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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Victorian Cosmetics and Beauty Secrets

Victorian Cosmetics and Beauty Secrets

By C. A. Asbrey 

unblemished complexion the period demanded. They made most of these themselves, but pharmacies increasingly saw a market for beauty products, and moved to deliver the goods. Propriety demanded that these had to be dressed up as aids to health and youth, as not only was vanity a sin, but only prostitutes and theatrical performers (who were seen as just as bad) used make up.

The basis of a woman's beauty lay in her complexion. It had to be pale, as not only was that a sign of gentility, it was a sign of a woman who didn't have to work outside, and who (horror upon horror) tanned in the sun. Those not blessed with a naturally flawless complexion used various methods to appear as though they had one.

The most approved of cosmetic was cold cream. This had evolved from the moisturising creams of old. Roman moisturisers have been recovered with finger marks still visible. They can be based on oils or beeswax, but the modern addition of emulsifiers made them much more stable, and less likely to solidify. Borax saponifies fatty acids, allowing the basic historical recipe of fat, water and perfume to meld into a soft fluffy grease. It also stopped the mixture from separating, making the commonly added perfumes such as rose, violet, and almond more attractive to the user when they didn't separate from the hard fat Poor women made their own, but as the century wore on cold cream became easier to buy, first of all, from local pharmacies, and later from larger commercial concerns.
Early Commercial Cold Creams

  One recipe used a pound of almond oil, one pound of rose water, one ounce each of spermaceti (waxy substance found in the head cavities of the sperm whale) and white wax, and one half drachm of otto of roses (rose oil). A drachm is a unit of weight formerly used by apothecaries, equivalent to 60 grains or one eighth of an ounce. The ingredients were melted in a bain marie, and stirred together with a lancewood paddle punched with holes. The perfume was added at the end.

Other women used more paint, which was less detectible under poor lighting. They used a whitening paste, with some even going to the lengths to paint on a blue vein. These masks were made of lead, mercury and arsenic, and they tended to crack. This led those using them to avoid using mobile facial expressions. I expect hiding behind fans was also handy, but their cosmetics were one of the reasons some ladies reacted very badly to the advent of electric light. Their conceit was suddenly a lot more obvious. For those using less drastic make up, a simple powder was used to remove shine. 

Other dangerous skin treatments extended to cures for acne. It was commonly supposed that some kind of imbalance of the blood was responsible, and women took supplements of iron and arsenic to treat the problem at source, along with vegetable bitters. Today we only really know Angostura bitters, but a wide array of herb-based infusions were added to wines to boost health. These concoctions could consist of herbs, flowers, barks, botanicals, root, or seed based ingredients. 

Topical applications were also popular. A compound of hypochloride of sulphur ointment is one recommendation, something still in use for various skin conditions today. A less benign remedy was bichloride of mercury—a toxin most certainly not used on the skin today. Sunburn was treated with buttermilk in which grated horseradish had been soaked. Another sunburn remedy was a wineglass of rosewater to a pint of lemon juice. Glycerine was sometimes added to that mixture too.

Freckles were thought of as unsightly when extensive, or when they joined together to form large patches. This was termed epichrosis lenticula, as though it were some kind of medical problem. It was suggested that the 'sufferer' should apply carbolic acid lotion three times a day, and follow that with bichloride of mercury in a bitter almond emulsion. I cannot stress enough that we should never follow these directions today.

Another blight on a beautiful skin was unwanted hair. Plucking was popular in Western countries, but for larger patches, depilatories were applied. In The Woman Beautiful, (1899) Ella Adelia Fletcher said that superfluous hair was a, "a source of extreme annoyance and mortification." There were many recipes, but frankly, the more caustic, the more likely it was to be effective due to its corrosive powers. That's why women happily smeared on arsenic, lye (caustic soda or sodium hydroxide), and quicklime. Depilatories were called a rusma, and they could be tested by applying them to a feather. Once the plumes fell away, the lady knew it was ready for use on her body. It also warns that 'the precise time to leave depilatory upon the part to be depilated cannot be given, because there is a physical difference in the nature of hair. ‘Raven tresses’ require more time than ‘flaxen locks’; the sensitiveness of the skin has also to be considered.”
Quicklime Depilatory, Beeton’s Dictionary, 1871.

Lip balms were a popular home-made cosmetic, with a delicate touch of color providing a natural-looking enhancement, and one that women didn't frown upon unless the colourings were too dramatic and garish. Popular colourings were strawberry, cherry, beetroot, or cochineal, added to beeswax, almond oil, and beef tallow. This balm could also be applied to the cheeks as a subtle rouge—and it had to be applied artfully to avoid being described as a painted lady. Very fair women used petroleum jelly (discovered as by-product in the 1860s) coloured with lamp soot, burnt cloves, or chloride of gold. Brows could also be darkened using the same methods.

