Vintage Beauty: How Our Ancestors Made Lead Powders

lead cosmetics

These days, lead can be found in cosmetics only in trace amounts so tiny they won’t pose a risk to our health. But our ancestors didn’t hesitate to use lead as the main ingredient for their lotions and potions in an attempt to get white, porcelain skin. Back then, pale skin was a status symbol, and lots of women thought it worth the risk of dying prematurely.

Shocking, isn’t it? And you haven’t heard what else was in that lead powder yet: horse manure. Ewww!

Here’s a recipe for a lead powder:

- several thin plates of lead
- a big pot of vinegar
- a bed of horse manure
- water
- perfume & tinting agent

Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can pounded into a flaky white powder (chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white), grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.

The things women would do in the name of beauty, eh? Would you have done it too? Frankly, there’s no way I ever would have. It’s bad enough to use poisonous lead, but with horse manure too… no thank you!!

How To Cure A Sunburn, Regency Style


Our wealthy female ancestors were horrified at the thought of getting a tan. None of that sunkissed bronzy glow for them. That was a peasant thing. A lady’s complexion had to be white and pale. On a sunny day, no lady would have set foot outside the house without a parasol to protect her skin from the sun.

But that didn’t mean that they didn’t get sunburnt. There’s only so much protection a parasol can offer on a hot day spent promenading, picnicking, or at the beach, after all. When that happened, there were all sorts of DIY recipes said to work wonders at “taking off a sunburn”. Here’s what The Mirror Of The Graces recommended:


This useful paste is good for taking off sun-burnings, effects of weather on the face, and accidental cutaneous eruptions. It must be applied at going to bed. First wash the face with its usual ablution, and when dry, rub this fard all over it, and go to rest with it on the skin. This is excellent for almost constant use.

Take two ounces of oil of sweet almonds, ditto of spermaceti; melt them in a pipkin over a slow fire. When they are dissolved and mixed, take it off the fire, and stir into it one table- spoonful of fine honey. Continue stirring it till it is cold, and then it is fit for use.

Did it work?

Well, honey has anti-inflammatory and soothing properties that can help improve wound healing and relieve the pain. Almond oil is said to be soothing too, although all evidence of it is still only anecdotal. As for spemaceti, it was a white waxy substance found in the head cavities of the sperm whale used mostly because of its pleasant scent and feel to the touch. I guess this mixture could have alleviated the pain somewhat, but I doubt it worked wonders.

What to do today

If you get a sunburn today, though, avoid honey. There are more effective treatments now, such as taking take a luke warm bath with Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment (oatmeal has soothing properties), applying a cool moisturizer, such as Eucerin Calming Cream (keep it in the fridge for a couple of hours before application!), or, in severe cases, taking ibuprophen or aspirin.

How do you treat a sunburn?

5 Dangerous Beauty Practices Of The Past

Maria Gunning Coventry

Maria Gunning, Duchess of Coventry, was killed by her lead-based makeup

Injecting toxins into the body to freeze wrinkles. Using, without medical help, harsh chemical peels that burn your skin to remove imperfections. Taking the latest appetite suppressants that cause heart failure in the hope to shed a few pounds.

These may be modern fads, but some women have always been willing to risk their healths, and their lives, in the name of beauty. Here’s to what lengths our ancestors went to achieve the beauty ideals of their times:

1. Lead face powder

Lead has been used in cosmetics since antiquity, but its use was particularly widespread during the 18th century. Back then, a white complexion, which was a sign of wealth and elegance, was very popular, and lead was the quickest, and cheapest, way to achieve it. Lead makeup was also useful to cover the smallpox scars left on the faces of those lucky enough to survive the illness. But, with regular use, lead could destroy your skin (so they’d apply more to cover the damage!) and poison the body, eventually causing death. Although we like to think that our ancestors didn’t know what they were doing, it was known at the time that heavy use of lead could cause death, but, just like smokers today, they didn’t care, and were ready to take the risk.

arsenic cosmetics

2. Arsenic

In fairness, it’s not like alternatives to lead for skin-whitening purposes were safer. Another substance that could help you achieve a pale complexion was arsenic. It could come in the form of pills, such as “Dr. McKenzie’s Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers”, or face powders (which often contained lead too). Arsenic too was poisonous. It could make you go bald, cause goiter, and, eventually death.

3. Mercury

Mercury was best known as a cure for syphilis, hence the saying, “a night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury”. But did you know that sublimate of mercury was also used as a skin peeler to remove blemishes? And because that wasn’t bad enough, use of mercury was followed up by lead to cover up any flaws that were still noticeable on the skin. Other uses for mercury included freckles bleaching and warts removal. Mercury was also a poison, and eventually lead to death. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous people still use mercury in skin-whitening products today, and they don’t always mention it on the ingredient list either. So, make sure you only purchase products from a reputable brand and dealer.


