Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Yesterday we spoke of ingredients in use in that time period, but it occurred to me that it might be important to take a look at just how and why they were put to use. I am indebted to Barbara Talasco who put together “Never Quite Satisfied” based on her research – excerpts follow:

Throughout the course of history we have continually attempted to improve upon nature with a grand variety of concoctions and contraptions. Never was the tendency stronger than during the 18th century when fashion reigned supreme – a time when an inordinate amount of time, money and energy was expended in the quest for the ultimate appearance.

A myriad of painting, padding hiding and dyeing paraphernalia became part of every person’s toilette. Even the face was padded when necessary. When age and loss of teeth allowed the cheeks to hollow, an under-the-counter item called ‘plumpers’ (little cork balls inserted into the mouth to fill the void) came to the rescue. “Mrs. Button who wears cork plumpers in each cheek and never hazards more than six words for fear of shewing them” – 1780, Mrs. Cowly, The Belle’s Stratagem.

Snippets of mouse skin became false eyebrow and came in many colours. They replaced the natural brow which was often intentionally removed by plucking, shaving, or the use of painful plasters or depilatories (sometimes containing quicklime) its original site obscured with pink paste.

Beyond shaping and replacing came an assault on the very skin by way of ‘complexion improvers’ and cosmetics. Creams and lotions, both homemade and commercially produced were popular; some were innocent and some were lethal.

Skin was softened and wrinkles removed with greases and oils. Nightly applications with saturated forehead cloths and impregnated skin gloves (chicken and dog) were the preferred methods of treatment.

Rouge of the day was accomplished by several methods but mostly by ‘Spanish Wool’. This woolen or felt pad was impregnated with a red dye and was applied to dampened cheeks and lips by men and women alike. Thus the characteristic red and white face that went on in the morning and came off at night was accomplished by some men and all fashionable women.

Lead which served to whiten also served to darken as in the form of combs for the hair and especially for the eyebrows – when natural brows were kept, that is. Brows could also be darkened with a solution of green vitriol and gum Arabic.

Regular bathing became less an ostentatious act and more routine. Teeth were cleansed with toothpicks and rag-wound sticks, and whitened with a mixture of lemon juice and burnt alum.

[I do suggest to historical interpreters that a camp follower might make use of information slanted toward the fashionable lady: why not try the rag on a twig (or a fringed twig) tooth brushing, conspicuously public for nothing was personal and private, along with a grand splashing of water on the face! – what elegance !!! ???]