Boiling to be Beautiful in 1930s America

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Advertisements and articles about pills containing DNP. The Food and Drug Administration.

About the time radium cosmetics went out of fashion, a new deadly beauty product hit the market: 2,4-Dinitrophenol, known as DNP.

DNP’s use as a diet pill took off in 1933, when the Journal of the American Medical Association published the discovery that the chemical could raise metabolism by up to fifty percent, causing a weight loss of up to two pounds a week with little to no effort. Reported as “not demonstrably harmful,” DNP quickly became the key ingredient in dozens of new weight-loss pills, only the latest in a tradition of dangerous treatments that had at various times contained amphetamines, snake oil, and even tapeworms.

By the 1930s, the diet industry was booming. While ideal silhouettes for both men and women have always been subject to change, women’s bodies in the ‘30s were shrinking faster than ever. When Hollywood’s Hays Code was finally enforced in 1934, even voluptuous figures could be viewed as obscene.

The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of strict moral guidelines applied to the film industry’s major studios from 1930 until 1968. The Hays Code controlled or prohibited any content that could be deemed immoral, especially anything sexually suggestive. While it eliminated shared beds for married couples, first night scenes, heavy kissing, and sex work, it also inadvertently changed the way women looked–or wanted to look–across the nation. A curvaceous silhouette à la Mae West suggested licentiousness, and actresses became thinner to avoid the problem, changing the fashionable figure from the Victorian hourglass into the leaner frame that would remain in vogue for most of the twentieth century.

Women across the country followed suit, and the boyish figure popularized by the flappers of the ‘20s endured. In a time of economic uncertainty, their bodies were something they could control. Fad diets, amphetamines, laxatives, and cigarettes were as popular as ever, but nothing brought results like DNP. Within a year, at least 100,000 people were habitually taking pills containing DNP in the US alone. More than 1.2 million pills were distributed from a single clinic in San Francisco. It was cheap, available over the counter in most states, and very effective. It was so effective, in fact, that there was some concern that companies producing gym equipment and plus-sized clothing would go out of business.

DNP wasn’t a new substance. It had been used in pesticides, preservatives, and explosives for years. Highly flammable, it has eighty-one percent of the explosive strength of TNT, and it tastes like sulphur. It was its explosive properties that made it so effective for weight loss. Instead of converting food to fat or energy, DNP turns it into heat, “setting tiny internal fires” that can raise the body’s temperature high enough to cause brain damage and essentially cooking people from the inside out.

What could possibly go wrong? As it so happens, quite a bit. In addition to excessive sweating (often yellow) and shortness of breath, DNP can cause lesions, yellowing of the eyes, severe lethargy, cataracts, liver problems, damage to the brain and nervous system, loss of bone marrow, and heart failure. It should be no surprise that all those “tiny internal fires” make people overheat, sometimes fatally. DNP is incredibly dangerous, and deaths have been reported after even limited use.

Within three years of the initial report on its benefits, more than one hundred women in Los Angeles had lost all or part of their sight due to cataracts. A San Francisco doctor overdosed and quite literally cooked to death. Seven people were known to have died in the US as a direct result of taking DNP by 1936, but by then, it was used as a supplement around the world. In the Soviet Union, it was given to soldiers to keep them warm in the winter.

Even so, there was nothing prohibiting its sale in the United States. The Food and Drugs Act of 1906 didn’t apply because obesity wasn’t considered a medical condition. DNP continued to be sold under various names until the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938.

Under the new act, cosmetics and supplements had to be proven safe before they could be sold. Pills containing DNP were pulled from the shelves and makeup companies were finally regulated, effectively ending a long tradition of putting known toxic substances–including lead, arsenic, belladonna, mercury, and radium–into cosmetics.

But by then, the damage was done. DNP is widely regarded to be the most effective weight-loss drug of the twentieth century, but it is also the most lethal. Although it’s illegal to sell for consumption, its efficacy has ensured that people still find ways to buy it in spite of the near certainty of death.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Cutting WC, Mehrtens HG, and Tainter ML. Actions and uses of dinitrophenol: Promising metabolic applications. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 101 (3). 1933.

