Mercury, Vinegar, and Cat-what?! Suffering for Beauty in the Regency Period

gustave_leonard_de_jonghe_-_vanity

Vanity. Gustave Leonard de Jonghe

The Regency period advocated the natural look for women. Heavy, artificial make-up was not the fashion, as it had been in decades previous. Instead, natural beauty was encouraged and good looks came from such admirable qualities like temperance and fresh air.

However, this penchant for the natural did not mean that women adhered to a strict no make up policy or did not seek miracle elixir. Freckles, tans and blemishes were of particularly concern to a lady in Regency times. Indeed, tanned skin was associated with the lower classes and upper class women would avoid sunburn, at all costs. While hiding under a parasol was a safe solution, ladies occasionally had to turn to other more dramatic remedies.

One such preparation was Gowland’s Lotion. Truthfully, this interesting concoction reached the height of its popularity before Regency times. One could suggest that its inventor, John Gowland, was ahead of his time by several hundred years. Gowland’s Lotion was likely one of the first ‘chemical peels’. It contained bitter almonds, sugar, water, and mercuric chloride. This last ingredient was a derivative of sulphuric acid and able to remove a layer of skin.

Mercury was not the only poisonous substance; lead was also used. One example is Bloom de Ninon which contained dangerous white lead. This was found not only in lotions and potions but also in face powder, although that was also made with less harmless ingredients like crushed pearl, rice powder and talc.

However, it was becoming recognized that lead and mercury may not be entirely healthy for one skin, although there were no laws to enforce this. Therefore, homemade cosmetics were becoming popular. A lady’s maid would usually be responsible for making the lotions and cosmetics for her mistress.

In addition to white powder, rouge was also used, although in small and natural amounts. No more bright circles of pink as had been fashionable in Georgian times. These were made from the toxic mineral cinnabar and carmine, derived from cochineal scale insects – okay – not toxic but not exactly pleasant.

The removal of hair was also popular in Regency times. This could be done by methods like sugaring or less pleasant techniques including a peculiar combination of cat feces and vinegar. Anything in the name of beauty.

Sources

The Art of Beauty: or, the Best Methods of Improving and Preserving the Shape, Carriage and Complexion. London, 1825.

Forsling, Yvonne. Regency Cosmetics and Makeup: Looking Your Best in 1811. 

marriedforhisconvenience-ewebsterEleanor Webster loves high-heels and sun, which is ironic as she lives in northern Canada, the land of snowhills and unflattering footwear. Various crafting experiences, including a nasty glue-gun episode, have proven that her creative soul is best expressed through the written word.

Eleanor is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology and holds an undergraduate degree in history and creative writing. She loves to use her writing to explore her fascination with the past. Her latest release, Married for His Convenience, is available now. Find out more at https://eleanorwebsterauthor.com/.

Interested in the history of cosmetics? Here are some more posts for you:

Nineteenth Century Skin Care: Ten Tips from the Ugly Girl Papers

Maybe She’s Born with It (Maybe it’s Lead!): Powder and Patch in the 17th Century

Bathing in the Age of Extravagance: How to Make Your Own 17th Century Washball (Recipe)

Cleopatra’s Eyeliner (Recipe)

Maybe She’s Born With It (Maybe It’s Lead!): Powder and Patch in the 17th Century

800px-barbara_palmer_nee_villiers_duchess_of_cleveland_by_john_michael_wright

Barbara Palmer, The Duchess of Cleveland. John Michael Wright, 1670.

So many seventeenth-century portraits feature women with smooth, perfectly white complexions. The paint used in the portraits would have been very similar to the makeup used by the subjects, both being comprised chiefly of white lead. By the Restoration, cosmetics were widely available and used across the social spectrum. In a time when freckles were undesirable and so many faces were marred with smallpox scars, demand for complexion correctives was high, and white lead made its first comeback as a cosmetic since the end of the Roman Empire.

