All posts by Jess Clark

Jess Clark is an assistant professor of history at Brock University. She earned her Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University and an M.A. from York University in Toronto. She is currently revising a manuscript on the role of Victorian entrepreneurs in developing England’s early beauty industry. Her new project, “Imperial Beauty,” investigates transnational commodity and cultural flows between London-based beauty brokers and imperial outposts in British India, the West Indies, and Australia. Find her on Twitter @JessicaPClark.

Dyeing to Impress: Hair Products and Beauty Culture in Nineteenth-Century America

By Sean Trainor

“Philadelphia Fashions,” 1831. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery ID: 802063.

Readers of a certain age will surely recall their first gray hair. Perhaps they can even relate to the panic that absorbed the nameless protagonist of an April 1831 story in The Ladies’ Magazine. Not yet twenty-eight, the tale’s heroine “was shocked at the visible approach of Time, and resolved, if possible, not to submit to his encroachment.” Rushing to a fancy goods dealer, “Miss Raven,” purchased a bottle of Imperial Hair Restorer, “warranted to give the hair a beautiful glossy appearance, and restore it to its pristine color, without failure or danger.”

Days after applying the restorative, however, Miss Raven awoke to a shocking transformation; her beautiful locks were “changed to an equivocal hue, bearing a near resemblance to the dark changeable green of the peacock’s feathers.” And where she had previously enjoyed charming curls, she now found stiff, straight bristles.

Such, according to The Ladies’ Magazine, were the fruits of vanity. “Artifice,” argued editor Sarah Josepha Hale, rarely enhanced women’s beauty or character, and European fashion foretold doom for Americans’ morals and health (note the word ‘Imperial’ in the restorer’s name). “Coloring the Hair,” in other words, was a didactic tale warning against female conceit.

But it also highlighted the very real dangers associated with nineteenth-century hair products – dangers made all too apparent in the pages of N. Belcher’s Barbers’ and Hair-Dressers’ Private Recipe Book (1868). Ostensibly intended to provide hair-care professionals with the know-how to make men and women’s hair products for themselves, Belcher’s Recipe Book now serves as a veritable paean to human endurance: evidence of our surprising ability to survive prolonged exposure to mercury, arsenic, lead, and other horrifying toxins.

Alas, full descriptions of the nostrums contained in Belcher’s manual would consume more space than this post affords. An overview of choice recipes therefore must suffice. Consider, for instance, one of Belcher’s favorite hair dyes, made from cream of tartar, lard, sal ammoniac, and silver nitrate. While sal ammoniac, menacing name notwithstanding, is perfectly safe, silver nitrate is not. The latter will stain one’s hair. But it will also burn one’s skin, and, if absorbed in sufficient quantities, permanently dye one’s internal organs. Still another recipe calls for “proto-nitrate of mercury.” And perhaps the worst of Belcher’s dyes unites soft water and alcohol with spirits of turpentine, sulfur, and sugar of lead. One can only imagine its effects on the body.

Indeed, throughout the Recipe Book one finds an astonishing array of toxins: from cantharides – an abortifacient made from the crushed carcasses of Spanish Flies – to calomel (mercury chloride), concentrated ammonia, and arsenic – which Belcher used to remove unwanted hair (though he admits its effects could occasionally prove fatal).

The ill-effects of Belcher’s products, however, were not limited to their toxicity. One of his choice depilatories, for instance – made of lime, water, and “sulphureted [sic] hydrogen gas” – was famous not just for its hair-removing properties, but for its “disgusting smell.” Other concoctions were made with considerable quantities of animal fats, including lard, veal and bear fat, beef and mutton suet, and spermaceti. On sweltering summer days, these compounds likely attracted insects. And despite a number of fragrant additives – from vanilla, lavender, and rose water to mace, cloves, and camphor – they almost certainly reeked like sin.

Trainor_Archive Org_Bogles Hair Dye
“Bogles Hair Dye” in Walton’s Vermont Register and Farmers’ Almanac for 1862 (Montpelier: S. M. Walton, 1862). Image courtesy of

Nor were these the misbegotten inventions of some obscure crank. Belcher assured his readers, not unconvincingly, that the recipes he offered were in fact the formulas for some of the nineteenth-century’s most famous hair products, including the well-known wares of Joseph Christadoro, Edward Phalon, William Bogle, and “Professor” O.J. Wood (prolific advertisers, all).