4. Radioactive skincare

After the Curies discovered radium in the early 20th century, several companies decided that it was a good idea to use it in their creams. English brand Radium, for instance, created a whole range of products which included a night cream, a vanishing cream, a talcum powder, a skin soap, a compact powder, a hair tonic, and assorted pads that could be strapped to the face. The 1915 ad said: “Radior Chin straps are guaranteed to contain Radio-active substance and Radium Bromide. If placed on the face where the skin has become wrinkled or tired the radio-active forces immediately take effect on the nerves and tissues. A continuous steady current of energy flows into the skin, and before long the wrinkles have disappeared, the nerves have become strong and energised, and the tired muscles have become braced up and ready for service.” Aren’t you glad now that, these days, new ingredients need to pass rigorous and strict tests before they can be added to skincare products?

5. Belladonna

Deadly Nightshade, or belladonna (which means beautiful women) as the Italians call it, was used as eye drops to dilate the pupils. Apparently, this made them more attractive. But it also caused sensitivity to light, blindness and yes, death too.

What do you think of the beauty practices of our ancestors?

Beauty Patches

beauty patches 01

Did you know that beauty patches were invented to hide a bad skin day? They first appeared in the Roman empire, where its inhabitants applied small leather patches of alum directly over blemishes to make them look like beauty marks.

But it was only in the 18th century that beauty marks reached the height of their popularity. Then, beauty marks weren’t just a clever way to hide the occasional pimple, smallpox scars, and facial disfigurements caused by the lead and mercury based concealers of the time, but also announced a political affiliation or a romantic interest.

beauty patches 02

Materials, shapes and colours

Beauty patches came in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colours. Materials such as taffetta, leather, velvet, silk, or mouse skin (the latter was used only by the poor), were first cut out in little shapes, like circles, stars, crescents, diamonds and hearts. But as time went on, these shapes became more and more elaborate, and took the form of animals, ships and even carriages!

Beauty patches also came in several colours. The favourite was black, which starkly contrasted, and showed off, the paleness of the skin. Fair skin was then considered a symbol of nobility and a mark of beauty, so women with dark skin were rarely seen wearing patches, which did little to enhance their complexions. But coloured patches were also available and could be used to enhance the colour of the wearer’s eyes or gowns.

beauty patches meaning

The meaning of beauty patches

Depending on their placement on the skin, patches had a different meaning:

Close to the eye, she names herself provocative or fascinated.
On the corner mouth, this is the lover and kissable.
Above the lip, she is flirty.
Under the lip, she becomes mischievous or flirty.
On the nose, sassy, impudent or strapping.
On the forehead, the majestic or haughty
On the cheek, this is the gallant or flirty one.
On a wrinkle or laugh line, she is cheerful and playful
On the chest, this is the generous one.
On a button, the receiver.
Or well on the chin, would not at all this be the discreet one?

Beauty patches were also a political statement. Joseph Addison, founder of The Spectator, related in his paper how, at the theatre, the women who sat in different boxes were patched differently and kept glaring at their rivals. The women who wore patches on the right side of their forehead were Tories, those who applied them on the left side Whigs, and those who used patches on both sides were neutral.

According to Addison, most of these women weren’t really interested in politics, and just showed favour to the political party supported by the men they fancied. A few, though, were staunch supporters of one party or another, and even went so far as to stipulate in their marriage contracts that they retained the right to patch whatever side of the face they preferred, regardless of the political alliance of their husbands.

When, at the end of the 18th century, a vaccine for smallpox was invented, the trend for beauty patches vanished. It would be revived in the ’50s by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and are now considered a must for pin up girls like Dita Von Teese.

Have you ever used a beauty patch?

Vanity Of Victorian Female Convicts

millbank prison

Women have always felt the need to take care of their appearance, even when locked up in prison. Not that men ever understood that. A journalist writing for the New York Times stated in an article, titled “Vanity of Female Convicts The Ruling Passion Strong in a Condition Worse than Death” and published in 1895, that British female convicts were “the vainest of the vain daughters of Eve”.

I doubt that’s true, but they certainly were very ingenious. Here’s how they procured their own, rudimentary, beauty tools:

- A convict at the English Millbank prison was “discovered to be in the possession of three tallow candles, which, if they had not been missed, would no doubt have been utilized as pomade!”

- When the hinges of the cell doors were oiled, some women would wipe it off and put it in their hair!

- Women at the Working Prison wore bright-red-striped aprons. Convicts discovered that “when unraveled and chewed in the mouth the colour or dye was released“. The paint so obtained was then used as blush and lipstick.

- Convicts “spent hours in tearing out bits of wire from the window guard and afterward bending them into the require shape” to form a hairpin.

- Women also torn out leaves from the Bible to “make the old-fashioned ‘cracker’ curls“. There was a severe punishment for this though.

- Women would “scheme, plot, and plan for months together in order to become possessed of a piece of broken window pane in order to make a looking-glass.” For instance, they would scour the ground when out in the exercise yard for a piece of glass and risk punishment (usually solitary confinement and bread and water diet) to get it into their cells, where, after applying a piece of black cloth at its back, they would carefully hide it. Sometimes, they even broke the windows of their cells to have their own mirrors.

- Inmates often asked their family and friends, when they came to visit, to style their hair and clothes in the latest fashions.

