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Thursday, July 29, 2010 02:34 pm

The makeup of yesteryear

Whale oil, raw beef and other 19th century beauty secrets


I recently learned a new reason why I’m glad I didn’t live in the 1800s — 19th century cosmetics.

I became enlightened about this topic after attending an interesting 3½-hour seminar during the Old State Capitol’s Civil War Encampment weekend on June 12, which drew about 75 reenactors here, according to site manager Justin Blandford. (The encampment was sponsored by Memorial Medical Center and the History Comes Alive program.) During the weekend reenactors provided demonstrations on the Old State Capitol’s lawn and attended seminars to perfect their hobby.

One of this year’s seminars was about 1800s cosmetics. It was intended to help women reenactors learn how to be historically accurate in using or preparing cosmetics, however anyone, including the curious, like me, could participate.

An especially attentive reenactor, who wore eye shadow — a 19th century no-no, confided that her peers forced her to attend because she needed to be more authentic in appearance. “I do everything wrong,” she told me.

The cosmetics workshop was presented by Virginia and Michael Mescher, longtime living Civil War history participants who reside in Virginia and run “Ragged Soldier Sutlery,” a business dedicated to 19th century entertainments and activities.

The Meschers explained the philosophy of cosmetic use back then and the ways some women made their cosmetics. They concocted samples for participants to try and gave us numerous ingredients and recipes so we could make cosmetics at home. (The light red lip balm they made was great, like Burt’s Bees products, but one of the cold creams had little chunks in it and smelled a bit.)

The goal of wearing cosmetics in the 1800s was to look natural, “like you have a naked face,” Virginia explained.

But women sure went to a lot of work to look natural. And they used some nasty ingredients, too, like lead, iron rust, and spermaceti (a waxy substance from a sperm whale’s head). Lead was sometimes used in face powders, which were essential to achieve the desired look of pale skin. Iron rust was an ingredient in a hair-darkening shampoo (or “wash” as it was called then). Spermaceti was used in lip salves.

Some beauty standards were easier though; 19th century women didn’t get manicures, they buffed their nails to look natural. They didn’t use eye shadow and few used eyeliner, probably only the “fast, young girls,” according to Virginia. They often made eyeliner by burning a cork and applying the residue with a fine, wet paintbrush.

There was no real deodorant, only body powder and dress shields. Thankfully, our ancestors did use perfume and cologne. A popular men’s cologne was Bay Rum, according to Virginia, and our own Abraham Lincoln might have used it. One of the Lincolns purchased “one bottle of Bay Rum” for 50 cents on May 13, 1858, from the popular downtown drugstore Corneau & Diller’s, according to Harry E. Pratty’s The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln (The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1943).

According to the same book, the Lincolns bought ingredients that were sometimes used for making cosmetics: olive oil, castor oil, glycerin, cream of tartar, magnesia and borax. However there’s no way to know, based on these purchases alone, whether or not Mary Lincoln made her own cosmetics. Some women did and some didn’t; the latter purchased them ready-made at local stores, like we do today.

Also like today, they read books and magazines that touted the latest beauty advice. Among these were Godey’s Lady’s Book, an immensely popular monthly magazine, and The Arts of Beauty or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet, an 1858 book by Lola Montez, a dancer, con artist, and golddigger who caused so many scandals in Europe that she fled to America and supported herself writing books and lecturing. (She lectured in Springfield in 1860 on “Comic Aspects of Fashion.”)

Her book purports to tell the beauty secrets of European noblewomen and charmers. Montez wrote: “I knew many fashionable ladies in Paris who used to bind their faces, every night on going to bed, with thin slices of raw beef, which is said to keep the skin from wrinkles, while it gives a youthful freshness and brilliancy to the complexion.”

Another 1858 book, Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes by William Dick, recommends a hair drying process that seems perfect for budding arsonists. He said the woman should lie on a couch with her hair falling over one end. Place beneath the hair a pan of burning charcoal bits sprinkled with benzoin powder (benzoin is the fragrant dried sap from Southeast Asian trees). The smoke would dry and perfume the lady’s lovely mane (if it didn’t burn it to a crisp).
I’ll stick to my blow dryer, thanks. Though, I’ve been known to fry my hair with that, too.

Contact Tara McAndrew at