Belcher leaves unstated how he got his hands on these recipes. Perhaps they were well-known secrets in hairdressing circles. Or perhaps the book was simply the result of the period’s lax intellectual property laws.

Whatever its origins, Belcher’s Barbers’ and Hair-Dressers’ Private Recipe Book sheds invaluable light on the lengths that nineteenth-century Americans were willing to go in the service of beauty. From green hair and tinted scalps to mercury poisoning and death, men and women took extraordinary risks to look good. It’s time that scholars took the period’s beauty culture as seriously as Americans themselves did.


Sean Trainor is a Ph.D. Candidate in History & Women’s Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He is currently completing a dissertation entitled “Hair: A History of Men’s Grooming in the Urban United States, 1800-1865.” He tweets @ess_trainor.

Theatrical Cosmetics: Making Face, Making “Race”

By Jessica Clark

Dan Leno as “Sister Anne” in a 1901 Drury Lane production of Bluebeard. Wikimedia Commons.

In the world of British theatre, nothing marks the holiday season like the annual pantomime. A traditional panto features all the requisite elements of family entertainment: a wicked villain, slapstick that delights both young and old, and, perhaps most importantly, the archetypal dame, a male actor in female costume. While all panto characters wear some form of makeup, the pantomime dame’s overdrawn brows, gaudy eye shadow, and exaggerated lips are especially emblematic of this particular theatrical form. Despite evoking feminine beauty traits, the dame is embellished to the point of farce.[i]

Theatrical makeup like that of the Dame has a long history in the Anglo world, dating back to Elizabethan productions on the south shore of the Thames.[ii] By the late nineteenth century, actors created their stage looks using greasepaint, a major development in modern theatrical makeup. Greasepaint was a German innovation created and refined by two different theatre men. Endeavoring to conceal the seam of his wig in the 1860s, Carl Baudin of the Leipziger Stadt Theatre first mixed a concoction of yellow ochre, zinc white, vermillion, and lard.[iii] By 1873, Ludwig Leichner, a Berlin chemist who moonlighted as an opera singer, marketed a stick greasepaint that would become ubiquitous in the theatre world.[iv]

But what did theatrical performers use before the invention and marketing of commercial greasepaint? Actors relied on a range of time-honored techniques to provide coverage and illumination in the glare of nineteenth-century footlights. At times, common cosmetics were used to fashion looks for the stage: vermillion for rouging the cheeks, Indian ink for contouring the eyes or eyebrows, and violet powder for refining the complexion. But it was also possible to alter recipes for run-of-the-mill paints to make them suitable for the theatre. For example, “Rouge de Theatre” was created from “Rouge Vegetal” – a natural concoction of safflowers and carbonate of soda – by adding mucilage of gum tragacanth, which hardened the rouge into a dry, vivid powder.[v]

Advertisement in Frank Castles’ _Drawing Room Monologues_(1887) 50. Image courtesy of Google Books.

In other cases, actors relied on ingredients better suited to the chemist’s laboratory than a dressing room. No actor’s makeup kit was without powders like dry whiting (finely powdered chalk), burnt umber (calcified brown earth used as a pigment), and fuller’s earth (a hydrous silicate of alumina).[vi] Actors mixed such powders with grease or lard to create vibrant unguents, which they applied to the face. By the mid-nineteenth century, enterprising businessmen sold these powders as part of elaborate “Make-Up Boxes,” but individual ingredients were as readily available at the local druggist.

