Category Archives: Beauty

Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).

 

Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.

‘From Past to Present – Natural Cosmetics Unwrapped’: Conference, Workshop, and Museum Exhibition

By Jane Draycott

For the past two years, the Arts and Humanities Research Council has been funding the ‘From natural resources to packaging, an interdisciplinary study of skincare products over time’ research project through an Early Career Development Award as part of its Science in Culture Theme. Early career researchers from the University of Oxford, the University of Glasgow, and Keele University have been working in conjunction with staff at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, and at the Boots Archive (on which see this Recipes Project post) to undertake a scoping project and investigate the evolution of skincare products over time. The aims of the project were to identify the natural substances used in skincare products in the past and identify what – if any – pharmaceutical properties they possessed; to study the packaging and advertising of skincare products and the ways in which ancient images were utilised in them; to recreate ancient skincare products using contemporary natural substances; and to undertake public engagement activities and so disseminate the information generated by the project.

Cosmetics containers from the Kerameikos Museum, Athens, circa fifth century BCE, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The culmination of the project was a two-day event at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, the first day consisting of a conference, the second a workshop, accompanied by ‘Cosmetics Unwrapped’, a special exhibition at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, which draws on the museum’s collections as well as those of the Boots Archive and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

On Thursday 15th February, eleven experts in different areas of the history of cosmetics from around the world presented their research. Thibaut Devièse, the Principal Investigator of the ‘From natural resources to packaging, an interdisciplinary study of skincare products over time’ research project, opened the conference with an overview of the project’s activities and findings.The first panel focused on literary, documentary and archaeological evidence for cosmetics in ancient and historical periods. Francisco Gomes from the University of Lisbon discussed evidence for perfumes and unguents in the Western Iberian Iron Age, noting that the containers are an under-studied item and minimal analysis has been done on either them or their contents. Mira Cohen Starkman from the Wingate Institute discussed a range of cosmetic recipes from Jewish literature in use in Ladino and observed that comparative research using contemporary tribal practices can be useful when attempting to understand how natural resources were utilised as cosmetics in the past. Finally, Kathleen Walker-Meikle surveyed Hieronymus Mercurialis’ skincare recipes and highlighted the amount of ancient Greek and Latin medical recipes that he had utilised as sources.

The second panel explored the scientific analysis and experimental reconstruction of ancient and historical cosmetics. Josefina Perez-Arantegui from the University of Zaragoza detailed the different types of chemical analysis that can be brought to bear on surviving samples of cosmetics, while Maria Cristina Gamberini from the University of Modena provided an overview of not only the chemical analysis of Phoenician pigments but also the recreation of the recipes that would have contained them. Finally, Effie Photos-Jones of the University of Glasgow surveyed the different types of white pigment recovered from burials in Attic Greece and presented evidence that some of these pigments had been synthetically created in accordance with instructions found in ancient Greek literature.

The third panel provided an opportunity to explore the reception of ancient cosmetics in later historical periods and in the contemporary world. Judith Wright from Boots presented a lively potted history of the company’s popular No7 brand, noting how the brand responded to social change over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Peter Homan, President of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy discussed remedies for baldness. Anisha Gupta from Kings College London scrutinised the numerous approaches to oral hygiene undertaken throughout history. Finally, independent scholar Julie Wakefield investigated the used of the ancient Greek pharmaceutical writer Dioscorides’ work by herbalists in the Early Modern period. The conference was brought to a close with a guest lecture on the appeal of natural products from the botanist, science writer, and broadcaster James Wong, author of the internationally best-selling books Grow Your Own Drugs and Homegrown Revolution.

On Friday 16th February, a free to attend workshop open to members of the public, generously funded by the Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Keele University and sponsored by G. Baldwin and Co. allowed experts in the recreation of historical cosmetics Szu Wong, Anisha Gupta, and Julie Wakefield to share their knowledge, expertise, and techniques. Parents and children from across London were invited to test a range of products recreated from ancient recipes such as Ovid’s face packs and face masks, Cleopatra’s solution for hair loss, and Egyptian kohl, and to create their own toothpastes and oatmeal moisturisers. Children were also encouraged to come up with ideas for cosmetics and design and make packaging and advertising for them.

Star Soap advert and soap, image courtesy of Jane Draycott

The ‘Cosmetics Unwrapped’ exhibition will be on display at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society until August and is free to view.

The team would like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Keele University, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and G. Baldwin & Co for supporting the research project and these events.

Introducing our new co-editor: Jess Clark

Interview by Lisa Smith

  1. Welcome to your new role as co-editor of the Recipes Project, Jess!  Tell us a bit about your own history with the RP.

