The Charmed Life of Charmed Bracelets

Mamie Eisenhower and Aunt Sylvia Wore Hearts on Their Wrists


By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published July 10, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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 self-respecting, 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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.