Frontispiece of S.J. Adair Fitzgerald’s _How to “Make-Up”_ (1901). Image courtesy of

Yet, theatrical powders and paints were not merely used to brighten the cheeks and highlight the lips. English theatrical guides of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries highlight other, problematic cosmetic practices that were, until quite recently, common in the Anglo theatre tradition. White actors dominated the profession and relied on makeup to “transform” into characters of different ethnicities. Theatrical guides from the period foreground this history, offering detailed instructions on “making up” the Othered face. Guides included step-by-step processes for creating “the distinctive colorings of the English, Italians, Japanese, Indians, or Africans,” simultaneously eliding race, nationality, and ethnicity.[vii]

Cosmetic recipes and techniques were key to fashioning these stereotyped “national” looks. To create “Indian” characters, for example, actors mixed lard with a pigment known as “Mongolian” to produce a light brown color for the face and hands (“Mulattoes may be treated in the same matter,” suggested one American author[viii]). To portray black characters, actors used lumps of burnt cork “as large as a hazel nut,” which were reduced with water and applied to the face with both hands.[ix] By the early twentieth century, the racial underpinnings of theatrical makeup was codified in commercial greasepaint sticks; the lightest shade was known as “No. 1: Very pale flesh color,” while Nos. 18 through 20 were characterized as “East Indian, Hindoos, Filipino, Malays, etc.,” “Japanese,” and “Negroes,” respectively.[x]

Dan Leno as “Widow Twankey,” in an 1896 Drury Lane production of Aladdin. Wikimedia Commons.

Ultimately, theatre functioned as a site of fantasy in the modern Anglo world, whisking audiences away from the drudgery of daily life. Theatrical makeup was central to the construction of this fantasy, and actors became masters at creating illusion via powder and paint. At times, such illusions had the potential to challenge dominant social and gender norms, as in the case of the late-Victorian dame with her penciled brows. However, as the creation of “national” looks suggests, theatrical makeup also functioned to reify essentialized notions of race and nationality circulating in the Anglo imperial world.[xi]


[i] For recent work on the Victorian dame, see Jim Davis, “’Slap On! Slap Ever!’: Victorian pantomime, gender variance, and cross-dressing,” New Theatre Quarterly 30.3 (August 2014): 218-230.

[ii] Annette Drew-Bear, Painted Faces on the Renaissance Stage: the moral significance of face-painting conventions (London: Assoicated University Presses, 1994).

[iii] Maurice Hageman, Hageman’s Make-up Book: grease-paints, their origin, use and application, a useful and up-to-date hand book on practical make-up, especially prepared for amateurs and professionals (Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Co, 1898) 11 and Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “stagecraft”, accessed 02 November 2014 <>.

[iv] Geoffrey Jones, Beauty Imagined: a history of the global beauty industry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)For an excellent survey of the history of greasepaint, and cosmetics more generally, see James Bennett, “Greasepaint,” Cosmetics and Skin <>.

[v] Richard S. Cristiani, Perfumery and Kindred Arts: a comprehensive treatise on perfumery (Philadelphia: H.C. Baird, 1877) 152.

[vi] Definitions of these powders courtesy of The Oxford English Dictionary.

[vii] Cavendish Morton, The Art of Theatrical Make-Up (London: 1909) 16.

[viii] DeWitt’s How to Manage Amateur Theatricals (New York: DeWitt, 1880) 46.

[ix] James Young, Making Up (London: M. Witmark & Sons, 1905) 85.

[x] Young 12.

[xi] On the acts themselves, see Jacqueline S. Bratton et al, Acts of Supremacy: the British Empire and the stage, 1790-1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), especially chapter 5; Martin Clayton and Bennett Zon, eds., Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s-1940s (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007); and Hazel Waters, Racism on the Victorian Stage: representation of slavery and the black character (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). On music hall, see Penny Summerfield, “Patriotism and Empire: music-hall entertainment 1870-1914,” Imperialism and Popular Culture, ed. John M. Mackenzie (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986) 17-48.

What Was Perfume in the Eighteenth Century?

By Kirsten James

Le Parfumeur Royal
Simon Barbe, Le Parfumeur Royal, Paris, 1699. Image Credit: BIU Santé, http://www2.biusante.

Perfume as we know it is a sweet smelling liquid made from natural and synthetic aromatic ingredients. Yet, far from being a mere scent, perfume is also a fashion accessory, tool of self-definition, and convenient gift. Perfumes are now branded so successfully that names and bottles are often more recognizable than actual smells.

