Hair Dyeing, 18th Century Style

hair dye 18th century

Powdering your hair was all the rage for aristocratic ladies in the 18th century, but a lot of women still sported their natural hair colour. And, when they were unhappy with it, they looked for ways to dye it a different hue. There were many ways to make your own dye at home. Here are two taken from the October 1787 edition of Fashionable Magazine:

Hair Colouring

There are many simple contrivances to make red, or other ill-coloured hair, more pleasing to the sight, by changing it to a black or dark brown, without a possibility of injuring the person even when applied to the eye-brows. Among these may be recommended, the roots of the caper-tree or holm-oak; the barks of the walnut-tree, the willow, and pomegranate’ the leaves of the myrtle, the wild vine, the raspberry-bush, the mulberry-tree, the fig-tree, and the artichoke; the green shells of walnuts or beans; and poppy flowers, ivy berries, or red beet seeds.

Either of these articles may be boiled for this purpose in wine, vinegar, or rain-water, with the addition of a little marjoram, sage, betony, balm, or any other cephalic herb; and being strained off, the liquor may be used at pleasure. The usual way is to rub the hair well with the liquid on going to bed. Alum, and most preparations of lead, boiled and applied in like manner, will produce the same effect.

If, after washing the head with spring water, the hair is every day combed in the sun with a comb dipped in oil of tartar, the hair will become quite black in a week’s time. The hair may be moistened with oil of Benjamin, to give it a fine scent.

Flaxen Dye For The Hair

Boil a pint and a half of ley prepared from vine-twig ashes; a quarter of an ounce each of turmerick, celandine roots, and briony; one drachm and a half each of lily roots, saffron, and flowers of mullein, yellow stechas, St. John’s wort, and broom. After straining off the clear fluid, use it frequently to wash the hair, which will in a short time change to a beautiful flaxen colour, which may be easily made more or less light at pleasure, by a very little attention to the several ingredients, and such other circumstances as cannot easily escape notice.

Would you have tried these recipes back then?

5 Cosmetic Oils Used By Our Ancestors


What oils did our ancestors used on their skin and hair? The Toilette Of Health, Beauty, And Fashion mentions the most common:

1. Oil of cacao

The oil of cacao is the best and most natural of all pomades. It is well adapted to dry skins, which it renders soft and smooth, without the appearance of being greasy. It is much used by the Spanish ladies of Mexico. In France and England it cannot be used pure, because it grows too hard. It becomes necessary to blend it with some other oil—as oil of ben, or oil of sweet almonds cold drawn.

2. Oil of ben

Oil of ben is extracted by expression from nuts of the same name. Oil of ben possesses the property of never becoming rancid; it has neither taste nor smell; and in consequence of this latter quality, the perfumers use it with advantage to take the scent off flowers, and to make very agreeable essences. The ladies use this oil to soften the skin. When mixed with vinegar and nitre, it is also employed for curing pimples and itching. The oil of ben, moreover, is used with success as a lenitive for bums, acrid eruptions, chapped lips, and sore breasts.

3. Oil of Wheat

This oil is extracted by an iron press, in the same manner as oil of almonds. It is excellent for chaps, either of lips or hands, tettery eruptions, and rigidity of the skin.

4. Oil of Tuberoses and Jasmine

The essence of these and other fragrant flowers communicated to olive oil, oil of sweet almonds, or oil of ben. The oils of tuberoses, or jasmine flowers are of use for the toilette on account of their fragrancy. There are cases in which they may be successfully used by way of friction, to comfort and strengthen the nerves, and brace up the skin when too much relaxed — though we apprehend beyond their fragrance, they possess little advantage over the oils above named.

5. Oil, or Water of Talc

High encomiums were bestowed by the ancients on a water or oil of talc, which they averred possessed the property of blanching the complexion, and ensuring to women the freshness of youth till the most advanced age. The manner in which they composed this precious cosmetic has not reached us. A French author, however, has given the way of composing a liquid that may serve as a substitute for it; and a German chemist some years ago published a method of supplying this secret possessed by the cosmetics of antiquity. ‘All,” says he, ‘who have directed their attention to cosmetics, have regretted the loss of the secret of making water of talc, and have looked upon it as a discovery of the utmost importance to the Graces.’ ‘The following composition, perhaps, approaches nearest to that highly vaunted cosmetic,’ says the author of Abdeker, which is laid down by him as follows :—

“Take any quantity of talc, divide it into lanunae and calcine it with yellow sulphur. Then pound it, and wash it in a great quantity of hot water. When you are sure that you have extracted all the salts by this washing, gently pour off the water, and leave the pulp at the bottom of the vessel to dry. When dry, calcine it in a furnace for two hours with a strong heat. Take a pound of this calcined talc and reduce it to powder, with two ounces of sal ammoniac. Put the whole into a glass bottle, and set it in a damp place. All the talc will spontaneously dissolve, and then you have nothing more to do than to pour off the liquor gently, taking care not to disturb it.” This liquor is as clear and as bright as a pearl, and it is impossible to present the sex with a cosmetic whose effects are more astonishing.

