Category Archives: Beauty

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)

*****

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.

*****
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.

What is a Recipe? Week 3

Welcome, welcome, welcome. Please pull up your chair and make yourself comfortable. We have a wonderful week ahead, with something going on every day.

We’ve had some great conversations already.  On Day 1, we wondered what is a recipe, considered their sensory and experiential nature, and appreciated their wildness.  On Day 2, stories emerged as the theme du jour: from favourite recipes and family history, to big stories, to reading and literacy…

Snowdrift Secrets, early 20th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And this week, we dare you to take a crack at writing your own recipe story, with the ‘Cooking with Anger’ Netprov event on all month. Emotions as story ingredients, anyone? Perhaps in the ‘Henri’s Kitchen’ series, which is back on Tuesday with time-travelling cookery and a lively master-servant relationship in the kitchen. And in a podcast that considers cosmetic recipes in Ovid’s poetry (Thursday), Marguerite Johnson further blurs the boundaries between literature and recipes.

Experiments are another theme. Siobhan Clarke’s 1791 potato growing experiment continues both days on Twitter and Instagram and Sietske Fransen tweets on Tuesday about her trawl through the Royal Society archives. Also on Twitter (Tuesday), Emily Thompson takes a look at some seventeenth-century instructions for growing saffron.

Edison phonograph with a carbon microphone, 1878. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Taking a turn away from written stories and recipes, we’ll also be considering the oral functions of recipes. Peter Jones (on this blog, Tuesday) examines the oral and written transmission of medieval recipes used by medieval friars interested in alchemy. Véronique Ginouvès of the MMSH will consider (in an English and French blog post on Thursday) the uses of collected oral recipes within the context of a sound archive.

There are many other recipe treats on — such as Louise Cilliers’ blog post (here) on ancient recipes for breast engorgement, Simon Walker’s YouTube video and Twitter chat on a First World War recipe from the trenches, and my own reflections (Twitter and blog post) on teaching early modern recipes.

Once again, we have several institutions joining us to tweet, insta, facebook, and blog about their collections: Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives (Monday); Folger Shakespeare Library (Tuesday); Wangensteen Historical Library (Wednesday); and Provincial Archives of Alberta and Royal College of Physicians, London (Friday).

It’s going to be a recipe-packed week for us, and we look forward to more recipe chat with you.


PROJECT DETAILS

‘Cooking with Anger Netprov’, Mark Marino and Rob Wit

This week-long event is modelled on TV cooking competitions. Cooking with Anger is a netprov where storyteller chefs improvise a tale and a recipe from a given basket of ingredients. Many have written about cooking with love; now it’s time for all the other emotions.

  1. Get a basket from the Protag-o-Matic ingredients machine. Copy and paste your basket at the top of your tale.
  2. Create a small dish of a stirring story — 300 words or less — using ALL the ingredients from your basket. Use people places and things as narrative; use food items for a recipe folded into the fiction. Season the tale with the emotional spice packet.
  3. We encourage you also to post a video in which you either tell the story, tell about the story, or tell how you made the story.

    Eyes expressing extreme emotion, from coldness to rage, c. 1794. After: Johann Caspar Lavater and Thomas Holloway.
    Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Website:          Cooking with Anger
Twitter:            @markcmarino and @Netprov_RobWit

Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives

Will be sharing recipe-related material from their collections on Twitter.
Twitter:                 @CUSpecialColls

“Spuddenly Farming: A reconstruction of Rev. Mr. Cochran’s Potato experiment, 1791”, Siobhan Carlson

Following the American Revolution, the British crown gave Loyalists land to farm throughout the Canadian Maritimes. This migration gave rise to the emergence of an English print culture in the region that included agricultural recipes. Amongst these entries, on the 24th of March, 1792, the Royal Gazette and Miscellany of the Island of Saint John, printed the experiment entitled, “To determine whether it is best to plant large or small Cuttings of Potatoes; in a Letter from the Rev. Mr. Cochran to the Secretary of the Agricultural Society for the County of Hants, dated Winsor, Feb. 1791.” The experiment outlines the best methods to grow Prince Edward Island’s famous export – the potato. The goal of this project is to reconstruct the experiment, to think about/consider the experience of Maritime Settlers.
Instagram:            @SpuddenlyFarming
Twitter:                 @Spuddenly_Farm

“Recipes in the Early Royal Society Archives”, Sietske Fransen

The seventeenth-century fellows of the Royal Society were interested in every part of the natural world. They collected and reproduced a large variety of recipes, from the making of pigments to finding the recipe for the best French bread, to a recipe for universal medicine. During my research days in June, investigating the visual practice of the early Royal Society (www.mv.crassh.cam.ac.uk), I will tweet the various recipes I encounter in the archive of the Royal Society. At the end of those weeks the found recipes will feature in a blogpost on recipes in the early Royal Society.
Twitter:             @sietske_fransen and @MVCRASSH
Blog:                    www.mvcrassh.cam.ac.uk and recipes.hypotheses.org

