Category Archives: Jess Clark

Mrs. Headman’s Preparations: Safeguarding Secrets in a Victorian Beauty Business

Jessica P. Clark

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the mid-nineteenth century saw a rise in commercial beauty products aimed at British consumers. A variety of new goods, expanding through the second half of the century, promised to enhance men and women’s complexions, hair, and bodies. But selling secret commercial compounds could be a tricky business given widespread mistrust of beauty products. For some Victorians, including medical commentators, secret compounds signaled potentially deleterious ingredients like mercury. But for others, these same recipes represented exciting opportunities to rid themselves of baldness, rashes, or other unsightly ailments. In this way, mysterious commercial beauty products could both deter and attract the Victorian public, as sources of bodily danger but also transformation.

"Women And Bonnets, England, 1860." From The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-e150-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
“Women And Bonnets, England, 1860.” From The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-e150-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Tensions around “secret” commercial recipes did not only shape consumer interest, but also the production practices of those behind the new beautifying goods. British beauty providers in London and beyond understood the power of beauty secrets as they vied for success in the potentially lucrative mid-century market. Commercial recipes were central to their economic livelihood, and many of them actively labored to protect their secrets. This included a small cohort of female beauty entrepreneurs working in London at the mid-nineteenth century, some of whom feature in my book project Beauty Brokers. For them, the possession of a distinct—and exclusive—beauty recipe could mean the difference between business success and failure.

Records suggest that beauty traders developed a number of strategies to protect their recipes from critics, but also  competitors. This could include legal measures against business rivals or the trademarking of product names and logos. But it could also entail more intimate, daily strategies in the management of shop space and employees, something that comes to the fore in the case of London-based trader Agnes Headman. From April 1850, Headman ran a profitable business as a “Hair Restorer and Advisor to Ladies on the State of their Hair” from No. 24 Savile Row. Visitors to the respectable commercial space consulted with Headman before having their hair treated and dressed by Headman’s main assistant, Esther Gaubert. According to the London Times, Headman “was [also] in the habit of performing certain processes on ladies’ hair,” which seems to suggest hair dyeing, a practice of questionable repute.[1]

Map showing shop locations of Agnes Headman (yellow star) and Esther Gaubert (blue marker). Map from Society for the Useful Diffusion of Knowledge (London: Edward Stanford, 1865), courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/n9j7q4
Map of Mayfair and Soho, showing shop locations of Agnes Headman (yellow star) and Esther Gaubert (blue marker). Map from Society for the Useful Diffusion of Knowledge (London: Edward Stanford, 1865), courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/n9j7q4

Although Headman offered hairdressing services, most of her profit came from the sale of “Mrs. Headman” products: at the Savile Row shop, through local agents, and via mail order. As this was the heart of her business, records reveal that she took special measures to protect her recipes from falling into the hands of others. For instance, despite her modest operations, Headman reportedly had a separate room at Savile Row devoted exclusively to production. There, she single-handedly made up—or “compounded,” as she dubbed it—her secret preparations, including “Darkening Fluid,” “Rejuvenescent Hair Cream,” and “Botanic Hair Wash and Curling Fluid.” To further protect her work, she strictly regulated access to the compounding room; the only other person granted admission was an illiterate charwoman, Mrs. Bass, who washed out bottles in a neighboring basin. When not in use, Headman kept the room locked to prevent other employees from discerning her methods. She even had her assistant Gaubert sign a binding agreement upon her hiring in 1853, which forbade her from investigating recipe ingredients or  methods of production. This did not stop Gaubert, however, who found herself in the Court of Chancery in 1858, accused of absconding with Headman’s “Book containing the secret recipes” and recreating them in her new business around the corner from Savile Row.[2]  This betrayal suggests that Headman’s precautionary measures were warranted, as someone trading in—and profiting from— the business of secrets.

Often characterized as dangerous by Victorian critics, commercial beauty recipes were in fact very lucrative, something clearly understood by Agnes Headman and other beauty traders. For businesspeople like Headman, secret beauty recipes were key to attracting customers and thus worthy of protective measures. But it was not only consumers who valued the mysteries of her trade. Headman’s own employees sought out her secrets, as they labored side-by-side in a small-scale commercial setting – conditions that, despite her attempts, made her recipes all the more vulnerable to discovery.

 

 

[1] “Vice-Chancellors’ Courts, April 30,” London Times 22982 (1 May 1858): 11.

[2] Ansell v. Ganbert A.39 (1858) UK National Archives, C15/444/A39 (Gaubert’s surname is misspelled in the records).

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.