I recently came across a nineteenth century guide to beauty called The Ugly Girl Papers. A collection of articles written by S.D. Powers for Harper’s Bazar in the 1870s, it contains everything from dieting advice (don’t eat) to cures for toothaches (opium and alcohol). There are so many different topics covered in the book’s three hundred pages that we could easily devote dozens of posts to it. This week, we’ll start with skincare.
I’m on vacation this week, so naturally, I want to look my best. I was somewhat dismayed—but unsurprised—the learn that at thirty, I am officially past it.
“The latest authorities in social science assert that woman’s prime of youth is twenty-six, moving the barriers a good ten years ahead from the old standard of the novelist, whose heroines are always in the dew of sixteen. In the very first place, one may boldly say that beauty, or rather fascination, is not a matter of youth, and no woman ought to sigh over her years till she feels the frost creeping into her heart … a high-bred beauty of thirty, if well preserved, may dispute the palm. Women who look their thirties in the face should not lay down the scepter of life, or fancy that its delights for them are over. They are young while they seem young.”
Well, crap. So how do I go about preserving what looks I have left before the frost creeps into my heart? Good skin is crucial: “Nothing is so attractive, so suggestive of purity of mind and excellence of body, as a clear, fine-grained skin. Strong color is not desirable.”
That makes sense. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all blessed with perfect skin. Three generations of women have sworn by Ivory soap and Vaseline for a good complexion, and I use the same brand of face powder my great-grandmother did in the 1930s (Coty). This should be easy, right?
Ten Nineteenth Century Tips for a Perfect Complexion
Contract tuberculosis. Wait, what? The author does not recommend doing this, but does admit that people in the early stages of consumption or scrofula have the best skin. “Consumption leaves the skin clear and brilliant, because the morbid matters which usually pass off through the skin are eating away the life in ulcers beneath.”
We may be assured that a similar effect can be achieved by “purifying the blood.” How do we achieve this?
Eat less: Diet and exercise are crucial to maintaining a clear complexion. Okay, I can see that. She tells a story of how she learned to live on very little in the name of achieving good skin:
“When recovering from severe nervous prostration, years ago, the writer found her appetite gone. The least morsel satisfied hunger, and more produced a repugnance she never tried to overcome. She resumed study six hours a day and walked two miles every day from the suburbs to the center of the city, and back again. Breakfast usually was a small saucer of strawberries and one Graham cracker, and was not infrequently dispensed with altogether. Lunch was half an orange—for the burden of eating the other half was not to be thought of; and at six o’clock a handful of cherries formed a plentiful dinner. Once a week she did crave something like beef-steak or soup, and took it.”
I take my health seriously, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to live on nothing more than a handful of fruit and a single graham cracker every day. In case it wasn’t clear the author has a pretty severe eating disorder, she also suggests the next tip…
Purge with Charcoal: One fool-proof way to purify the blood is to use charcoal as a purgative. Not only can you clean your face with it, but your guts as well!
“To clear the complexion, take a teaspoon of charcoal well mixed in water or honey for three nights, then use a simple purgative to remove it from the system. It acts like calomel, with no bad effects, purifying the blood more effectively than anything else. But some simple aperient must not be omitted, or the charcoal will remain in the system, a mass of festering poison, with all the impurities it absorbs.”
That’s right, you should purge with charcoal for three nights in order for this to be effective. If a “mass of festering poison” in your stomach doesn’t sound great, she does point out that it’s better than calomel, or mercury chloride, which was commonly used in medicine and face cream. You can read more about calomel here.
Alternatively, you can…
Use Opium as a Skin Tonic
“The opium found in the stalks of flowering lettuce refines the skin singularly, and may be used clear, instead of the soap which sells so high. Rub the milky juice collected from broken stems of coarse garden lettuce over the face at night, and wash with a solution of ammonia in the morning.”
Yes, you read that right. The opium found in lettuce. What the what? It turns out that she’s not completely off her rocker. The “milky juice” in lettuce stalks is a fluid called Lactacarium, otherwise known as “lettuce opium.” It is a mild sedative and can produce feelings of euphoria. It can also be reduced to a thick substance that can be smoked like opium. It was a drug in the United States in the nineteenth century and seen as a weaker alternative to the real thing.
Learn something new every day.