“A Relation of the Culture, or Planting and Ordering of Saffron (1678)”, Emily Thompson

She will look at a recipe by Charles Howard as a recipe (an atypical one to be sure, but a sound set of step-by-step directions for attaining a particular outcome i.e., the production of saffron). She argues that Howard’s recipe may be identified by its purpose, ingredients, procedure, equipment and administration. The recipe can be contrasted with later treatises and gardening manuals that build on his work and flesh it out into something beyond his dispassionate and precise step-by-step approach.
Twitter:                 @joiedelivre

Folger Shakespeare Library

Will be sharing its extensive recipes-related holdings via social media.
Twitter:                 @FolgerResearch

“Henri’s Kitchen”, Harry Hayfield

Harry Hayfield, a resident of Ceredigion in Wales, has long had an interest in the stories of the Musketeers which are set in early 17th century France, this led in turn to an interest in the Stuart period of history and joining a living history group. However, as a registered carer for his grandparents he is unable to get to many of the events and yet wanted to do something to help. One day he was watching “The Little Paris Kitchen” broadcast on the BBC and thought “These are recipes designed by the French, therefore could they be converted in the 17th century versions of themselves?”. Doing some research he found that they could, and therefore will contribute four of the recipes as shown in the programme as if cooked by Henri de Ceredigion (Harry’s Stuart persona) a cadet member of the Musketeers, with able assistance from Planchet, his manservant cum stable lad.

Collection of iatrochemical and chemical recipes
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

“Distilling and Deflowering”, Peter Jones

He will discuss alchemical recipes associated with English mendicants, collected in the Tabula medicine text of 1416-25. The word ‘deflowering’ is a term that describes the way that they culled recipes from various sources—written and word-of-mouth—before recording it in the book. His blog post will appear at The Recipes Project.

“Historical Chocolate Tasting Events”, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and  Medicine at the University of Minnesota

Animated gif of chocolate bar with link to the full article in newsletter and additional link to historical choc tasting events at GYST Fermentation Bar, a collaborative effort with the Wangensteen Library. Also links to their digitized collection of recipe books.
Facebook:            https://www.facebook.com/umnbiomedlib
Twitter:                 @umnbiomedlib
Instagram:           @umnlib

“Recipes from the Sound Archive”, MMSH

The MMSH sound archive blog has a monthly feature on old recipes collected through interviews. In English and French, Véronique Ginouvès discusses what is a recipe when it comes to the sound archives.
Twitter:                 @Bagolina and @phonothequemmsh

“Theodorus Priscianus and Women’s Ailments”, Louise Cilliers

In a post for The Recipes Project, she considers the recipes of a 4th century physician from Constantinople: what did he use to treat women’s ailments?

Lady looking into mirror, 18th century.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

“Recipes for Beauty in Ovid”, Marguerite Johnson

Recipes for beauty were commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean and among the most comprehensive sources for cosmeceutical blends was Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae – 100 lines of which remain extant. When Marguerite Johnson translated the lines for her recent book, Ovid on Cosmetics (Bloomsbury 2016), she approached the task by taking the embedded lists of creams and treatments as recipes, and discussed the ingredients of each one and the methods of preparation. In this podcast, Marguerite will discuss the five recipes in the Medicamina with a focus on the ingredients – from honey to the mysterious alcyonea – and their properties for beautifying and preserving the skin.
Twitter:                 @MMJ722

“Introducing the Margaret Baker Project”, Lisa Smith

Over the year, my students on The Digital Recipe Book Project module read about early modern recipes and their wider social and cultural framework. We worked alongside other classrooms in the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective who were also working on Baker’s book. Along the way, they learned how to read old handwriting, transcribed several pages of a seventeenth-century manuscript recipe book by Margaret Baker, and built a website about Margaret Baker’s recipes. In this presentation, I’ll discuss the challenges of teaching recipes and working with Margaret Baker, as well as share the students’ insights from the year.
Blog:             drbp.hypotheses.org
Project site:     UofE Baker Project
Twitter:          @historybeagle

Ship’s biscuit, England, 1875
Credit: Science Museum, London.

