Friday, July 31, 2015

Colonial Cosmetics, A Deadly Vanity

By Susan F. Craft
Author, The Xanthakos Family Trilogy, historic romantic suspense

Lady Dawlrymple by Gainsborough
(an example of pale skin, rouged cheeks and lips, and dark eyebrows)

        The average colonial American woman, whether due to a lack of money, time, incentive, or religious reasons and cultural mores, wore little or no makeup. European women who visited America from places where makeup was common among the upper classes, often commented in their letters and diaries about this.
       Colonial women did apply skin treatments that were intended to be washed off. Here’s one concoction for a cleanser made of a paste of dried almonds: Beat any quantity you please of Sweet and Bitter Almonds in a marble mortar, and while beating, pour on them a little Vinegar in a small stream to prevent their turning oily; then add 2 drachms of storax in fine powder, 2 drachms of white Honey, and 2 Yolks of Eggs boiled hard; mix the whole into a paste.
        Women, mostly wealthy, who were attentive to their looks did the following:

For pale, waifish skin:
     Apply rice powder or powder made from lead paint;
     Trace the veins with a blue pencil

Glistening eyes: 
     Belladonna eye drops

cochineal beetle
vermilion powder
Lip Color:
     Mix beet juice with lard;
     Use carmine red, a color derived from cochineal beetles imported from Central America (these beetles are used in lipstick today!);
     Vermilion (ground from cinnabar and including mercury) or creuse – both toxic

     Pinch your cheeks or mix beet juice with talc or cornstarch;
     Puncture one’s finger and use the blood for rouge (Ee-ew!);
     Safflower, wood resin, sandalwood, and brazilwood mixed with greases, creams, or vinegars to create a paste

     Moisten eyelashes with your fingers or line eyes with coal tar (could cause blindness)

Anti-aging skin creams:
     Rub bacon grease on your face or egg whites for a “glaze.”

Lip Plumpers:
     Bite your lip several times throughout the day.

     No essential oils like sandalwood, but plenty of rose petals and potpourri were used to mask the smells of the streets

Acne Products:
     Lemon-juice, rosewater, or concoctions of mercury, alum, honey, and eggshells (which is not advisable)

Recipe for Lead Powder --  
Several Thin Plates of Lead
A Big Pot of Vinegar
A Bed of Horse Manure
Perfume and 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 French physician Deshais-Gendron believed in 1760 that pulmonary lung disease among high-born ladies was associated with frequent use of lead face paint and rouge.
In 1767, Kitty Fisher, a famous English beauty,
died at age 23 from lead poisoning.

     During the third quarter of the 18th century, dark eyebrows became all the rage. Over time, lead-based cosmetics caused hair-loss at the forehead and over the brows, resulting in a receding hairline and a bare brow. It became the custom as early as 1703 to trap mice and use their fur for artificial eyebrows, which were glued on. Sometimes, the glue did not always adhere well.
     In 1718, Matthew Prior wrote a poem about eyebrows. Here’s the last stanza:

You want my what? For what?
On little things, as sages write,
Depends our human joy or sorrow;
If we don’t catch a mouse to-night,
Alas! no eyebrows for to-morrow.

Susan F. Craft is the author of The Xanthakos Family Trilogy: The Chamomile (Revolutionary War, released 2011); Laurel (post-Rev War, released 2015); and Cassia (1799-1836) to be released 9/15 -- published by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas


  1. wow wonderful pictures. Your article is very nice to read. I am working is writing company of scholarship essay writing service

  2. That's an incredible bit of information, especially about the use of lead as a beauty treatment.

    1. It's sad what they didn't know the health dangers of a lot of things they used back then.

  3. Amazing and sad. I know so many think ladies didn't wear makeup. I never knew about the mice though. Yikes! Just can't imagine wearing mice hair on my face. LOL. great post!

    1. What was funny is thinking about the glue not adhering well. Just imagine conversing with someone and watching their eyebrows come loose. Ha!

  4. Oh, my! What the beauty treatments.. Some great stuff here to share with friends.. I think I'm for the natural look!

    1. Yep, natural look is a good choice, although I like a little lipstick. Did you know that the cochineal beetle is used in present day cosmetics.

  5. AH! I've always wondered why so many women in old paintings seemed to have such large foreheads, I thought maybe that was a desired quality and painters would exaggerate, but it's likely from lead poisoning!

    1. Sad that the lead-based powder used in wigs made so many people ill in addition to causing hair loss.

  6. Oh my! It is very sad that lead poisoning was so prominent but wearing mouse fur for eyebrows is beyond my imagination OR understanding. Guess you can tell that I am terrified of mice and rats!
    Thanks for a fascinating article.

    1. You're welcome, Connie. I compare the false eyebrows to the false eyelashes that women use today -- although they are usually synthetic but not made of mice hair

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  8. Great information, Susan! The history of cosmetics is one subject I have not thought much about; I guess I assumed cosmetics were a recent luxury. The part about women dying from the lead powder was particularly interesting. Great research!

  9. Grossed out by the rouge application of blood to cheeks! Think I'd opt out of that one! sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  10. I have thought so many times of entering the blogging world as I love reading them. I think I finally have the courage to give it a try. Thank you so much for all of the ideas!