Haynes, Gavin. The Killer Weight Loss Drug DNP Is Still Claiming Young Lives. Vice. August 6th, 2018.

McKinney, Kelsey. Hollywood’s devastating gender divide, explained. Vox. January 26th, 2015.

Medicine: Again, Dinitrophenol. Time Magazine. June 29th, 1936.

McGillis, Eric. Rapid-onset hyperthermia and hypercapnea preceding rigor mortis and cardiopulmonary arrest in a DNP overdose. North American Congress of Clinical Toxicology Abstracts 2018.

Scutts, Joanna. The Depression Era’s Magic Bullet for Weight Loss. New Republic. May 27th, 2016.

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

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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.

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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.

Flirtation, Victorian Style: The Secret Language of Fans

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A reclining lady with a fan. Eleuterio Pagliano, 1876.

Before the Victorian era, fans were prohibitively expensive and were most commonly used in the royal courts of Denmark and France. English women wanting them in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were obliged to buy them imported. Fortunately for the thriftier ladies of fashion, the mass production of the Industrial Revolution soon made them available to the wider public.

The popularity of fans during the Victorian period was due in no small part to French fan-maker, Duvelleroy. When his first London shop opened on Regent Street in 1860, sales were propelled by the shop’s proprietor, Duvelleroy’s son, Jules, who encouraged the development of the language of fans through guides he published in leaflets. Some of these signals had been used before, but many of them he invented.

The “language” was a set of signals ladies could give with the fans to communicate with their suitors without speaking to them. While it is true that certain signals had been in use in the royal courts of Europe before Jules Duvelleroy captured the imagination of his shoppers, the much expanded set of signals he fostered started out as little more than a clever marketing gimmick. It was romantic, flirtatious, and ladies loved it.

The next time you’re at a ball and you would like to alert your chaperone that you need to use the facilities without accidentally becoming engaged, here’s a helpful guide to some of the most common fan signals:

Yes:    Touch your right cheek with your fan and leave it there.
No:    Touch your left cheek with your fan and leave it there.
I’m married:    Fan yourself slowly.
I’m engaged:    Fan yourself quickly.
I desire to be acquainted with you:    Place the fan in your left hand in front of your face.
Follow me:    Place the fan in your right hand in front of your face.
Wait for me:    Open your fan wide.
You have won my affection:    Place the fan over your heart.
Do you love me?:    Present the fan closed to them.
I love you:    Draw the fan across your cheek.
Kiss me:    Press a half-open fan to your lips.
I love someone else:    Twirl the fan in your right hand.
We are being watched:    Twirl the fan in your left hand.
You are cruel:    Open and close the fan several times.
I hate you:    Draw the fan through your hand.
Forgive me:    Hold the fan open in both hands.
I am sorry:    Draw the fan across your eyes.
Go away:    Hold the fan over your left ear.
Do not be so imprudent:    Make “threatening movements” with closed fan.
Do not betray our secret:    Cover left ear with fan.
We will be friends:    Drop the fan.

It is unclear how many ladies actually used fan signals to successfully communicate with their suitors. Even in this short list, there is ample opportunity for misunderstanding, and one can only guess how the gentlemen were expected to respond without holding fans of their own. We can only hope those not blessed with an expressive gaze were able to communicate by blinking in code or perhaps with rapid eyebrows movements! It’s easy to imagine a young suitor, totally baffled by the curious fan movements of his beloved, misunderstanding or giving up completely. Heaven help the poor lady who drops the thing or itches her ear with it and ruins her chances with someone by accident.

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Art nouveau advertisement for Duvelleroy by Gendrot, 1905.

In spite of the potential for misunderstanding, the popularity of fans endured throughout the nineteenth century. Beautiful fans were status symbols and they were an essential accessory for stuffy halls and ballrooms. Duvelleroy enjoyed another surge in popularity when they later embraced art nouveau with new shapes and hand painted designs.

Duvelleroy is still open today, in fact, and you can read about their history and see some of their stunning fans from the last two hundred years here.

Jessica Cale

Sources

MacColl, Gail and McD. Wallace, Carol. To Marry an English Lord.
Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain.
Willett Cunnington, C. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.
Duvelleroy, History.