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. Find her on Twitter @JessicaPClark.
When the editors of The Recipes Project invited me to compile a series on beauty and cosmetics, we thought it a timely topic for the holiday season. As twenty-first-century consumers, we associate the holidays with the careful selection and purchase of gifts. These are often of the luxury variety, including wares that beautify recipients: scents, cosmetics, grooming products and tools. While we typically purchase these goods, historical gift-givers relied on recipes to concoct homemade offerings. Foodstuffs and preserves, healing remedies, and potpourris helped forge social bonds and convey good tidings.
But research shows us that beautifying goods were not always associated with luxury. Up until the twentieth century, beauty recipes served a variety of functions: as medicines, to conceal age, to disguise debility. The research featured in December’s special series on beauty is no exception. Rather than highlight the relationship between beauty and luxury, our contributors foreground quotidian uses of beautifying goods as medicinal aides, dangerous but necessary appearance enhancers, or professional tools of the workplace (in this case, the theatre).
This means, of course, that we have expanded beyond holiday-appropriate themes of luxury and exchange. Instead, contributors Montserrat Cabré, Kirsten James, and Sean Trainor introduce us to the multiple meanings and uses of beauty recipes — even those with potentially deleterious effects. They also remind us of the close historical linkages between cosmetics and other beautifying goods in western beauty cultures, as perfumes and hair tonics were produced alongside powders and paints. Ultimately, a focus on function over luxury highlights changing uses of beauty recipes from the twelfth century, not to mention western attitudes about self-fashioning more generally.
We hope you’ll join us this holiday season as we explore the “serious” side of goods now associated with luxury and self-indulgence. And we look forward to hearing from readers working on historical beauty recipes across geographic locales and historical moments, so please get in touch via Twitter or in the Comments section!
In 1864, London perfumer Eugène Rimmel (of modern Rimmel Cosmetics fame) published The Book of Perfumes. Compiled from a series of articles he wrote for science-minded readers of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, the book charted the history of perfumery, as well as modern distilling techniques used by Europe’s leading manufacturing perfumers: expression, enfleurage, maceration. The Book of Perfumes resembled other perfumery books on the market, save for one important difference; Rimmel provided no recipes for women to concoct their own perfumes at home. In this regard, Rimmel’s text signified a shift away from the instructional genre, suggesting that the manufacture of perfumery should be left to professional (and male) perfumers.
Rimmel’s exclusion of feminized home production was a deliberate move. In his prologue, he noted that many ladies once operated “a private stillroom of their own and personally superintended the various ‘confections’ used for their toilet” out of necessity. By the 1860s, he argued, technological developments in London’s growing commercial industry, not to mention perfumers’ role in imperial commodity flows, vastly exceeded the material resources and technologies available to women’s self-production.
[G]ood perfumers and good perfumes are abundant enough; and, with the best recipes in the world, ladies would be unable to equal the productions of our laboratories, for how could they procure the various materials which we receive from all parts of the world? And were they even to succeed in so doing, there would still be wanting the necessary utensils and the modus faciendi, which is not easily acquired…perfumery can always be bought much better and cheaper from dealers, than it could be manufactured privately by untutored persons.
According to Rimmel, English women could not match the quality of goods produced by professional men laboring in the new commercial market. What’s more, he claimed these goods were even cheaper than home production, a new argument linked to developments in mass manufacturing.
What remains unclear is the extent to which women continued to concoct perfumery in the home, despite discouragement from professionals like Rimmel. Historians like Holly Dugan and Kirsten James have highlighted the centrality of home production of perfumery in the early modern period, when English women produced scents to combat illness, miasmas, and pain. But the extent of domestic production is more difficult to ascertain in the nineteenth century, when an expanding market of consumer goods surely attracted some female consumers away from the laborious demands of home production.
