Tuesday 17 February 2015

The Art of Deception: Georgian Cosmetics

It's a pleasure to welcome Monica Hall to the blog today with a post on the dangers of Georigan cosmetics... What did it take to achieve that 18th century look?


And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!                  
She Walks in Beauty, Byron (1788-1824)

Mmm.  Well, not everyone agreed with this, and the fear of entrapment by make-up was so widespread that Parliament was obliged to pass an Act in 1770 which stated that

….  all women, of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.

To be fair to Lord Byron, he was writing after the most extraordinary excesses of Georgian self-adornment had been replaced by somewhat less wild cosmetic fashions and, indeed, his appreciation of his lovely lady may have owed a good deal to both the Act and the French Revolution, which understandably reduced the popularity of wearing ostentatious wigs among the aristocracy.   Thomas Rowlandson’s 1792 Six Stages of Mending a Face splendidly illustrated just how bad things could be, and was rather ambiguously dedicated to the Rt. Hon. Lady Archer.  Her response, if any, is not recorded.

Mending a Face
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 None of this was new, of course.  Since Tudor times, at least, women had been resorting to artifice to repair the ravages of diet, disease, and time.  The growing fondness for ‘white gold’ (sugar) played havoc with the teeth of those who could afford it, smallpox left scarring, and venereal disease was often signalled to the observant by significant hair loss.  Pepys wrote, somewhat unfeelingly, about the shame he felt about his syphilitic brother’s pate, although one cannot help but feel sympathy for those who were suffering from premature baldness for innocent genetic reasons.  However, the wig provided a solution for that, and the bigger the better. 

The Georgian preference was for ghostly whiteness, both in wigs and on the faces of the fashionable of both sexes, and the liberal powdering of both was de rigeur amongst the well to-do.  Some ingredients were innocent enough, such as flour or chalk, but others certainly were not.  Still in use in Georgian times, although its detrimental effects must have been known, was lead in face powder.  The unappetising facial recipe also included vinegar, horse manure, and (presumably strong) perfume.  As a contrast to the desired pallor, both sexes used carmine rouge on their cheeks, and not subtly; to our mind; they would have looked like Dutch dolls.  Wigs needed something to stick the whitening flour in place, and that something was lard and, when wigs went out of fashion, they used the same recipe on their own hair.  At least, one supposes, it might have suffocated the ubiquitous headlice.  It was not until the time of Jane Austen that the more natural look became truly fashionable and men could be reasonably sure that, come the wedding night, they weren’t in for a dreadful shock.  One’s sympathy is limited, of course, as in Georgian times, men were quite as capable of employing artifice as were women.  But it was a man’s world, so the women could legally be accused of witchcraft while the men carried on powdering their wigs and putting on makeup, and deceiving ladies, as usual.  The notion of witchcraft, however, was rapidly losing its force in the Enlightenment, and there seem to be no successful prosecutions of witchcraft-by-cosmetics extant.  Not before time. 

So who, in such times, made these cosmetics? 

The notion of non-industrial cosmetic production actually survives until the 1870s and beyond.  Industrial production certainly became possible, thanks to Max Factor (b. 1872) and others in the early 20thC, thanks largely to the nascent movie industry.  But people a hundred years earlier still relied upon themselves, or their local apothecary, who had a recipe book for drugs, cosmetics, pest extermination, inks, domestic cleaning compounds, perfumes etc., the Formulary.  Popular widespread adoption, however, always lags behind invention  -  the first cylinder stick lipstick was actually made in the USA in 1915, but brush or finger-applied lipsticks date from possibly 5,000 years ago and from the Middle Ages onwards included such exotic (or off-putting) ingredients as pig fats, gold leaf, animal marrow, the ubiquitous carmines, and fish scales for that alluring glittery look. 

Meanwhile, in the 18thC, women were still knocking up cosmetics themselves.  However, the chemists themselves were beginning to understand that many ingredients were lethal or, at the least, very detrimental.  And in the 19thC, scientists began to proscribe some cosmetic procedures.  They weren’t very happy about lead.  Lead attacks the bodies and brains of the young particularly, but it took into the 20thC for its use to be regulated although, in 2007, the US authorities discovered that 70% of lipsticks contained lead, some in illegal amounts.  Such is the power of cosmetics.

But you can still make your own  … and not die as a result, although they hardly sound subtle.  My father’s 1930s Formulary has pages of cosmetic recipes, many of which date from Victorian times, and would have been recognisable 100 years earlier.  The ‘mascaras’ sound frankly eye-watering, being made of soap and lamp-black.


Syrupy lactic acid 40 oz., Glycerin 80 oz., Tincture of benzoin 3 oz., Carmine No. 40 40 gr., Glycerine 1 oz., Ammonia solution 0.5 oz., Water 3 oz., perfume.

For fastening the wig to the head.
Isinglass 1 part, Rose water 8 parts, Tincture of benzoin 2 parts, Oil of Turpentine 2 parts, Alcohol 4 parts.

And for the really adventurous, I have a 1930s recipe for a drain rocket  …. sounds much more fun than Dyno-Rod!  No, no, don’t try this at home.  Don’t

Potassium nitrate … 4oz. Powdered resin 2 oz.  Manganese dioxide 2 oz.  Powdered asphaltum 1 oz.   Mix and use to pack into cartridge cylinders, with a suitable fuse.  What do they mean?  Suitable fuse?  This apparently didn’t really work well in blocked drains, but it could certainly blow the wig off your head.

About the Author

Retired after a working life in business and management, Monica thankfully pursues her interest in both philosophy and the history of our Industrial Revolution.

 Written content of this post copyright © Monica Hall, 2015.


Exile on Peachtree Street said...

Great stuff!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thanks for stopping by!

anne stenhouse said...

Really interesting. Thank you. anne stenhouse

Catherine Curzon said...

So glad you enjoyed it!