Cosmetics Before 1900

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European women prepared simple cosmetics from recipes appearing in household manuals and cookbooks or passed on orally from generation to generation. In that period, cosmetics were as much science as art, a branch of self-help therapeutics that women were expected to master. Recipes in early household manuals called for roots, wild-flowers, and other plants to be mixed with water, beer, vinegar, and spices; these produced remedies to clear the complexion, improve color, and remove signs of smallpox. The principles governing these mixtures were based on Galen's theory of the humors, in which the correspondence between internal and external organs, and the balance between hot, cold, dry, and moist qualities, was the key to health and beauty. In addition, belief in the power of nature's cycles and astrology found their way into beauty preparations, in recipes using May dew, the first juice of spring plants, and "virgin milk."

Colonial Americans used similar cosmetic recipes, preparing cold cream, skin lotions, and lip salves from such common substances as wax, lard, nut oils, and sugar. They also incorporated the flowers and herbs of

1900 1910 Fifth Avenue Nyc
Elizabeth Arden. The Canadian-born Arden opened a New York salon on Fifth Avenue in 1910, installing the trademark bright red door to make her shop distinctive. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

the New World, such as puccoon-root or "Indian paint," prevalent in Algonquin therapeutics. Africans brought to the colonies as slaves similarly adapted native plants into traditional West African techniques of grooming and beautifying, using berries and roots to redden the skin, for example.

In addition to home preparations, a small but significant global trade made exotic herbs, extracts, dyes, and proprietary cosmetics available to the wealthy in the early modern period. French and English court society encouraged the use of enamels, white powder, rouges, and beauty marks to enhance appearance, serve fashion, and cover pockmarks and other disfigurements, and colonial elites followed suit. These paints, powders, and enamels to whiten the skin often contained dangerous substances, such as arsenic and lead, jeopardizing health while creating brilliant effects. Perfumers, hairdressers, and apothecaries in major cities offered fashionable cosmetics to both women and men. Until the early nineteenth century, cosmetics tended to mark rank as much as gender; they connoted gentility, social prestige, and political standing, and were as much a part of high culture as ornamental clothing and tea drinking.

Fashionable cosmetics became a source of controversy, however, in Europe and America. Puritans condemned painting as a mark of vanity and defiance of the divine order; masking the face falsified one's true identity. The American Revolution placed a political perspective on such cosmetics, valuing the plain appearance of republican virtue over the foppery of aristocratic men. In the early nineteenth century, the religious sensibilities and domestic ideals of an emergent middle class in the North emphasized both natural beauty and women's duty to be beautiful, to be achieved through healthful regimens and a moral life. White southern women, especially those on plantations, held onto the earlier ideals of gentility that permitted powder and rouge. Still, the association of cosmetics with prostitution—the "painted woman"—remained a strong one through the 1800s, and women who dared to use cosmetics did so covertly and with a light touch.

Sales of skin creams and lotions grew through the middle of the nineteenth century, but they remained small in scale when compared with such commodities as patent medicines and soaps. According to an 1849 manufacturing census, thirty-nine toiletries firms produced only $355,000 in merchandise in the United States. Nevertheless, the expansion of the market in this period made formerly rare preparations more available and affordable. Typically pharmacists would use a range of chemicals, herbs, and oils to "put up" skin creams under a house label. Commercial agents also imported goods from around the world, including English patent preparations, French perfumes, Portuguese rouge dishes, and Chinese color boxes, containing color-saturated papers of rouge, pearl powder, and eyebrow blacking.

The most commonly used cosmetics of the nineteenth century, however, were skin whiteners and bleaches. Advertisements claimed they removed tan and freckles and made women look more refined and genteel. These were directed at white, middle-class women, playing on their social aspirations, as well as working-class, immigrant, and black women.

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