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 archive.org. 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:

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

Method
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

A_calm_by_James_Gillray

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:

Fard

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.

tho-radia_cream

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.