Hair was a lady's crowning glory, and many tonics and lotions were used to beautify and enhance it. Rain water was collected for a final rinse in soft water, but a favourite was Eau de Portugal. Mrs. Hale's Receipts for the Million (1857) gives. recipe. ". . .take a pint of orange flower water, a pint of rose water, and half a pint of myrtle water. To these put a quarter of an ounce of distilled spirit of musk, and an ounce of spirit of ambergris. Shake the whole well together, and the water will be ready for use. Only a small quantity should be made at a time, as it does not keep long, except in moderate weather, being apt to spoil either with cold or heat."  

It's well-known that blondes used chamomile to lighten their tresses, and that brunettes used henna, but there were other methods used to keep greys at bay, but less commonly discussed. Peroxide was used in the hat industry to bleach straw hats, and it didn't take women long to discover that it bleached their hair too. This had to be used with caution, as it could look too false and brassy. For ladies, chamomile and lemon juice in the sun provided a degree of plausible deniability. However, those ladies had to be careful not to get a tan at the same time. Brunettes and redheads had to use different options. 

Dyeing the hair black was achieved through adding walnut oil to a tincture of galls (made from oak galls, sugar and alcohol), and then a strong solution of sulphate of iron was added to the wetted hair. This was a lot less subtle than tinctures with rosemary or sage, both of which gradually darken grey hair, with sage being more efficacious than rosemary. Silver caustic was used to turn hair a deep brown. At least one was used by men, as a black dye using precipitated Sulphur, and acetate of lead is known as General Twiggs' Hair Dye in many recipe books. Indian henna allowed women to turn their hair a whole array of coper tones. Adding everything from saffron, indigo, hibiscus, and senna allowed women to colour their hair from strawberry blonde to almost black, with every auburn tone in between. Again, care had to be taken not to go too far, as the bright crimson hair was perceived as being as common as bright yellow.

Mrs. Hale's Receipts for the Million by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale is packed with these recipes, and is available for free as part of the Gutenberg Project. You can download it for free here:

EXCERPT  Innocent to the Last

     Rebecca turned over and punched her pillow. Why couldn’t she sleep? There was something worming into the back of her brain, but she couldn’t quite scratch the itch. All of a sudden, she saw herself standing in her office today, waving that check in the face of those damned men. The Farmers & Stockworkers National Bank in St. Louis. That was Meagher’s bank. What was it her father had always told her? If you want to bring someone down, look at where the money came from. She knew Meagher probably paid his henchmen in cash, but whoever he was in thrall to would pay by more sophisticated methods. And Becky Kershaw now had his bank details. She pushed herself upright and ran a distracted hand through her silken blonde hair. The bank. How could she see their records?

     She’d never done anything for the newspaper other than general office and printing work. Her father had acted as the reporter, and when they merged, Fernsby had taken that over. Her role never changed. She knew nothing about how to investigate a powerful man.

     Not for the first time, she wished she knew more about how journalists got private information like bank details. Nobody had ever taught her how. She couldn’t get a job in the bank. They usually only employed men. Rebecca dropped back down, running scenarios and fantasies through her mind, all of them ending with Meagher’s corruption proven by her work. How great would it be to bring down the mayor? It might at least give her some kind of future with another newspaper. And she really needed one. Meagher would arrange an accident if she stayed in Greenville. She had to leave tomorrow, at the latest.

     Schemes and plans percolated until she drifted off to sleep. By the time dawn lit the world she had convinced herself that there was no downside to her grand idea. Even if she was caught holding up the bank, a court appearance would throw enough attention at Meagher to make it worthwhile. She could declare her accusations and get them reported in the press that way. Besides. She wasn’t going to get caught—even if she was, she wasn’t actually stealing any money. All she needed was the name and address of the man paying Meagher.
     What could go wrong?



  1. Super excerpt. You capture Rebecca's frustration and plotting very well, and show the difficulties women had in that period. I wonder, too, if Rebecca's plans will go smoothly...

    Interesting article. A shame women felt compelled to use such risky beauty aids. I can certainly appreciate their use of fans and candle and lantern light!

    1. Thanks, Lindsay. Yes, I appreciate poor lighting better all the time, but I do love the atmosphere candlelight brings too.

  2. Loved this and thank you for the link.

    The things women did and do to 'enhance' their look. A wonderful look at some of the efforts used. Thank you. Doris

    1. Thanks for commenting, Doris. Yes, we are so lucky to be born in a time where we have so many choices and products. However, making your own lip balm sounds fun.

  3. So much work for Victorian women to be beautiful! And such interesting ingredients. Thanks for sharing. Also enjoyed your excerpt.

    1. It was! And it had to be so subtle to avoid accusations of being a painted woman. Thanks so much for commenting.