resembling a shark’s; a rotten set of irregular teeth which are set off at great advantage by frequent laughing; his visage long and narrow; his looks upon the whole extraordinary, haggard, odd, comic. In short, possessed of every extraordinary qualification to render him the phoenix of the society, as the like won’t appear again this 1,000 years.”
The Liverpool club was still going 100 years later, as was evidenced in 1840 when “a well-dressed man named Lee” was up before the local magistrates. He had been found the night before, drunk and unconscious in an alley. He had on his person some pretty suspicious objects that looked like the proceeds of crime — three truncheons of the sort that police carried and a gigantic key. His defence the next morning was that they were actually part of the Uglies’ regalia and he was merely looking after them following the riotous club outing the night before. He still got a five shilling fine though.
America took up the idea but softened the grotesqueness. In New York, an Ugly Club met on Wall St during the war of 1812. It placed advertisements to call a special meeting in order to offer their “ugly carcasses, firm hearts, sturdy bodies and un-blistered hands” against the British. Unfortunately their boss, “His Ugliness”, was unavailable to superintend, so his second in command “His Homeliness” summoned his fellows. When the University of South Carolina was founded in the early years of the 19th century it had a thriving Ugly Club. It dwindled, but was revived in 1869. They even fielded a (not very good) baseball team. Washington’s Ugly Club held a public ball in 1853. A number of colleges had humorous public annual prizegiving ceremonies where the ‘ugliest’ always got a giant pair of shoes; the most conceited a mirror and the biggest baby a lollipop.
Others with affliction formed their own drinking societies. The overweight, the undersized in height or in width all had fraternities. Membership admittance for each was decided by the simple notion of a portable folding door, taken out at each meeting. If the fat could get through their giant door — they were rejected; if the hat of a shorty touched their diminutive door, they were out and the only way the skinny could gain entrance was through their own impossibly thin slit masquerading as a door to their club. There were clubs for the surly, the lame, the hump-backed and the hen-pecked.
There is a rumour that there was once a farting club, but hey, you know the first rule of fart club…