Ceruse was made of lead carbonite and could be combined with lemon juice or vinegar. It was bought as a powder and mixed into a paste with water or egg whites and applied with a damp cloth to whiten the face, neck, and chest. It clung well to the skin and didn’t have to be applied too heavily to produce an even, matte result. It could be set with a mask of egg whites to varnish the skin or powders of starch or ground alabaster.

While it could create the illusion of perfection for a time, ceruse was not without its failings. The egg whites dried quickly on the skin, and they would have created an uncomfortably tight mask that would wrinkle and crack with any facial movement at all, so smiling and talking were out. Over the course of a day, it could even turn grey, necessitating touch-ups with alabaster powder to disguise the changing tone. Ceruse was also found to have a depilatory effect on the eyebrows and hairline, which could be seen as an advantage (or disadvantage, if false mouse-skin eyebrows don’t appeal to you) and could partially explain the artificially high hairlines that appeared in portraits throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Still, it was preferable to the alternative, a combination of borax and sulphur, which created a pale powder that was very drying as well as slightly yellow; not very compatible with the fashionable pink and white complexion of the time.

Ceruse was also extremely poisonous. The most sought-after ceruse came from Venice, seen by many as the center of the fashionable world, which was the most expensive and contained the highest concentration of lead. In 1651, Noah Biggs warned against the use of lead in lab equipment and near any water supplies in The Vanity of the Craft of Physic, and the Royal Society noted that people involved in the manufacture of white lead suffered from cramps and blindness by 1661. Although lead was known to cause madness, it continued to be used in cosmetics, medicine, and other household products.

The first person known to die from lead poisoning caused by makeup was Lady Coventry in 1760.

les_mouches_souslouisxiv

Les Mouches Sous Louis XIV. Octave Uzanne, 1902.

Patches

Patches reached their height of popularity in the seventeenth century. Lady Castlemaine advised ladies to wear them daily, except when in mourning. They could be made of taffeta or other thin, black fabrics, and even red Spanish Leather. They came in all shapes and were affixed to the face with gum to disguise blemishes or pockmarks, or to provide a “mark of Venus.”

They were called different things depending on their position on the face. A patch beside the mouth was called a “kiss.” At the middle of the cheek, it was a “finery,” a “boldness” beside the nostril, and a “passion” at the corner of the eye. During the 1650s, it became fashionable to wear patches shaped as coaches complete with galloping horses, although it’s difficult to imagine how large a patch would have had to be to resemble anything of the kind.

If a coach and six was not to the wearer’s taste, the Exchanges were restocked daily with a plethora of shapes. From The Gentlewoman’s Companion (Hannah Woolley, 1675):

“By the impertinent pains of this curious Facespoiling-mender, the Exchanges (for now we have three great Arsenals of choice Vanities) are furnished with a daily supply and variety of Beautyspots … and these Patches are cut out into little Moons, Suns, Stars, Castles, Birds, Beasts, and Fishes of all sorts, so that their Faces may be properly termed a Landscape of living Creatures. The vanity and pride of these Gentlewomen hath in a manner abstracted Noah’s Ark, and exprest a Compendium of the Creation in their Front and Cheeks. Add to this the gallantry of their Garb, with all the Ornamental appurtances which rackt Innvention can discover, and then you will say … That she was defective in nothing but a vertueus mind.”

Despite this scathing attack on the virtue of London’s patch-wearing populace, patches continued to be common throughout the eighteenth century. During the reign of Queen Anne, they were even worn to indicate political allegiances by wearing them on different sides of the face.

As you might have noticed from some of my posts, I have a particular interest in cosmetics throughout history. I use rather a lot of my research on the subject in my books. In Tyburn, heroine Sally Green is a prostitute and sometime actress, and she uses ceruse, rouge, patches, and an early kind of eyeliner, while silently judging those who use blue crayons to draw veins on their skin (because that’s just weird). My publisher is running a promotion of Tyburn this month, so if you’re curious about my fiction series, The Southwark Saga, you can download your copy through one of the links below.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Picard, Liza. Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s 
Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty
Woolley, Hannah. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675)

Tyburn can be downloaded free until October 20th through the following links:
Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AU | Amazon India 
Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Google Play | iBooks

An earlier version of this post appeared on the brilliant 17th century history blog, Hoydens & Firebrands.

