How Did They Remove Unwanted Hair In The 19th Century?

superfluous hair

These days we have lots of options to remove unwanted hair: shaving, waxing, threading, depilatory creams, epilators, and even laser treatments. But how did they do it in the 19th century? The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion, published in 1834 and now available for free at Google Books, explains:


Hair is said to be superfluous when it becomes too thick, or when it grows on parts not essential to its appearance, as on the backs of the hands, fingers, cheek bones, the upper lip and chins of females, and other parts of the exposed surface of the skin, contrary to the desire or taste of the individual. Hair which is too thick, or descends too low upon the forehead, or grows irregularly, is a great obstacle of beauty, either by deranging the symmetry of the face, or concealing such parts as ought to be more freely exposed.

Eye-brows too large, too thick, or too close to each other, also disturb the harmony which ought to pervade a handsome face. In these and other cases, recourse is had to depilatories; that is, substances or compositions, which possess the property of renewing hair,—and the operation thus effected is called depilation,—a very ancient practice, and formerly not confined to the embellishment of the person.

The Greek and Roman women had recourse to depilatories, to a very considerable extent. The heat of the climate probably caused them to adopt this practice, or perhaps they consulted only the pleasure of the eye. Be this as it may, so far it is certain, that all the antique statues, and the testimony of contemporary writers, prove the existence of the custom, whatever might have been the motive for it. Neither was this free use of depilatories practised only by the women.

Perseus, addressing a young debauchee, asks why he takes such care of his beard, while he bestows so much pains on removing the hair from every part of the body. There were likewise men who plucked up their beard by the root. But this was a much rarer practice than the former, and must have appeared extremely strange in an age when men universally were remarkable for the length of their beard. Accordingly the philosophers vehemently declared against this mode, which was introduced by some effeminate individuals, or rather which these voluptuaries attempted to introduce.

The ancient practice of depilation, as it existed among the Greek and Roman women, is still prevalent among those of Turkey, who observe it in common with the men.

The depilatories in general use are various, possessing different degrees of strength.—The mildest are parsley water, accacia juice, and the gum of ivy. It is asserted that nut oil, with which many people rub the heads of children, prevents the hair from growing. The juice of the milk-thistle mixed with oil is recommended by Dr. Turner to remove the hair which grows too low upon the forehead. It is also said, that the gum of the cherry tree prevents the hair from growing.

The Jewish women, who esteem, and with justness, a high forehead free from hair as a beauty, take considerable pains to procure this advantage for their daughters. For this purpose they bind their foreheads with woollen cloth bandages, preferring scarlet to any other color. The same effect is produced, according to a French writer (M. de St. Ursin), by applying leaves or rags dipped in the second water of lime, or brine, or water slightly lixivial (containing the ashes of wood, or an alkali) or the decoction of grey pease.

The following method, if carefully adopted, may be employed with success :—Apply gently, by means of a hair pencil, a few drops of muriatic acid a little reduced at first; and if this does not succeed, let the concentrated form be used by delicately touching the tops of the hair to be removed, avoiding, as much as possible, the skin; or probably the best way to apply this acid is to rub the skin and hair over at the same time, and immediately afterwards to rub the part with linen cloth.

Depilatory of Ants’ Eggs.

A stronger depilatory is composed as follows :—

Take Gum of ivy, one ounce,
Ants’ eggs, Gum arabic, Orpiment, of each one drachm

Reduce these to a fine powder, and make it up into a liniment, with a sufficient quantity of vinegar. In pounding the materials, great precaution must be taken that the dust of the orpiment, which is a preparation of arsenic, be not inhaled.

Obs.—The former acid, or acid of ants, may be more easily procured at the chemist’s, and will answer the purpose better than the ants’ eggs, which are not to be had at all seasons.

Depilatory of Rusma* and Quicklime.

Take rusma and quicklime, and reduce them to a fine powder; and dissolve them for some time in water, where they will form a soft paste, which is to be applied to hair on the body intended to be removed. In a few minutes, rub the part to which it has been applied, with a wet cloth, and the hair will be removed to the very roots, whilst the part itself will sustain no inconvenience.

*Rusma: a species of vitriol

Orpiment and Quicklime

The strongest depilatory is composed of the above substances. Considerable caution is necessary in the use of this composition. It is not without danger; and if suffered to remain on the skin too long, it is liable to leave marks. It may be made stronger or weaker in proportion to the quantity of orpiment used. These proportions are estimated as follows :—To eight ounces of quicklime, one ounce of orpiment of the first degree of strength; —to twelve ounces of quicklime, two ounces of orpiment, of the second degree; —to fifteen ounces of lime, three ounces of orpiment will present a very violent depilatory, which will produce speedy effects.

Obs.—These different degrees of strength must be adapted to the age and the constitution of the skin to which it is applied. After having reduced these two substances to a fine powder, mix them thoroughly together, and sift them, taking every precaution not to inhale the particles which rise from them. This powder must be kept in a stopper bottle.

The following are the directions for its use:— Mix with it a seventh or eighth part of barley-meal or starch, to diminish its too great strength. Pour upon the whole a sufficient quantity of warm water to form a paste, and in this condition apply it to the places from whence the hair is to be removed. Let it lie on the part a few minutes, taking care to moisten it a little that it may not too quickly dry; and now and then try if the hair comes away easily and without resistance; as soon as it does, wipe it off with warm water. The hair is removed with the paste, and the operation is finished.

Obs.—The paste must not be suffered to remain longer than necessary on the part, otherwise the skin is liable to be injured, burned, and cauterized.

Roseate Powder

This is the name given to a depilatory, composed of lime twelve ounces, orpiment ten ounces; by far too strong, unless reduced by other ingredients in the above proportion.

Another Depilatory

Take Quick-lime 1 ounce
Orpiment 3 drachms
Orice 2 drachms
Saltpetre 1 drachm
Sulphur 1 ounce
Soap lees half a pint,

Evaporate to a proper consistence, and use as above directed.

Obs.—This is safer than the two preceding, though with care and caution they may all be made subservient to the purpose.

Oil of Walnuts

This is said to be an excellent depilatory, but is difficult to be procured.

To remove Hair from the Nostrils

Take some very fine and clean wood ashes; dilute them with a little water, and with the finger rub some of the mixture within the nostrils. The hair will be removed without causing the least pain.

Obs.—The hairs of the nostrils, like those of the entrance of the ear, ought not to be removed, unless troublesome or unseemly; they are the principal safeguards against the intrusion of insects, which might otherwise insinuate themselves into these delicate passages, to the great annoyance and danger of the individual thus invaded.

Another Depilatory

The following directions are laid down by a French author (Manuel Cosmetique des Plants) to remove superfluous hair either from the forehead, or too long on the back of the hands, round the wrists and arms, and in the nostrils and other parts.

Take polypody of the oak, and cut and split it into small pieces. Put it into a cucurbite, pour some white wine upon it until it be covered the length of a finger, and let it digest in balneum marice for twenty-four hours; then distil it with boiling water, until nothing more comes over into the receiver.

The method of using this fluid is by dipping a linen rag in it, and then applying the same on the back of the hand, or other parts, and letting it remain there all night: repeating the operation until the hair falls.

The distilled water of the leaves and roots of chelidony, applied as above, has the same property. And the oil of nuts rubbed often on the head of children prevents the hair from growing.

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