It is easy to imagine that perfume in the past was much the same. For instance, conventional histories of perfume remind us that in the eighteenth century, perfume was luxurious and worn by female courtiers, amongst others, to demonstrate their social status. This was undoubtedly the case. But a variety of evidence reveals that, during this period, perfume had multiple uses and meanings that are readily overlooked if we simply seek out the familiar present in the past.

One kind of evidence comes from perfumers’ business records. Stock inventories, account books, and sale receipts allow us to form a more nuanced impression of what perfumers sold, how much their products cost, and how they changed over time. In the late 1700s, the best-selling products available from perfumers in major European cities such as London and Paris included (as one might imagine) scented waters. However, they also included items that one would not associate with perfumers today: soap for the body, powders and pomades for the hair, alongside an assortment of tongue scrapers, tooth brushes, and toothpaste that reflected the new obsession with oral hygiene – the latter trend explored by Colin Jones in The Smile Revolution.

Advertisements, including trade-cards and broadsides, represent another set of evidence betraying the range of products sold by perfumers. In many cases, these advertisements contained a simple picture, the name and address of the shop, and a list of available products. One such broadside was displayed by Arthur Rothwell; it announced that he sold from “The Civet-Cat and Rose” on London’s New Bond Street not only perfumes and “quintessences” but also snuffs, wash-balls, hair combs and powders, skin products, and several medicines including “Daffy’s Elixir.”

Pierre Lalouette, A New Method of Curing Venereal Disease by Fumigation. London, 1777. Image Credit: Internet Archive,

A third kind of evidence consists of medical treatises. These show that some circles considered perfumes effective medicines. As in previous centuries, perfume reputedly prevented and cured plague. But, in the 1700s, when outbreaks of bubonic plague ceased in Western Europe, perfume was set to work strengthening body and mind, preventing spasms, and curing lethargy. In the 1770s, for example, physician Pierre Lalouette invented a fumigation machine that used perfumes to treat venereal disease. Several ingredients burnt in his machine could be purchased from the perfumer’s boutique; these included frankincense, nutmeg, myrrh, and juniper. Others, such as mercury and sulphur, remained exclusive to druggists and apothecaries because they were considered dangerous.

A final kind of evidence is arguably even more useful for showing the different uses and meanings of perfume. Other contributions to this blog demonstrate how recipes can reveal much about the past. Printed and manuscript recipes for perfumes are no exception. Recipes in pharmacopoeias confirm that physicians believed in the medicinal properties of perfumes. Pharmacopoia Bateana (1706) claimed that the “Royal Essence” (consisting of musk, civet, balsam of Peru, clove oil, rhodium oil, tartar salt and cinnamon) could form an “odoriferous water” that prevented “fainting fits.”  Various manuscript collections (such as those in the Wellcome Collection) include recipes for masking stenches, purifying the air, preventing aging, and enhancing beauty.

Such books indicate how the use of perfume changed. In the early 1700s, the emphasis was still on scenting waters, gloves, linens, and homes. By the second half of the 1700s, however, the emphasis switched from perfuming things and places to perfuming the body. For instance, The Toilet of Flora (1784) recommended that “Hungary-Water” (made from rosemary, pennyroyal and marjoram flowers mixed with conic brandy) be used “to bathe the face and limbs, or any part affected with pains” in order to cleanse and strengthen the body.

As these different sets of evidence suggest, perfume in the eighteenth century was multifarious, and the history of the word “perfume” is consistent with these multiple uses and meanings. The word derives from the Latin per fumum (“through smoke”), and throughout the seventeenth century perfume usually referred to substances that released odour when heated. However, by the mid-eighteenth century the “agreeable odour” of perfume was as likely to feature in dictionary definitions as its medical uses. By the early nineteenth century, some dictionaries referred to the purported medicinal uses of perfumes as an anachronism, while adding that perfumes were increasingly sought after for their refined and luxurious scents. It would not be until the nineteenth century, then, that the meaning and uses of perfume – though not its marketing – took on a character that looks decidedly familiar to us.

Kirsten James is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation is provisionally titled ‘The Science of Scent and Business of Perfume in Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century.”