Nineteenth Century Skin Care: Ten Tips from The Ugly Girl Papers

bloom of youth

“Entirely harmless.”

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?

harmless as dew

“Harmless as dew”

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.

absolutely harmless

“Absolutely harmless”

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.

Avoid Cold

“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.

Jessica Cale

Source

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!

Bathing in the Age of Extravagance: How to Make Your Own 17th Century Washball (Recipe)

Vermeer_-_Diana_and_Her_Companions

Diana and Her Companions. Johannes Vermeer, 1655.

There is an unfortunate misconception that people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not bathe. While it is true that full immersion was less common than it is today, people washed fairly regularly and business in scented bathing products and cosmetics thrived.

Demand for luxury goods flourished during the Age of Extravagance (1660-1714) and this naturally extended to cosmetics and bathing products. Cosmetics were easily purchased or made at home, as many household books such as The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675) contained recipes for perfumes, skin tonics, and remedies for freckles or chapped hands.

Both men and women bathed in scented flower waters. Those who did not or could not might freshen up with sponges soaked in perfume. For some, perfume replaced bathing altogether. Washballs also became very popular. Made from soap blended with herbs, flowers, or scent, they would have resembled some of the luxury soaps available to us today.

In The English Housewife (1683), Gervaise Markham supplies the following recipe for washballs:

“To make very good washing balls take storax of both kings, benjamin, calamus aromaticus, labdanum of each a like; and bray them to powder with cloves and orris; then beat all with a sufficient quantity of soap till it be stiff, them with your hand you shall work it like paste, and make round balls thereof.”

Public baths remained open throughout the eighteenth century and were used socially or for medical concerns more than as a means of bathing. These were often suspected of concealing brothels, so the most reputable bath houses took pains to advertise the respectability of their establishments and even offered bloodletting as an extra feature.

Bathing at home was by no means an option for everyone. Washballs remained popular, but their composition suffered. Now used primarily for the hands, they were often cut with fillers or lightening agents such as white lead. Perfumers continued to make quality washballs for their wealthier patrons, but those sold to the poor were significantly worse.

In Lillie’s The British Perfumer (1740), he describes the process for making “inferior common washballs,” and we can see a significant difference from Markham’s recipe:

“One hundred-weight of tallow soap and fifty pounds of Spanish or common whitening, are mixed and beaten up with double the above quantity of water, and scented with oil of caraways or some other cheap essential oil. These washballs are made large; and, to deceive the buyer, are made very round, by being skin-dried, or crusted, by laying in the stove for twelve hours; whereas good washballs, dried in the air, generally lose their shape. Their roundness, with their large size at little expense, recommend such rubbish to the ignorant buyer; but as for washing, or any other use, it is well known that they will no more lather, than a piece of clay, or a stone. There have been wash-balls frequently made for this sort of trade, which are merely the shells of large French walnuts covered over with the above base composition.”

For those with the means to afford quality cosmetics, the range of products available must have seemed endless. Abdeker’s Library of the Toilet (1754) lists many products that would have been available to purchase at well-stocked chemists. Waters, spirits, essences, pomatums, oils, vinegars, pastes, washballs, powders, and even gloves came in a dizzying variety of scents. Familiar scents such as rose and lavender were sold alongside varieties the modern reader might find peculiar, such as wormwood, scurvy grass, and the intriguingly named “volatile.”

You can easily make your own washballs at home inspired by Markham’s recipe. With a base of castille soap and rosewater, you can add ingredients of your choice to make your own washball in your kitchen.

