My Back Pages: Perfume in Beverly Cleary’s “Fifteen”

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Being a teenager wasn’t quite what I expected. This disappointment might have resulted from my earlier reading of Beverly Cleary’s four high-school novels—Fifteen, Jean and Johnny, Sister of the Bride, and The Luckiest Girl—and the obvious gap between their 1950s world and my own. Where were the dates at soda fountains, the school dances that required semi-formal gowns and corsages, the baby-sitting jobs?

Well, I did babysit a little bit, at least. And I still remember certain lines from Fifteen, in which high-school sophomore Jane Purdy experiences the ups and downs of her first romance. In the opening chapter, she is unaware that she’s about to meet handsome delivery boy Stan Crandall when she arrives at the Norton household to babysit the mischievous Sandra Norton.

Sandra’s mother is headed out to attend “the hospital guild’s tea and fashion show” (!!) and she appears wearing “a silk suit the color of sand and a tiny pink hat smothered in flowers and misted with veiling.” (Women still wear hats and gloves for certain occasions in Fifteen.) And, best of all, her perfume is mentioned:

Mrs. Norton swept past Jane, leaving a cloud of expensive scent (probably Chanel Number Five, Jane decided, since Sandra’s mother had been living in France)…

Reading this at the age of eleven, I immediately decided that I would wear No. 5 someday. And then there’s this more general reflection on scent and memory, when Jane ponders the Nortons’ modern living room with its neutral upholstery and its Abstract Expressionist-type painting on the wall:

And isn’t it funny, Jane thought; if I were blindfolded and set down in the house of any one of my baby-sitting customers I could tell where I was by the odor of the house. The Nortons’ house smelled of fresh plaster and wallpaper and stale cigarette smoke.

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Jane never mentions her own perfume, even when she’s preparing for her dates with Stan, but we do learn that she wears “Rosy Rapture” lipstick and nail polish. (It sounds like something Revlon would have sold in the mid-50s, the era of “Fire and Ice” and “Cherries in the Snow”).

Teenagers’ lives had indeed changed in the three decades between Jane Purdy’s adolescence and my own, but even if I didn’t have the chance to share all of Jane’s fictional experiences, her thoughts on perfume and scent seem to have stayed with me.

Images: photographs of my own copy of Fifteen.

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4 thoughts on “My Back Pages: Perfume in Beverly Cleary’s “Fifteen”

  1. Oh the memories! For me they come from tv with the old black & white shows depicting the “perfect” families, with moms witht he perfect hair, perfect makeup & perfectly dressed. They always understood what their kids where going through. Somehow I could imagine the fragrances, like fresh soap if not French perfume. Oh & they spoke perfect French. These where translations of shows that where no longer in production by the time I was able to watch them. Donna Reed was my favorite.

    I can still remember the smells from my friends houses. They where all different but all welcoming. In my house, it was a blend of Dioressence, Madame Rocha, pot roast and faint cigarette (my dad wasen’t a big smoker). Sometimes Miss Dior got into the mix. As a teen I added to this Lily of the Valley, Charlie & Sophia. Quite unique I would say. :)

    • I love all this! Thank you!
      I wouldn’t want to go back to *everything* from the 1950s, but I do feel like I’m slightly out-of-sync with my own time when it comes to dress and makeup! Well, that’s why we have the movies and books and old tv shows, so that we can take vicarious pleasure in the style of earlier decades. :)

  2. I loved reading this! Just to see the cover of Fifteen made my heart skip a beat; I remember reading it from the library. I remember that Jane lived in San Francisco and that she got to go on a double date in the city. For a girl in the Midwest, California always was the last word in glamour. Thanks for a sweet memory.

    • Rosarita, I first read my school library’s copy of this book, too—I can still remember the corner of the room where the Beverly Cleary books were located. The illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush fit the story perfectly—B Cleary always had the best artists for her books! I hoped for the day when I’d go on a double date in “the city,” too, althought it didn’t happen until I was much, much older than fifteen! ;)

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