‘Hard Tack Lemon Pudding’, Simon Walker 

He presents the YouTube cooking series Feedingunderfire wherein he cooks trench food recipes and tests them on guests. This episode focuses on an ‘apparently’ yummy dish.
YouTube:       Feeding Under Fire
Facebook:     Feeding Under Fire
Twitter:       @Dark_Nocterna

Provincial Archives of Alberta, Canada

Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, the PAA will be highlighting some its holdings on food history over the month with Facebook posts and on Twitter.
Facebook:      Provincial Archives of Alberta
Twitter:                 @ProvArchivesAB

Royal College of Physicians, London

We’re interested in approaching the theme of ‘What is a recipe’ by considering one of the RCP’s most important publications, the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1st edition 1618). Depending on how you define it, the Pharmacopoeia probably isn’t a collection of recipes, though it is a collection of instructions for making medical prescriptions. It was translated into Nicholas Culpeper, with explanatory text added, in 1649, and Culpeper’s version may have more claim to recipe-ness. We also have manuscript recipe books in our collection that include similar prescriptions or recipes, so we’d like to explore the issue by bringing these three sources together, and by illustrating a couple of the recipes with examples from our collection of English apothecary jars, and specimens from our medicinal garden.
Blog:                     https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/news/
Twitter:                 @RCPMuseum

Seasonality and the (Re)creation of Early Modern Color Worlds

By Jenny Boulboullé

Color played an important role in the early modern world across a number of areas from arts and crafts to Christian religion to politics to natural history and philosophy. In recent years, scholars have begun to explore how early modern men and women engaged, produced and conceptualized colors within and across color worlds.[1] Just as in early modern culinary and medical recipes, seasonality is a recurrent theme in artisanal recipes. The art of preservation was highly valued for its powers to make flavors and healing properties of foodstuffs, plants and herbs endure well beyond their seasonal availability. In my contribution to the seasonality series I focus on recipes that celebrate the art of color preservation and on the mindful attention to seasons called for in color making recipes. I am particularly interested in the challenges that recipes for making natural dyes and pigments from seasonal products posed to modern historians trying to reconstruct them.

Today the symbolic significance of colors in early modern Europe is perhaps most readily associated with the compellingly colorful medieval and renaissance art works that have survived in sacred spaces and museums.

Figure 1, Caption: Giotto (1266-1337), The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Padua, Italy. ca. 1305. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

But in the pre-modern period a deep concern with colors was not limited to the arts: colors were associated with the four humors and close attentiveness to colors was of vital importance to practices of healing in the Hippocritean and Galenic medical tradition.[2] The perception and display of colors was also highly charged with political meanings: colors were a form of symbolic communication and played an important role in consolidating and displaying religious and secular power relations. European courts and courtly events were important sites of “chromatic politics” as contemporary witness accounts and meticulous historical reconstructions of ephemeral, yet splendid and compellingly colorful festive events have shown.[3]

Figure 2, Caption: Peter Paul Rubens, Design for state decorations for the triumphal entry of Cardinal Infante Ferdinand into Antwerp, on April 17, 1635, Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Image from Pubhist.com

The historical reconstruction of a sixteenth-century dress, originally created for the Augsburg Imperial Diet from 1530, is a particularly compelling example of the politicized use of brightly colored dress made from dyed textiles.[4] The owner of this dress and his contemporaries might have regarded its colors “as related to intrinsic qualities and powers”. Deep scarlet reds were regarded at that time “as carriers of life and heat, while a strong yellow was linked to gold as metal, which had given its powers by the influence of the sun”. Ulinka Rublack notes the challenges encountered during the reconstruction process. The yellow color obtained in their first dying trials “was just not quite vibrant enough” which was detrimental “as faded hues of yellow could have negative associations of weakness and coldness”.[5]

Other sixteenth century recipes for ‘yellows’ from organic sources, demonstrate that making natural dyes of this color depended on local seasonal knowledge. As Marieke Hendriksen has discussed, here in Utrecht, we are building a new database of artisanal recipes. A quick search in the Artechne Database yields several fifteenth- and sixteenth century German recipes for green and yellow colors that call for buckthorn berries (some with precise indication for picking times, like this one for “Green color” from 1543). Here an Italian one from the anonymous Padua Manuscript (ca. end 16th/17th century), translated and published in English:

To make giallo santo

Take the berries of buckthorn towards the end of the month of August, boil them with pure water, until the water is loaded and thick with color; add a little burnt roche alum and then strain it. You may boil the strained liquor to make the color deeper, mixing with it some very pure gilder’s gesso; then make the color into pellets, and dry them in the shade.[6]

In color recipes such as this one, seasonality and intimate knowledge of seasonal products sensitivities to additives play a key role. Berries had to be picked at specific times of the year to attain the right hues, and while the juice of ripe buckthorn, available in most of Europe, gives a greenish color, also known as sap green, one needs to get hold of unripe berries, fresh or dried, in particular a species imported from the Middle East, also known as “Persian berries”, to attain the deep golden yellow hue that the reconstruction team had envisioned for this dazzling sixteenth-century dress.[7] Only by patiently repeating the dye processes using the right berries picked at the right moment, can the desired vibrant hue of rich quality be achieved – both in the early modern period and during 21th century reconstruction.[8]

Thus, the commission of brightly dyed dresses for display at important events must have been a time-consuming affair that required planning long ahead of the political event and entailed a collaborative process of sourcing and experimenting that depended not only on seasonal knowledge and availability, but was also prone to risks of seasonal change. As Rublack’s work shows, reconstruction research makes us of acutely aware of the complexities and risks posed to those who aspired a part in the “chromatic politics” of the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century. Moreover, as I will show in my next post, color recipe reconstructions allow us to experience the efforts and knowledge that went into the creation of early modern color worlds, which have become unfamiliar to our modern period eye.

