Were Fire Screens Really Used To Prevent Wax-based Makeup From Melting?

fire screens

Once upon a time, if women wanted to wear makeup on cold winter days, they were doomed to shivering. If they attempted to come close to the fire to warm themselves up, their waxy makeup would melt away. The horror! Something had to be done, and fire screens were invented. Placed near the fire, they allowed women to finally “save face” (that’s were this expression allegedly came from).

If you have ever visited an old historic house, especially in the United States, you have probably heard this tale. It’s a nice one, isn’t it? Too bad there isn’t any truth in it.

Makeup was rarely made of wax

Before the Roaring Twenties, in the US only actresses and prostitutes wore makeup. Creams and lotions may have been available in shops, but makeup had to be made at home. Few did, and even fewer used wax in their concoctions. They were more likely to include stuff like honey, eggs, almond oil, and lemon.

In Europe, wearing makeup was common among the upper classes. White pastes, usually made with lead, were applied all over the face to achieve that ghostly white look that let everyone know you didn’t have to work for a living. They were also used to hide the ravages of smallpox, although in the long run, they would only finish the job and ruin the face completely. Beeswax, instead, was usually only applied on the lips to give them some shine.

So, why were fire screens used then?

In a time without central heating, fireplaces were often the only way to warm a room. But they weren’t that effective. I still remember how cold my grandparents’ house was. When I was little, they used to live in old farm. The warmest room was the kitchen, where the fireplace was.

But its heat never reached the other end of the room. Didn’t even travel half-way there. If you wanted to keep warm, you needed to stand very close to the fire. But you were able to do so only for a few minutes at a time. The heat was too hot.

Too bad they didn’t have a fire screen. That would have easily solved the problem. By placing one between the fire and the people nearest to it, the heat would keep them warm without scorching their skin. But they didn’t prevent makeup from melting. Even if women had worn wax-based makeup, the heat was never that strong to melt it.

Although very useful, fire screens were rare. An expensive accessory, few could afford to spare the money for one. Those who could bought little works of art. Their fire screens were usually skilfully embroidered, doubling up as beautiful decorations for the home.

Had you ever heard of this myth?

Aura And Cephalus

dressing for a ball

Can fumigation get rid of wrinkles? Our ancestors certainly thought so. The Mirror Of The Graces, published in 1811, featured Aura and Cephalus, a recipe said to have been invented by the ancient Greeks that promised to do just that:

Put some powder of the best myrrh upon an iron plate, sufficiently heated to melt the gum gently, and when it liquifies, hold your face over it, at a proper distance to receive the fumes without inconvenience; and, that you may reap the whole benefit of the fumigation, cover your head with a napkin.

But this remedy wasn’t without side effects. The magazine continues:

It must be observed, however, that if the applicant feels any head-ach, she must desist, as the remedy will not suit her constitution, and ill consequences might possibly ensue.

I wonder what these ill consequences were. Even so, that warning would have been enough for me to refrain from using it. It’s hard to see how this recipe could have had any effects on wrinkles anyway. Susan M. Stabile, author of Memory’s Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-century America, proposes a theory:

More than opening the pores to expel impurities, this method suggests a type of reciprocal respiration. Aura, the recipe’s author briefly waxes, means “gentle breeze” or “invisible breath” in Greek, and Cephalus means “head.” Implicating the face, the head, and the breath, this anti-aging remedy celebrated the living countenance.

Would you have given it a go?

The Morality Of Blue Hair

colored wigs 1914

These days, it is more and more common to see people sporting crazy coloured hair. Pink, green, blue, rainbow bright.. nothing shocks us anymore. If anything, we envy those bold enough to dare challenge the norm and dye their locks an unusual shade.

But this trend is nothing new. People were already dying their hair pink and blue one century ago. It was all Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon’s doing. The first British-based designer to achieve international acclaim, at the beginning of 1814 Lucy decided to show some of her prettiest models with charming shades of pink, blue, purple, and green hair. Why?

“My discovery came about this way. I made a dress. It was for a very beautiful dark Pariesienne. It was a very beautiful dress. The girl tried it on and was delighted. I was not. It was more beautiful off her than on and that should not be. What was the trouble? Its colors wore harmonious, vibrant, living, but on her there came a slowing of the vibrant quality, a dulling.