Follow the Recipe! Un/Authorizing Muslim Women’s Cosmetic Expertise in the Medieval and Early Modern West

By Montserrat Cabré

“I saw a certain Saracen woman from Sicily,” claimed an anonymous twelfth-century author in Latin, “curing infinite numbers of people [of mouth odour] with this medicine alone.”[1]

Knowledge about beauty circulated extensively in medieval Western Europe, and this know-how was almost always associated with women. Virtually every medieval healthcare handbook in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic contained sections devoted to questions of beauty. In particular, tracts on women’s cosmetics abounded. Recipe collections included a considerable number of beauty recipes, serving either the laity or a variety of health practitioners.

Latin medical texts, and the vernacular traditions they inspired, did not simply acknowledge women’s interest in cosmetics, but also emphasized their expertise. Texts portrayed women as active agents and producers of collective knowledge on beauty.  Cosmetic recipes—often penned by male authors—conveyed women’s common interests and shared knowledge in beautification.

At the same time, Latin medical texts ascribed specific practices to certain individual women or to particular groups of women.  As we see in the opening quotation, texts very rarely included women’s given or family names. Instead, other features identified them: their place of birth, where they lived, or, often, their religious identity.  As the works of reputed Arabic physicians and surgeons were admired in medieval Western Europe, Christian sources unambiguously distinguished Muslim women’s expertise in the art of beauty treatments. However, Moorish women’s collective authority would eventually become lost in favour of other women.

For example, in the earliest versions of the Salernitan De Ornatu Mulierum, a twelfth-century Latin treatise written by an anonymous male author, a certain “ointment… which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes” was recorded as a recipe for noble Saracen women. However, less than a century later, the new Latin version of the same text attributed the depilatory to Salernitan noblewomen.[2] This was neither an accident nor a simple adaptation of a recipe for new audiences. Rather, it marked the beginning of an on-going erasure of Muslim women’s authority from Western cosmetic literature.

This obliteration of female Muslim expertise happened gradually. Later vernacular texts dealing with cosmetics still acknowledged their collective or individual authority about beauty. For instance, we see six acknowledgements for recipes from an unnamed Saracen woman in the late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ornatus Mulierum.[3]

Untitled 2
Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.

The fifteenth-century Vergel de Señores (Garden of Gentlemen), an anonymous Spanish recipe book for household use, attributed certain beauty treatments to Moorish women. The text devoted a long section to cosmetics, mentioning the practices of ladies (señoras) and their particular investment in knowing recipes that beautified the face. The expertise of Moorish women was called upon, however, when referring to cosmetic recipes containing lead and mercury. The dangerous effects of these ingredients had worried physicians and surgeons for centuries, particularly in regards to potentially noxious effects on the gums and teeth. The compiler of Vergel advised his readers to use them wisely, detailing safe practices.

Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]
The authority acknowledged to Muslim women on cosmetics, however, did not last.  Sometime before 1563, Juan Vallés compiled another household manual which was meant to go into print—albeit it never did. The Regalo de la Vida Humana also contained a long section of cosmetic recipes, copied extensively from the Vergel de Señores. Its author, Juan Vallés, still acknowledged women’s authority in beauty treatments, but he narrowed their agency by gracefully tending to portray them as the intended audience of the recipes rather than asserting their expertise. And significantly, he omitted any mention of Moorish women and their knowledge of beautifying recipes. Having been recognized as experts in the medieval traditions, Muslim women did not make it into the new texts. Stripped of identifying traits, female agency was impoverished and transformed into an audience of Christian women.[4]

Ultimately, noticing these shifts reveals the delicate and fragile nature of the acknowledgement of collective and anonymous authority over knowledge –that is, of the particular types of authority granted to women.  Recipes, therefore, should be treasured sources for they offer us a unique perspective to detect and trace how specific groups of people, particularly vulnerable people, are empowered or unauthorized over a long time span.

[1]  Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula. A medieval compendium of women’s medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001), p. 46.
[2]  Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula, pp. 169, 246.
[3]  Montserrat Cabré, “Beautiful bodies”, in Linda Kalof, ed., A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Medieval Age (Oxford: Berg, 2010), pp. 134-136.
[4]  Juan Vallés, Regalo de la Vida Humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. I , pp.  306-310, 410-411.


Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.