M. Justi, a German chemist, who also endeavored to recover a secret of such importance to the fair sex, lays down the following process: Take two parts of Venetian talc, and two parts of calcined borax.

After M. Justi had perfectly pulverized and reduced these substances, he put them into a crucible, which he covered with a lid, and placed in a furnace. He exposed it for an hour to a very violent heat, and at the end of that time he found the mixture transformed into glass, of a greenish yellow color. This glass he reduced to powder, then mixed it with two parts of salt of tartar, and again melted the whole in a crucible. By this second fusion he obtained a mass, which he placed in a cellar, upon an inclined piece of glass, with a vessel underneath it. In a short time the whole was converted into a liquid in which the talc perfectly dissolved.

The authors of the Encyclopoedie Fransaise, say, “it is obvious that by this process you obtain a liquid of the same nature as that called oil of tartar, per deliquium, which is nothing but fixed alkali dissolved by humidity. It is very doubtful whether the talc contributes at all to the properties of this liquid: but it is certain that fixed alkali possesses the property of making the skin perfectly white and clear, and of taking away any spots which it may have contracted. For the rest, it seems that this liquid may be applied without any danger to the skin.”

Which one would you have used?

Vintage Haircare Recipes Explained

A Woman at her Toilette - morisot

I love reading old cosmetic books. One of my favourite is The Toilette Of Healthy, Beauty, And Fashion, a small volume published in 1834. Unlike other books, it doesn’t just feature lots of DIY cosmetic recipes, but also explains to its readers how and why they worked (or how the author believed they did). Here are a few examples:

1. Ointment for the Hair

Take an ounce of beef marrow, to which add an ounce of grease skimmed from unsalted pot liquor, and boil them together in a pipkin. Strain this mixture, and add to it an ounce of the oil of ben. Let this be used occasionally, and the hair well combed and brushed, both before and after its use, to remove the previous scurf, and to work the preparation well into the roots of the hair, and along the tubes.

Obs: beef marrow applied moderately to the hair of the head nourishes it, and communicates to it a fine gloss as may frequently be seen among butchers, who often apply it. Whatever therefore nourishes, strengthens. The marrow also gives it a disposition to curl. The oil of ben has long entered into preparations for making the hair grow, and if a little of the essence of lemon, burgamot, or other perfume were added, it would, at least, improve its fragrance, and preserve it against rancidity.

2. Oil for the Hair

The following preparation, it is said, causes the hair to grow again very rapidly.

Take half a pound of southernwood, and let it be slightly pounded, boil it in a pound and a half of old olive oil, and half a pint of port wine ; when these ingredients are throughly impregnated, take them off the fire, and strain out the liquor well through a linen cloth. Repeat the operation three times, with fresh southernwood; and this being done, add to the filtered liquor two ounces of bear’s grease.

Obs: the southernwood being an aromatic, may preserve the oil and bear’s grease from becoming too soon rancid and the alkaline salt which it contains may otherwise correct the too emollient properties of the oil, by partially neutralizing it. In any other respect it may not, as far as our knowledge goes, possess any advantage over similar oleaginous compositions for the hair. The same attention to cleanliness, and preventing the greasy accumulations on the scalp about the roots of the hair, and to prevent the hairs themselves from matting, and attracting dust, is necessary, as already directed.

3. Hair Water

Take three table-spoonsful of honey and three pugils of vine-tendrils. Pound the tendrils well, and express the juice. Mix it with the honey. With this composition the part where the hair is wished to be long and thick, are directed to be washed.

Obs: this composition, we apprehend, would be somewhat too clammy without the addition of some liquid — for this purpose, we recommend a gill of Jamaica rum and half a gill of water. The hair-brush will be requisite after the use of the water; not so much, however, after its immediate use as after it has been for some time impregnated with the hair. From its gentle adhesiveness, it will give the hair any form that may be wished.

4. Another Ointment

Take two ounces of bear’s grease ; half an ounce of honey; six drachms of laudanum; three drachms of the powder of southernwood; three drachms of the balsam of Peru; one and a half drachm of the ashes of the roots of bulrushes, and a small quantity of the oil of sweet almonds.

Obs: the two first ingredients we believe constitute the essential part of the preparation. The others may assist in preserving the mixture from becoming rancid, and communicating to it an agreeable odor.

Fascinating, isn’t it? For even more recipes, check out The Toilet Of Healthy, Beauty, And Fashion at It’s free.

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?