- Prisons had their fashionistas and trend-setters too. When someone started a trend, “if it meets with approval [it] will be immediately copied by all the other convicts.” Fashion was also used by warders to subdue violent convicts: “many a violent, half-witted woman has been rendered tractable by permitting her to copy some little innovation then making itself fashionable within the prison walls.”

Weren’t they clever? And would you have done the same? Of, if you’re interested in reading the entire article, click here.

Victorian Toilet Recipes


Last year, I posted an excerpt about “the etiquette of toilette” from a book of etiquette titled “Our Deportment”. It explained the importance of taking care of your appearance, and provided tips to achieve just that.

The book also features quite a lot of homemade recipes to deal with any beauty problems, from freckles to wrinkles, from sunburn to gray hair. I thought it’d be interested to learn what treatments they once thought would help in all these cases, but of course, you shouldn’t try to replicate them at home. I doubt they’d work that well anyway. :)


Bruise and squeeze the juice out of common chick-weed, and to this juice add three times its quantity of soft water. Bathe the skin with this for five or ten minutes morning and evening, and wash afterwards with clean water.
Elder flowers treated and applied exactly in the same manner as above. When the flowers are not to be had, the distilled water from them, which may be procured from any druggist, will answer the purpose.
A good freckle lotion is made of honey, one ounce, mixed with one pint of lukewarm water. Apply when cold.
Carbonate of potassa, twenty grains; milk of almonds, three ounces; oil of sassafras, three drops. Mix and apply two or three times a day.
One ounce of alcohol; half a dram salts tartar; one dram oil bitter almonds. Let stand for one day and apply every second day.


Wash the face in a solution composed of one teaspoonful of carbolic acid to a pint of water. This is an excellent purifying lotion, and may be used on the most delicate skin. Be careful not to get any of it in the eyes as it will weaken them.
One tablespoonful of borax to half a pint of water is an excellent remedy for cutaneous eruptions, canker, ringworm, etc.
Pulverize a piece of alum the size of a walnut, dissolve it in one ounce of lemon juice, and add one ounce of alcohol. Apply once or twice a day.
Mix two ounces of rose-water with one dram of sulphate of zinc. Wet the face gently and let it dry. Then touch the affected part with cream.


Take two drams of borax, one dram of alum, one dram of camphor, half an ounce of sugar-candy, and a pound of ox-gall. Mix and stir well for ten minutes, and stir it three or four times a fortnight. When clear and transparent, strain through a blotting paper and bottle for use.


Ammonia one ounce, rosemary one ounce, cantharides four drams, rose-water four ounces, glycerine one ounce. First wet the head with cold water, then apply the mixture, rubbing briskly.
Vinegar of cantharides half an ounce, eau-de-cologne one ounce, rose-water one ounce. The scalp should be brushed briskly until it becomes red, and the lotion should then be applied to the roots of the hair twice a day.


The women of Germany have remarkably fine and luxuriant hair. The following is their method of managing it: About once in two or three weeks, boil for half an hour or more a large handful of bran in a quart of soft water; strain into a basin, and when tepid, rub into the water a little white soap. With this wash the  head thoroughly, using a soft linen cloth or towel, thoroughly dividing the hair so as to reach the roots. Then take the yolk of an egg, slightly beaten in a saucer, and with the fingers rub it into the roots of the hair. Let it remain a few minutes, and then wash it off entirely with a cloth dipped in pure water. Rinse the head well till the yolk of the egg has disappeared from it, then wipe and rub it dry with a towel, and comb the hair from the head, parting it with the fingers, then apply some soft pomatum. In winter it is best to do all this in a warm room.


Take the hulls of butternuts, about four ounces, and infuse in a quart of water, and to this add half an ounce of copperas. Apply with a soft brush every two or three days. This preparation is harmless, and is far better than those dyes made of nitrate of silver.
Oxide of bismuth four drams, spermaceti four drams, pure hog’s lard four ounces. Melt the two last and add the first.


If the head be perfectly bald, nothing will ever cause the hair to grow again. If the scalp be glossy, and no small hairs are discernible, the roots or follicles are dead, and can not be resuscitated. However if small hairs are to be seen, there is hope. Brush well, and bathe the bald spot three or four times a week with cold, soft water; carbonate of ammonia one dram, tincture of cantharides four drams, bay rum four ounces, castor oil two ounces. Mix well and use it every day.


Take a pint of alcohol, half pint of bay rum, and half an ounce of spirits of ammonia, and one dram of salts tartar. Shake well together and it is ready for use. Pour a quantity on the head, rub well with the palm of the hand. It will produce a thick foam, and will cleanse the scalp. This is used generally by first-class barbers.


Melt one ounce of white wax, add two ounces of juice of lily-bulbs, two ounces of honey, two drams of rose-water, and a drop or two of ottar of roses. Use it twice a day.
Put powder of best myrrh upon an iron plate sufficiently hot to melt the gum gently, and when it liquefies, cover over your head with a napkin, and hold your face over the fumes at a distance that will cause you no inconvenience. If it produces headache, discontinue its use.
In washing, use warm instead of cold water.

If you’re interested in reading the book, you can download it for free at Project Gutenberg.

What do you think of these recipes?