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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 May 2008

Don't Try This at Home!


Why is it that all through history women have not been satisfied with their faces? If one’s skin is unblemished, we add beauty marks. If one’s skin is tan or dark, we want to lighten it. The message must be–whatever one looks like, it’s not “enough.”

I clearly recall the day my aunt Jean decided her sister Mary (my mother) and I weren’t beautiful enough. Off to the woods we trudged with pails and spoons to gather the smooth, grey-white mud from the creek bank. We smeared it all over our faces from forehead to neck and marched home to wait for the miraculous transformation.

We were transformed, all right. The facial mud dried brick-hard and would not come off! We had to chip it away, bit by bit, with a knife, and the splotchy red faces that emerged were clearly not beautiful. Our male relatives laughed until suppertime.

Not deterred, as a teenager I later tried a ghastly mixture of oatmeal and egg whites smeared over my face. I did this three times a week for about 2 weeks, until one day a friend of my mother’s peered at me and said, “Carolyn, what has happened to your face? It looks ‘starched.’”

Here are some “facial mask” recipes from history.

Assyrian (8th century B.C.) women ground bits of cypress wood, cedar and frankincense in a mortar, added a bit of water and smeared it all over their faces at night. The next morning, voila! Soft, beautiful skin and a most agreeable odor.

In the Roman era, Ovid touts the following recipe to give dazzling whiteness to the skin:
To 2 lb Libyan barley add an equal amount of bean flour. Mix up with 10 eggs and dry in the sun. Then add 1/6 lb of hartshorn and reduce to a powder. Add juice from 2 narcissi bulbs pounded in a mortar, along with 2 oz aromatic gums, 2 oz Tuscan seed, and 18 oz honey. “Every women who spreads this on to her face will render it smoother and more brilliant than her mirror.”

In Eastern harems, a complexion powder known as batikha was made by pounding in a mortar cowrie shell and borax, white marble, rice, eggs, lemons, and helbas seeds. Combine with equal parts meal of peas, beans, and lentils and place inside a melon to blend with the pulp. Dry several days in the sun and it will disintegrate into a fine white powder.

The royal Stuart ladies in England used a face wash of distilled rosemary, featherfew [feverfew?] fennel, violets, and nettle leaves diluted with milk.

Not satisfied with that “natural” concoction, some noble women also adopted a mixture of white lead and lime to whiten the skin.

And some never-satisfied females even used a mixture of white mercury, lemon juice, powdered white egg shells, and white wine; this often resulted in severe burning of the skin!

I think I prefer oatmeal or creekside mud.

Source: Roy Genders, Perfume Through the Ages

7 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lynna, it's so fascinating to read about the recipes for facial scrubs throughout the ages. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

In my entry on Elizabeth I in ROYAL AFFAIRS, I refer to her maintaining her complexion with a scrub made from egg shells and egg whites, alum, borax, and poppy seeds.

I was told by an aesthetician who gave me a facial last fall to stop using the apricot scrub made by a popular Swiss company (it's found in every drugstore) because it's made from the ground-up pits which can scratch the skin rather than scrub it!! Who knew??

12:46 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Recently I picked up a little paperback titled "Dying To Be Beautiful," in which the author
(can't remember the name) listed all the beauty products, shampoos, etc. on the market and analyzed them chemically to assess "health and safety." Pretty eye-opening!
Burt's Bees products rated highly.

3:49 PM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

I blogged about beauty a week or so ago on my history blog, and ladies of the Edwardian era would use belladonna drops in their eyes to dilate their pupils. For some reason, it was considered attractive for ladies to look ~high~.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Too funny, Lynna. I can see your pretty teenage face covered with mud! ;-)

Aside from all of the dangerous concoctions, I read that alligator dung was also used for facials and it worked miracles.

I have often wondered about the collection process. ;-)

7:41 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I thought belladonna made women's eyes slightly watery and gave them that soft, limpid "please f*** me" look.

I think I read recently that Burt's Bees was bought by some huge company, like Estee Lauder. But the conglomerate vowed to continue to use the same recipes and homey packaging. Same thing happened with Kiehl's some years ago.

Alligator dung, Kathrynn? I had exactly the same thought. Boy, if ever there were something for a "what price beauty?" category!

Since men were fastidious about their own looks during various eras -- I'm thinking of all the fops throughout out the ages that are mentioned as swanning around the courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I, Charles II, etc., I wonder if they used the same concotions as women of the era did.

5:07 AM  
Blogger doglady said...

Still trying to visualize the alligator dung collection process. Would NOT want to be that lady's handmaiden!

Belladonna in the eyes? Are they nuts?

Lynna, sounds like you got the mud pack that would not die! Ouch!

And Amanda I am sure some of those men used the same things as the women. I am always amused at how vain some of these gentlemen were. Think of all the stuff they put in their hair to make it look just so.

Thanks for the recipes, Lynna. Anyone up for trying them?

6:53 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

yikes, what a fun and scary post, Lynna. mercury makeup, eh? And what's in alligator dung, I wonder...

9:37 AM  

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