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.

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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.

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Contraception in History Part I: Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

There’s a common misconception (no pun intended) that contraception didn’t exist in any real capacity before the twentieth century. Previous generations were able to control themselves, were not as sex-mad as we are today, and only ever engaged in the act after (heterosexual!) marriage and for the sake of procreation.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

I have always believed that people haven’t changed at all over the course of human history, and the more I study, the more I believe this to be true. Sure, the way people make sense of their world changes, as does the way they write about it, but people don’t change. This is particularly true when it comes to sex. Our very existence is proof that every generation since the dawn of man has been powerless against it. More than just a biological urge, it’s a desire and an obsession. As long as mankind has understood that sex can lead to pregnancy, we have sought ways to prevent conception.

This is nothing new. You want proof?

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This twelve-thousand year old cave painting from the Grotte des Combarelles in France is believed to be the first depiction of condom use.

Take that, 1960s!

Being a life-long fan of historical romance, I have always been curious about contraception. Assuming the woman didn’t die having her first or second child, how did she avoid having twenty more? Do they all have syphilis? If not, why not? What does syphilis look like?

Assuming I’m not the only person who has ever wondered this (and I might be…), I’m going to write a series of posts of contraception throughout history. If there’s a particular time, place, or aspect that you’re interested in, please let me know.

For now we’ll start in the Ancient World.

Obviously women are all-powerful, but Hippocrates was among the first to believe that women could prevent conception by banishing sperm on command, as he explains in The Sperm, fifth century BCE: “When a woman has intercourse, if she is not going to conceive, then it is her practice to expel the sperm produced by both partners whenever she wishes to do so.”

You read that right, the sperm produced by both partners. While Aristotle and Plato argued that men’s sperm was responsible for producing embryos and that women were little more than a receptacle for it, Hippocrates understood that conception was a complex process involving both partners. Although he might not have been quite right about conception (or lack thereof) at will, he reasoned that both parties had to be involved because children could look like either parent. So far so logical.

Diseases of Women, a Hippocratic treatise, goes on to recommend a sure fire way of dealing with unintended pregnancies: “Shake her by the armpits and give her to drink…the roots of sweet earth almond.”

There is no evidence that the sweet earth almond, also known as the Cyperus esculenthus is anything other than a tasty, tasty nut. It’s a good source of protein, healthy fats, and Vitamins E and C, so it’ll make your skin look great, but it has no known contraceptive or abortive properties.

If that didn’t work (and all signs point to no), he also advised women to jump up and down repeatedly with her heels touching her butt. It’s worth a shot.

While Aristotle underestimated the woman’s contribution to conception, his contraceptive recommendations sound a little more effective. He advised women to: “anoint that part of the womb on which the seed falls with oil of cedar, or with ointment of lead or with frankincense, commingled with olive oil.”

Ah, yes. Lead.

Lead is one explanation for the shockingly low birthrates in Ancient Rome. The aqueducts were made of lead, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that most of the population was suffering from a degree of lead poisoning (more on that here). Lead poisoning causes infertility in men and women, yes, along with behavioral changes, irritability, convulsions, and permanent damage to the central nervous system.

Sound familiar?

Throughout history, lead has been used in a number of common products from paint to eyeliner and has been a well-documented cause of infertility and madness.

So there you have it. If you can’t find someone to vigorously shake you by the armpits, try lead.*

Tune in next Thursday for more on contraception in history. If you can’t wait, read Aine Collier’s The Humble Little Condom: A History for a fun introduction.

*Do not, for the LOVE OF GOD try lead.