In The Artifice of Beauty, Sally Pointer suggests the following recipe:

17th Century Washball

1 bar bland white (Castile soap) grated
1 small cup rosewater
1 tsp. lavender flowers
1 tsp. orris-root powder
1 tsp. dried rose petals
1 tsp. powdered sweet flag root (or myrrh, camomile, or marigold flowers)

“Beat all the herbs being used to a powder, and sieve to get the larger particles out. Don’t worry if the powder is a bit gritty. Warm the rosewater and dissolve the soap in it. When it has all melted, stir in the powders and remove from the heat. As soon as you can safely handle the mixture, divide it into several portions. Allow to harden for five minutes, then wet your hands in rosewater and shape them into nice, round balls.

Leave to set, then wrap in greaseproof paper and store in a dark place for a while to harden further. The longer they are left before use, within reason, the harder they will get and the more the scent will develop. It is a nice idea to store them in a paper bag in the underwear drawer or airing cupboard to scent everything. The slight grittiness of the powders makes the soap a good exfoliant in use. A small cheat to get an even deeper scent into your soap is to store your dry washballs in a bag of dried herbs or pot-pourri. The scent will permeate the soaps very readily.”

Although this recipe smells divine, you can also draw inspiration for your washball from some of the scents available from the time. Try cedar, lemon, bergamot, amber, plantain, violet, jasmine, orange flower, lavender, strawberry, cyprus, rosemary, cherry, almond, cassis, cinnamon, or your own combination thereof to bring a touch of the seventeenth century into your bath (minus the lead).

Washballs and other popular cosmetics of the period feature prominently in my new book, The Long Way Home, which is set in Versailles during the Affair of the Poisons. You can read more about here.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

For a truly comprehensive guide to cosmetics in this period and throughout history, do not miss Sally Pointer’s The Artifice of Beauty.

See also:

The English Housewife (1684). Gervaise Markham
The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675). Hannah Woolley
The British Perfumer (1740). Charles Lillie
Abdeker’s Library of the Toilet (1754)

Previously published on A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life

The Beauty Secrets of Lucrezia Borgia

Here she is holding a dagger.
Battista Dossi, 1486

The Borgias were a prominent family in Renaissance Italy who are remembered in infamy to this day. Although they produced two popes (Callixtus III and Alexander IV) and contributed to the Renaissance as major patrons of the arts, they are remembered for the crimes there were accused of committing, including but not limited to: adultery, incest, murder, bribery, simony, theft, and poisoning. The lives of the family of Pope Alexander IV were so sensational, in fact, that Showtime made a series about them (If you enjoy good looking men in leather trousers running about garroting people, it’s on Netflix).

Pope Alexander IV’s daughter, Lucrezia (1480 – 1519), was a renowned beauty and may have been the subject of many great works of art, although she only has one confirmed portrait. She was described as having “heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees; a beautiful complexion; hazel eyes which changed color; a full, high bosom; and a natural grace which made her appear to ‘walk on air.’” 

She was blonde, but she was Spanish by descent and the rest of her family was dark, so how did the most famous femme fatale of the Renaissance lighten her hair before there was Clairol?

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, detail


It’s generally believed that this color was achieved by rinsing it in a mixture of lye and lemon juice before exposing it to sunlight. The longer it was exposed, the lighter it would become. This process would take a long time for anyone, but imagine how much longer it would take if your hair fell past your knees. To give you some idea, there is an account that on one occasion, Lucrezia postponed a journey for days just to wash her hair. (1) 

Days. 

She wasn’t the only one doing it, either. Bleaching recipes were common in medieval cosmetic texts, and most of them include using lye or ashes in a rinse. There must have been something to it, because the practice of lightening hair with lemon juice has remained popular to this day. Elle Magazine even has a helpful guide to lightening your hair with lemon juice and sunlight a la Lucrezia Borgia, only they’ve replaced the lye with chamomile tea for a less caustic rinse. Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of your smokin’ hot foremothers or you’re just curious, you can read their recipe here

A lock of Lucrezia’s famous blonde hair is kept in the Ambrosian Library in Milan to this day.

(1) Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty. Sutton Publishing, 2005.