Wrap Your Face in Dandelion Leaves…for Six Weeks
“A small dose of taraxacum (dandelion) every other night will assist in refining the skin. But it will be at least six weeks’ work to effect the desired change; and it will be a zealous girl who submits to the discomfort of the mask for that length of time. The result pays. The compress acts like a mild but imperceptible blister, and leaves a new skin, soft as an infant’s.”
So before there was microdermabrasion, you could wrap your face in stinging dandelion leaves for six weeks to raise a giant blister over your face that could be peeled off and voila.
Beat the Heat with Cream of Tartar and Saltpeter
“In the summer the system should be kept cool by bathing at night and morning, and by tart drinks containing cream of tartar. Small quantities of nitre, prescribed by the physician, may be taken by very sanguine persons who suffer with heat.”
Nitre (potassium nitrate), also known as saltpeter, is an ingredient in gun powder.
I’m not sure I should be drinking it.
“Be careful, of all things, to avoid a chill. This deadens the skin, paints blue circles round the eyes, and leaves the hands an uncertain color.”
Goodness, I wouldn’t want my hands to be an uncertain color underneath my gloves. My God, what would people think?
Take Arsenic Pills
“Bohemian countesses over thirty may go to arsenic springs, as they were wont to do, for the benefit of their complexions; but the home bath-room is more efficacious than even the minute doses of quicksilver with which the ladies of George the First’s court used to poison themselves—a primitive way of getting at the virtues of the blue-pill.”
Those primitive fools! Fortunately for those who did not have access to arsenic springs, arsenic supplements were available and widely prescribed for weight loss and clear skin. They were absolutely poison, and while they were causing extreme harm to the body, they would also cause the complexion to become pale, transparent, and slightly blue – the next best thing to dying of tuberculosis.
Use Tar as a Face Mask
“Even hunters bear witness to its excellence in leaving the skin fair and innocent. Thus runs the formula, simple enough, in all conscience, yet how few will have the boldness to try it: Mix one spoonful of the best tar in a pint of pure olive or almond oil, by heating the two together in a tin cup set in boiling water. Stir till completely mixed and smooth, putting in more oil if the compound is too thick to run easily. Rub this on the face when going to bed, and lay patches of soft cloth on the cheeks and forehead to keep the tar from rubbing off. The bed linen must be protected by old sheets folded and thrown over the pillows. The odor, when mixed with oil, is not strong enough to be unpleasant—some people fancy its suggestion of aromatic pine breath—and the black, unpleasant mask washes off easily with warm water and soap. The skin comes out, after several applications, soft, moist, and tinted like a baby’s.”
I’m not sure which hunters were using this tar face mask, but the idea of all the men in my family sleeping with tar on their faces is hilarious. It does sound a bit like something that happens to you before you’re covered in feathers. Aaaaaaand now I’m thinking about Poe’s Hopfrog.
Hopefully no one will set fire to you while you have this crap on your face.
Have a Daughter? Guarantee her Future Beauty With Malnutrition!
“Some mothers are so anxious to secure this grace for their daughters that they are kept on the strictest diet from childhood. The most dazzling Parian could not be more beautiful that the cheek of a child I once saw who was kept on oat-meal porridge for this effect. At a boarding-school, I remember, a fashionable mother gave strict injunctions that her daughter should touch nothing but brown bread and syrup. This was hard fare; but the carmine lips and magnolia brow of the young lady were the envy of her schoolmates, who, however, were not courageous enough to attempt such a regime for themselves.”
As nice as it would be to have “carmine lips and a magnolia brow,” eating nothing but bread and syrup is a terrible idea, and even worse if you’re inflicting this diet on a child. In the nineteenth century you might be able to get away with it as a wealthy eccentric, but these days, Child Services would and should be called.
Wow! I hope you have learned as much as I have today. While some of the things suggested in the book have merit and are still used in some capacity in cosmetics today (sulphur and carbolic acid, for example), I have never been so grateful for my soap.
Powers, S.D. The Ugly-Girl Papers; or, Hints for the Toilet. Reprinted from “Harper’s Bazar.” New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square. https://archive.org/stream/uglygirlpapersor00powerich#page/v/mode/1up
What is the craziest beauty treatment you’ve heard of? Do you know of any that actually work? Leave your thoughts in the comments to keep the conversation going!