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] Tarwin Baker, Sven Dupré, Sachiko Kusukawa, and Karin Leonhard, eds., Early Modern Color Worlds (Brill, 2016).

[2] Baker, Dupré, Kusukawa, and Leonhard 2016, 4.

[3] Ulinka Rublack, “Renaissance Dress, Cultures of Making, and the Period Eye.” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 6–34. doi:10.1086/688198.

[4] Rublack 2016.

[5] Rublack 2016, 23, 24.

[6] Maria Philadelphia Merrifield, Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to XVIIIth Centuries, on the Arts of Painting, in Oil, Miniature, Mosaic, and on Glass; Of Gilding, Dying, and the Preparation of Colours and Artificial Gems (John Murray 1849), 708.

[7] Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon, eds. Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700 (Archetype Publications, 2010) Glossary, 447.

[8] Rublack 2016, 25.

Mucus Cure-Alls: Snail Waters and Spa Treatments

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

L0030155 R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Snail. A philosophical account of the works of nature as founded on a plan of the late Mr. Addision. Richard Bradley Published: 1721 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature…
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In a world view that relied on correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm, and in a humoral medical system that utilized similarities between bodily functions and features of the natural world, one can imagine no more fitting emblem than the cold, mucousy snail. This slimy and gooey creature would seem the perfect treatment for an excess (or lack) of slimy, gooey phlegm.

Many household recipe books had recipes for snail water. These recipes generally called for shelling the snails and cleaning and boiling them in a mixture of milk and white wine or ale. This recipe from Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst’s recipe book (early 18th century with some contemporary additions) is fairly typical, though it includes and additional ingredient: slimy, gooey earthworms.

Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst her book. Credit: Wellcome Collection
Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst her book. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS2840

 

Mrs. DeLawns Snail Watter

Take 6 scor snails gathered in a garden wash them and crack ye shells and pick them off then gitt a pint of great earthworms cut them in pieces and wash them and put them and ye snails in to a gallon of new milk and boile it for half an hour then put in in yr still and add to it coltsfoot cowslips harts tongue and alehoof of each a little handful spearmint a handful an half and distill it with a hot fire this quantity will yeld 2 quarts and to each bottle put in 2 ounces of whit suger candy finely beaten and let it drop on it now and then open ye stile and stir it to prevent burning or creaming atop a grown person may drinck half a pint twice or 3 times a day.

While Mrs. Hirst’s recipe gives yield and dosage, it doesn’t indicate what the water was intended to treat, possibly because snail water was so widely known to help with consumption and other treatments involving coughing and phlegm. In this anonymous recipe collection, the writer advises “Let the party Take of this Twice a day  Eight spoonfuls at a time morning & Evening” before declaring “this is the only receipt in the world for a consumption.” Further down, in another hand, somebody has also attested to its efficacy: “This is very good to make.”

English Recipe Book. Wellcome Collection MS8575
English Recipe Book. Wellcome Collection MS8575

Snail water was also known (counterintuitively to this writer’s tastes) to whet the appetite. In  this recipe for snail water in the collection of the New York Academy of Medicine, snail water is fortified with ale: “Let the Ale this water is made of, be the strongest that can be Brewed, this exceeding good to cause an Appetite.”

Snail water as a cure may seem strange to modern sensibilities, but as Alun Withey points out, oral testimonies taken in rural Wales as late as the 1970s reveal evidence of the medical usage of snails, “including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!”

One could argue, in fact, that vestiges of humoral thinking remain to this day, particularly in the beauty industry. In the last couple of years, snail mucus has been marketed as a wonder treatment for wrinkles, acne, and skin texture. For example, through a company called Holy Snails, you can buy a hydrating serum that contains snail mucen extract. And even the big-box store Target has joined the trend, offering the “Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Skin Treatment” containing 30% snail slime extract.

If you’d rather have a more direct route from snail to skin, you can also opt for treatments in which technician prod specially raised, organically fed snails to ooze all over your face.

Regardless of efficacy, however, one can see in these skin lotions and spa treatments some vestiges of early thinking about correspondences and humoral theory–and of the very human urge to look to nature for answers, signs, and cures.