The other meaning of the phrase ‘Perfect 36’

Published 3:55 pm Monday, May 16, 2022

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If you have any interest in history, you know how Tennessee became known as the “Perfect 36.”

You know that in 1920, states across the country were approving the Nineteenth Amendment, which made it illegal for any state to deny women the right to vote. You know that, as fate had it, 35 states approved it by August of that year, leaving open the possibility that Tennessee could become the 36th and decisive state (three-fourths of states have to approve an amendment for it to pass, and there were 48 states at the time).

You know that on August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives approved the Nineteenth Amendment by the narrowest of margins — thus the origins of our state’s status as the “Perfect 36.”

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However, here’s something I recently learned, and I need to give credit to journalist Betsy Phillips and Nashville tour guide David Ewing for pointing this out to me.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the phrase “Perfect 36” had a different meaning. Reporters who used the phrase to describe Tennessee in 1920 knew the double meaning, and they used it to be funny and, well, sexist.

There was, in 1918, a silent movie starring Mabel Normand called “The Perfect 36.” The title of the movie referred to Mabel’s upper body measurement. According to its Wikipedia summary, “the plot involves Normand’s clothes being stolen in a mixup while she was swimming, necessitating her spending most of the film running around naked trying to straighten everything out.”

We can safely assume that any movie made in 1918 was modest compared to what we’re used to a century later. But “The Perfect 36” got a lot of publicity, and parts of it were censored by several state and local film boards (apparently the federal government wasn’t in the business of doing this yet).

I can’t find any evidence of such a promotion in Tennessee. But I do know that “The Perfect 36” played at Nashville’s Vendome Theater, Memphis’s Empire Theater, Knoxville’s Strand Theater, Chattanooga’s Alcazar Theater, Clarksville’s Lillian Theater and Greeneville’s Princess Theater at various times in 1918 and 1919.

There’s more.

Back then, traveling musicals were a big part of the entertainment scene. In 1919, one of the big hits was a musical comedy called “Flo-Flo and Her Perfect 36 Chorus.” The Flo-Flo show, I’ll call it, came to Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Johnson City and Greeneville that year. “Flo-Flo boasts the only comedy chorus ever assembled for a Broadway appearance,” said the Chattanooga Daily Times. “A sense of humor is only one of the accomplishments of the bride-shop models. Each one is also a ‘perfect 36.’”

A perfect 36 in what way? You mean she could sing, dance AND march for the right to vote?

I think not.

All this explains why suffrage leaders generally didn’t use the phrase “Perfect 36” at the time. Even in 1920, the majority of the times the phrase “perfect 36” appears in newspapers, it was in reference to a woman’s measurements.

Over the years, the public forgot about Mabel Normand’s film and the Flo-Flo show. The public did not, however, forget about the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The phrase “Perfect 36,” meaning Tennessee and the suffrage movement, has been used in recent years as a book title (by my friend Paula Casey) and a Tennessee State Museum exhibit. The first 100 women who donated $1,000 to fund the suffrage monument in Centennial Park are collectively (and proudly) known as the “Perfect 36” society.

So, it’s OK to use the phrase the “Perfect 36” in the context of Tennessee’s suffrage. It’s also OK to laugh about Mabel Norman, the Flo-Flo show, and what the phrase used to mean. It is, I suppose, an amusing example of how things have changed.

Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.