We have some evidence to suggest that women continued to make scents. Account books belonging to London chemists George Daniel and Thomas Acraman Coate show female shoppers buying perfumery ingredients in the 1860s. There was also the enduring popularity of Anglo-American recipe collections that included perfumery recipes. A survey of texts produced between 1855 and 1910 reveals that many printed recipe collections continued to include instructions on producing spirituous waters, but also colognes, solid parfums, and scented sachets.
These published recipes highlight time-honored strategies for creating scents in middle- and upper-class kitchens. One home technique for scent extraction involved layering fresh flowers with thin layers of cotton in a glass jar. After two weeks, the cotton absorbed the oils, which could then be used as a perfume. For distillation, texts advised placing petals and water in a cold still over a moderate fire, which would eventually produce fragrant waters: rose, lavender, orange, bergamot. To create solid pastilles de toilette, readers created a paste using perfumed oils and a natural gum, tragacanth. This was fashioned into a desired shape before drying.
Interestingly, some published recipes revealed how to create perfumes available in London’s most extravagant perfumery shops. Formulas included Piesse & Lubin’s Jockey Club Bouquet (orris root, rose, cassia, tuberose, ambergris, bergamot), the ubiquitous New Mown Hay (tonquin bean, geranium, orange flower, rose, Jessamine), and Rimmel’s own “Exhibition Bouquet,” created especially for the 1851 spectacle.
While it is difficult to discern the extent to which Victorian women made their own perfumes, it is safe to assume that the practice lessened over time; the growth of the luxury perfumery market in the twentieth century is a testament to that. With the rise of new commercial markets and availability, home producers transformed into consumers, encouraged by those profiting from this development: professional manufacturing perfumers.
 Eugène Rimmel, Book of Perfumes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1867)vii-viii.
Texts consulted for this post include:
Beasley, Henry. Druggist’s General Receipt Book. London: J. & A. Churchill, 1852.
Cooley, Arnold James. Instructions and Cautions Respecting the Selection and Use of Perfumes, Cosmetics, and other Toilet Articles: with a comprehensive collection of formulae and directions for their preparation. London: R. Hardwicke, 1868.
Cooley, Arnold James. A Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Collateral Information in the Arts, Manufactures, and Trades, including medicine, pharmacy, and domestic economy. London: John Churchill, 1845.
Dussauce, H. A Practical Guide for a Perfumer. London: Trubner & Co., 1868.
Lamont, L.P. The Mirror of Beauty. London: Bailey, 1830.
Lille, Charles. The British Perfumer. London: J. Souter, 1822.
Marquart, John. 600 Miscellaneous Valuable Receipts, worth their weight in gold. Philadelphia: John E. Potter & Co., 1867.
Owen, R. Jones. Practice of Perfumery: a treatise on the toilet and cosmetic arts, historical, scientific, and practical. London: Houlston, 1870.
Piesse, G.W. Septimus. Art of Perfumery and Method of Obtaining the Odors of Plants. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1855.
R.B. The Perfumer’s Legacy: or Companion to the Toilet. London: Kent & Richards, 1850.
Rimmel, Eugène. The Book of Perfumes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1865.
As we’ve seen in previousposts, eighteenth-century English newspapers were important sites for exchanging recipes and knowledge. This tradition flourished in the nineteenth century via a textual forum aimed specifically at female readers: correspondence columns in leading women’s magazines. However, rather than share recipes for curing the common cold, nineteenth-century correspondents often used this textual space to tackle highly personal beauty “problems” plaguing both men and women: chilblains, bald spots, warts. From time-honored home recipes to reviews of a new generation of manufactured beauty products, this imagined community traded information on how to enhance readers’ appearances and, most likely, improve their lives.[i]
In the mid-nineteenth century, new print technologies and reduced taxation prompted a boom in print publishing. Publishers turned their attention to expanding markets of female readers; new ladies’ magazines like the Ladies’ Treasury(1858), Le Follet(1846), and The Queen (1861) kept readers up to date on the latest Parisian fashions, shopping advice, and culinary recipes.[ii] Correspondence columns became a regular feature in many of the publications. Most notably, readers of TheEnglishwoman’s Domestic Magazine(produced by Isabella and Samuel Beeton of Mrs. Beetonfame) submitted personal queries to the “Englishwoman’s Conversazione,” which tackled rules of etiquette, fashion trends, but also questions about health and the body.