Suddenly I knew what it was. It was her hair. Her hair was a peculiarly deep black, more brooding than alive you will understand me. I touched it with a blue powder and gave it here and there the flash you get in the wing of the bluebird. And lo! At once the dress grew more alive, more vibrant than it had been when she had not worn it. It was just that note that it needed. It tuned it up, accelerated it, gave it the proper pitch – completed both dress and woman.”

The trend caught on and, soon, all the fashionable ladies started sporting coloured wigs at parties. But not everyone was a fan. Some people worried that dying your hair an unnatural colour was immoral! Lady Duff-Gordon thought such worries ridiculous, and said so in the Omaha Sunday Bee Magazine:

“Our hair now is simply and frankly an ornament. If one, for instance, decided that she wanted to have her head shaved, would it be thought immoral If she did so? Decidedly- not. Absurd, perhaps, but not Immoral. Why then should it be thought immoral to put on more hair, or to change the color of that already on?

There are always a vast number of folk who feel more or less acutely that all beauty is of the evil one, that one can’t be gay without being wicked and that the only proper vocation of mankind is to mourn. These folk have even tinctured the minds of the normal with a shade of their apprehension. Consequently cutting off the hair raises no question of morality because it makes one ugly, and anything ugly can’t possibly be of Satan.

But because changing the color of one’s hair can be done for no other reason than to make one more attractive, it must necessarily be looked upon with suspicion.. And how utterly unintelligent is that viewpoint! I think it Is immoral not to make oneself as beautiful as one can.

[…] If we’re to stick through thick and thin to the natural color of our hair, why shouldn’t we stick to the natural color of skin and hide no more than necessary? So far as comfort and necessity go we could do easily with the clothes we wear, few as they are now. There isn’t the faintest reason in nature for wearing skirts to the ankles, nor waists to the neck.

There isn’t any reason for either shoes or stockings a good part of the year. The hair is only an ornament. It is as much a part of dress as the hat, or the laces of a gown. There is nothing either moral or immoral about it or what we do with. It’s just hair.”

The fad was short-lived. By May, English women were sporting a new trend: their own grey hair!

Would you have worn crazy-coloured wigs back then? And would you dye your locks an unusual colour now?

Fresh Jasmine Pomade & Other Vintage Recipes


I love old beauty recipes. Sure, few of them worked and some were downright dangeorus, if not deadly (which is why I don’t recommend you try them), but I find it fascinating to discover how our ancestors took care of their skin and hair and perfumed themseleves.

I’ve posted many old recipes in the past few years, but here are three more, taken from Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion:


The following mixture makes a delightful wash for the hair: spirit of rosemary, three drachms; essence of lemon, four drachms; essential oil of almonds, two drachms; rose-water, four ounce*. This may be used for cleansing the hair previous to applying creams or pomades.


Take two ounces of lemon juice, half a drachm of powdered borax, and one drachm of sugar. Mix them together, and let them stand a few days in a glass bottle till the liquor is fit for use; then rub it on the hands and face two or three times a day.


Take a frame formed of four pieces of wood, two inches deep, and one foot square, with a groove arranged to support a piece of glass, which is to form a movable bottom. On this, spread a layer of the following pomade: beef suet, one part, lard, three parts. Into this, stick fresh jasmine flowers, in different parts, every day, or every other day, for one, two or three months, or until the pomade is sufficiently perfumed. This a a simple and excellent pomade. Several boxes cat be prepared at once, piled on each other, to keep in the perfume, and the top one covered.

Do you like discovering old beauty recipes too?

Perfumed Soaps For The Toilet

perfume soap toilette

Not many of us use soap anymore, and when we do, we usually buy it at the supermarket. Our ancestors, instead, had to make it themselves. When the recipes weren’t passed down from generation to generation, they could be easily found in most magazines. Here are a few taken from the 1840 edition of The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction:

Soap a la Rose

This is made of the following ingredients: —30 pounds of olive-oil soap; 20 of good tallow-soap. When the mass is sufficiently liquefied, 1 1/2 ounces of finely-ground vermillion are to be introduced, and thoroughly mixed; and when the heat is taken off the pan, the following perfumes are added with due trituration: —3 ounces ofC essence of rose; 1 ditto cloves; I ditto cinnamon; 2 1/2 ditto bergamot; =74.

By judicious admixture of these, a soap is obtained, perfect in every point of view; possessing a delicious fragrance, equally rich and agreeable, a beautiful roseate hue, and the softest detergent qualities, which keeping cannot impair.