I first contributed to the RP in 2014, when I wrote two pieces on beauty production in the Victorian home. Editors then gave me the opportunity to organize a series on Beauty Recipes, which included some fascinating guest posts on Muslim women’s cosmetic use in the medieval period, perfume production in eighteenth-century England and France, and hair dyeing in nineteenth-century America. My own piece for that series, which featured in September 2017’s “Tales from the Archives,” considered theatrical cosmetics and constructions of race and ethnicity. Each of these experiences was incredibly productive, encouraging me to think in new ways about the complex and longstanding relationship between beauty and recipes.

  1. We know that you’re currently at work on a book about Victorian entrepreneurs in England’s early beauty industry (see Jess’s previous posts on Theatrical Cosmetics and Making Scents)  How have recipes figured into this book project?

Recipes play an important role in the book in two key ways. First, the book charts a pivotal shift, around the mid-nineteenth century, from home production of beauty remedies to a growing reliance on commercial goods. British beauty brokers had to compete with time-honoured traditions of crafting one’s own hair dyes, face washes, and depilatories. We have a rich body of private and published recipes reflecting these practices, which show the extent to which men and women depended on homemade beauty production in this time.

By the mid-century, a burgeoning commercial industry began to offer alternatives to these home remedies. This wasn’t a straightforward shift, though, and a second way that recipes feature is in the widespread distrust of commercial beauty remedies. Adulteration was a serious concern for Victorian consumers, and the beauty business was often criticized for promoting dangerous or worthless wares. Commercial providers sometimes publicized their ingredients in an attempt to allay concerns, but these recipes weren’t always accurate. For example, the notorious Sarah “Madame Rachel” Leverson garnered attention in the 1860s for services like her “Arabian Baths.” Purportedly featuring “pure extracts of the liquid of flowers, choice and rare herbs,” the Baths turned out to be “little else than bran and water.” The accuracy of recipes was subsequently central to the reputation and trustworthiness of beauty businesspeople, a central theme of my book.

“A fine lip salve” from Stacey Grimaldi, The Toilet (2nd ed, 1821). Credit: ©British Library Shelfmark: Cup.410.d.29. Originally published at http://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2017/10/grimaldi-family-correspondence.html
  1. As a researcher, what has been your favorite recipe to use – and why?

My favourite “recipes” appear in a lovely little beauty manual held in the Bodleian Libraries’ incredible John Johnson Collection: The Toilet, printed by Stacey Grimaldi in 1821. Its table of contents lists wares like “Best White Paint” and “Superior Rouge,” echoing other beauty manuals of the time. However, when you turn to that respective page, there’s no recipe for the item. Instead, there’s a pop-up illustration accompanied by a verse about feminine virtues like “Honesty,” “Humility,” and “Innocence.” While these aren’t recipes, per se, I love how the verses showcase nineteenth-century value systems underpinning Victorian beautification and specifically tensions between artificial and natural beauty.

  1. We loved your “Beauty Recipes” Series for the RP in December of 2014, which introduced our readers to the ways that cosmetics, perfumes, hair tonics, powders, and paints served as both medicines and beautifiers.  What kinds of posts are you hoping to commission for the RP?

I look forward to continuing the dynamic work that the blog is known for. Posts frequently highlight the global movement and exchange of recipes and the ways these reflected local power relationships; as a historian of empire, I’m especially interested in these transnational links. As a modernist, I’m excited to explore recipes in recent historical moments and especially the mid-to-late twentieth century. Finally, coming from Canada, I’m interested in highlighting local contexts, including the ways that recipes feature in Indigenous histories and scholarship.

Tales from the Archives: THEATRICAL COSMETICS: MAKING FACE, MAKING “RACE”

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month I’d like to share a 2014 post by Jessica Clark.  It offers a rich, revealing look into the ways that race and gender were performed, made, mocked, and manipulated in 19th and 20th c. British-American white theatre.  It’s a timely and important piece.  We hope that you enjoy this latest installment from our Recipes Project Archives, and if you have any posts that you’d like for us to revisit, please send in your nominations
AH (editor)

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By Jessica Clark

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

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

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Jessica Clark (B.A., Trent; M.A., York; M.A., Ph.D., Johns Hopkins) teaches British history at Brock University. Her interests include British cultural and social history, urban space and the lived environment, empire, and women, gender, and sexuality. Her research explores intersections of gender, class, and ethnicity in the modern British world via the history of beauty and appearance.

Clark’s work appears in the Women’s History Review and the forthcoming Gender and Material Culture in Britain after 1600 (Palgrave 2015). She is currently revising a manuscript on the role of Victorian entrepreneurs in developing England’s early beauty industry. She is also working on a new project, “Imperial Beauty,” which investigates transnational commodity and cultural flows linking London-based beauty brokers and imperial markets in British India, the West Indies, and Australia.