Theatrical Cosmetics: Making Face, Making “Race”

By Jessica Clark

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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]

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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.

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

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]

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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 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/562420/stagecraft>.

[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 <http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/bcb/greasepaint.php>.

[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.

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]

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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.

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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.

Beauty Recipes: A December Series

By Jessica P. Clark

"Productos de Belleza Luxor," 1918. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.
“Productos de Belleza Luxor,” 1918. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

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!

Making Scents in the Victorian Home

By Jessica P. Clark

Eugène Rimmel. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections, digital ID 2006250, and Wikicommons.
Eugène Rimmel. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections (digital ID 2006250) and Wikicommons

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.[1]

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.

Glass frames used in the process of "enfleurage." From “Perfumery, Perfumes,” Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, Volume VI (New York: Collier, 1888) 165.
Glass frames used in commercial “enfleurage.” From “Perfumery, Perfumes,” Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, Volume VI (New York: Collier, 1888) 165. Image courtesy of Google Books.

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.


[1] 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.