A survey of the “Englishwoman’s Conversazione” through the 1860s reveals frank admissions of highly personal aesthetic concerns. In one column from 1868, for example, readers inquired “how to cure little pimples on the forehead and chin” or for advice on stimulating hair growth after developing “two large places on the head [that were] perfectly bare” from wearing false hair. Such unsightly problems seem trivial when compared to the “50 small warts” on the back of one reader’s hand or the “natural fleshy enlargement” on the chest of another, a point of “great annoyance” for her. While brief, the letters betray correspondents’ intense desire to solve aesthetic dilemmas, with contributors promising gratitude or perhaps “a very good recipe for the cure of corns” in exchange for assistance.
Respondents were quick to heed the call of their fellow readers, and remedies appeared in subsequent editions of the “Conversazione.” These responses reveal fascinating processes in nineteenth-century home production, as women manipulated dyes, powders, and ointments. Readers suggested compounds often replete with chemicals, like one mixture for homemade colorant that depended on sulfur. Another reader suggested as a cure for chilblains “[h]ydrochloric acid, diluted, ¼ ounce; hydrocyanic acid, diluted, 30 drops; camphor-water, 6 ounces,” before warning “it is a deadly poison, and should be kept under lock and key” – except, of course, when applying it to the body!
The effects of these home remedies sometimes proved unexpected and detrimental, and correspondents shared “horror stories” in their quest for beauty. One reader described how her “hair came off” after a botched recipe, but now “few ha[d] thicker hair than” she. She even offered to send a sample of her revamped hair-growth treatment to correspondent “Hibernia” to try herself. In this way, the “Conversazione” functioned as a means of determining the efficacy and safety of home concoctions, a virtual testing ground for the latest hair dye and cosmetic wash.[iii]
But this exchange did not only apply to homemade beauty concoctions. From the mid-nineteenth century, Britons increasingly depended on manufactured goods, including beauty and grooming products. By the 1860s, the “Conversazione” assisted readers in navigating this new commercial scene, allowing readers to debate the efficacy and, more importantly, the safety of widely available products. For example, the column featured a series of letters from March 1868 on “Mrs. Allen’s World’s Hair Restorer,” an American commercial hair wash distributed by local wholesalers. Hearing that the product caused itchy, red scalps in two acquaintances, a female correspondent turned to readers of the “…invaluable Conversazione, which so often helps us out of difficulties.” Her letter set off a chain of responses over the coming months. Respondents warned that “Mrs. Allen’s Dressing” contained hazardous amounts of mercury, eventually prompting a defensive response from London agent John M. Richards, who asserted the “natural” makeup of the product. Reader responses followed both refuting and supporting the charge of mercury, accompanied by correspondents’ proven personal recipes for hair-restorers. In this Victorian precursor to “customer reviews,” readers placed their trust in the textual community in an effort to recreate the traditional exchange of advice among female intimates. Their efforts bore fruit; they elicited responses that exposed the dangerous chemical makeup of manufactured beauty products, all while soliciting tried-and-tested alternatives from readers’ own recipe collections.
This post cites letters published in the “Englishwoman’s Conversazione” between November 1862 and October 1870. The EDM is available via Gale’s 19th Century UK Periodicals.
[i] On “imagined communities,” see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities; Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991) and Margaret Beetham, “Periodicals and the New Media: women and imagined communities,” Women’s Studies International Forum 29.3 (2006): 231-240.
[ii] For more on women’s magazines, see, for example, Margaret Beetham, A Magazine of her Own?: Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (London: Routledge, 1996); Margaret Beetham and Kay Boardman, eds., Victorian Women’s Magazines: an Anthology (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001; and Hilary Fraser, Stephanie Green, and Judith Johnston, Gender and the Victorian Periodical (London: Cambridge University Press, 2003.