Soap au Bouquet

30 pounds of good tallow soap; 4 ounces of essence of bergamot; oil of cloves, sassafras, and thyme, 1 ounce each; neroli, 4 ounce. The colour is given with 7 ounces of brown ochre.

Cinnamon Soap

30 pounds of good tallow-soap; 20 ditto of palm-oil soap. Perfumes: —7 ounces of essence of cinnamon; 1 1/2 ditto sassafras; 1 1/2 ditto bergamot. Colour: —1 pound of yellow ochre.

Orange-flower Soap

30 pounds of good tallow-soap; 20 ditto palm-oil soap. Perfumes: —74 ounces essence of Portugal; 74 ditto amber. Colour: —9 1/2 ounces, consisting of 8 1/4 of a yellow-green pigment, and 1 1/4 of red lead.

Musk Soap

30 pounds of good tallow-soap; 20 ditto of palm-oil soap. Perfumes: —Powder of cloves, of pale roses, gilliflower, each 44 ounces; essence of bergamot, and essence of musk, each 34 ounces. Colour: — 4 ounces of brown ochre, or Spanish brown.

Bitter-almond Soap

Is made by compounding with 5O pounds of the best white soap, 10 ounces of the essence of bitter almonds.

Which of these perfumed soaps would you have made?

In Defence Of Perfumes


Perfumes are one of life’s simple pleasures. Yet, a lot of people believe them to be dangerous and are fighting to ban them from all public places. But these attacks on perfumes are nothing new. Already in the Victorian era, perfumer Eugene Rimmel was refuting them. Here’s what he says on his “The Book of Perfumes”, published in 1867:

Eugene Rimmel defends perfumes

Discarding, however, all curative pretensions for perfumes, I think it right, at the same time, to combat the doctrines of certain medical men who hold that they are injurious to health. It can be proved, on the contrary, that their use in moderation is more beneficial than otherwise; and in eases of epidemics they have been known to render important service, were it only to the four thieves who, by means of their famous aromatic vinegar, were enabled to rob half the population of Marseilles at the time of the great plague.

It is true that flowers, if left in a sleeping-apartment all night, will sometimes cause headache and sickness, but this proceeds not from the diffusion of their aroma, but from the carbonic acid they evolve during the night. If a perfume extracted from these flowers were left open in the same circumstances, no evil effect would arise from it.

All that can be said is that some delicate people may he affected by certain odours; but the same person to whom a musky scent would give a headache might derive much relief from a perfume with a citrine basis. Imagination has, besides, a great deal to do with the supposed noxious effects of perfumes.

Dr. Cloquet, who may be deemed an authority on this subject, of which he made a special study, says in his able Treatise on Olfaction: — “We must not forget that there are many effeminate men and women to be found in the world who imagine that perfumes are injurious to them, but their example cannot be adduced as a proof of the bad effect of odours.

Thus Dr. Thomas Capellini relates the story of a lady who fancied she could not bear the smell of a rose, and fainted on receiving the visit of a friend who carried one, and yet the fatal flower was only Artificial.”

Were any other argument wanting to vindicate perfumes from the aspersions cast upon them, I would say that we are prompted by a natural instinct to seek and enjoy pleasant odours, and to avoid and reject unpleasant ones, and it is unreasonable and unjust to suppose that Providence has endowed us with this discerning power, to mislead us into a pleasure fraught with danger, or even discomfort.

rimmel perfumes

What science says

It seems incredible that a fake rose would make someone faint, but a recent study has found out that expectations influence our reaction to perfumes. Scientists exposed two groups of people, all affected by asthma, to the rose-smelling odour phenylethyl alcohol. Those told it was therapeutic thought it smelled nice, while those told it could cause mild respiratory problems reported increased airway inflammation.

That’s not to say that allergies to fragrances don’t occur. A lot of people are, undoubtedly, allergic to them. But, in our chemophobic era, it is easy to believe some substances are more harmful than they really are, and, unconsciously, react accordingly.

It also seems that Rimmel was too quick to discard the therapeutic effects of perfumes. Scientists have recently discovered that we have olfactory receptors all over our bodies, and that when exposed to certain aromas, they can help us heal. Fascinating, isn’t it?

If you’d like to read The Book Of Perfumes, which discusses the history of fragrances in various eras and continents, visit archive.org.

Are you scared of perfumes?