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‘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
  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.

Indigo or no indigo?

Marieke Hendriksen

Fermenting indigo at Ock Pop Tock, Laos. January 2018.

When you say indigo, the first thing many people will think of is blue – jeans blue. (Or if you’re me, you’ll think first of a seventeenth-century recipe to make decorative blue prunes from wax with indigo. Occupational deformation.) But historically, indigo has been used in many more ways, and to make more dye colours than just blue, as I recently discovered. Today, most jeans are died using a synthetic blue dye, but indigo dyes, made from some of the over 750 species of the genus Indigofera as well as from some other plants, have been used to dye textiles for at least 6,000 years, while other subspecies of Indigofera were traditionally used as analgesics with anti-inflammatory properties.

The term ‘indigo’ according to the OED started to occur from the sixteenth century onwards in various European languages to denote blue dyes from India (or east Asia more generally), but can now also refer more generally to dyes, violet-blue light, or blue hues. It might be argued that the term only really applies to dyes created from Indigofera subspecies, while it could also be said that indigo is any dye created from plants through the decomposition of the glucoside indican, which exists not merely in the indigo-plant, but in woad and various other plants too.

Wash the freshly picked leaves…

While on holiday in Luang Prabang, Laos, I took a weaving and dying workshop with Ock Pop Tock, an organization that was established to preserve the traditional Laotian craft of making hand-loomed textiles. There, I discovered that there is more indigo besides Indigofera, and that one indigo plant can give many more dyes than just blue. They also have a wonderful informative website on natural dyes. At Ock Pop Tock, the plant species used to create indigo dyes is Persicaria tinctoria, or long leaf Japanese indigo, a plant indigenous not to Japan but to China, Vietnam, and Laos. Depending on how the leaves are treated, it can be used to create blue, green, black, and mauve.

…give them a good pounding to create a dye.

Using the fresh leaves creates a green dye, fermenting them for at least five days and adding limestone as a mordant gives a blue dye. Traditionally, the Lao believed that the dye was female, and that it fermented because it attracted a male spirit. To coax the spirit, the pots containing the dye would be dressed in a skirt, and a knife placed on top of the lid to ward off evil spirits that could ruin the dye. The fermentation is actually a naturally occurring oxidation process, with atmospheric oxygen as the oxidant. Regular stirring ensures the process continues. The longer the indigo mixture is left to ferment, the darker it turns. If this mixture is boiled, it turns black. Alternatively, a rare indigenous plant, mak bow or bow vine, can be added to the blue dye to create mauve.

The end result: a beautiful scarf

As part of the half-day workshop, I got to dye a silk scarf with a dye of my choice. I love green hues and wanted to make a dye from start to finish, so I chose to dye my scarf ‘indigo’ green. This was, apart from some pretty intense pounding of leaves, surprisingly easy. I got to pick fresh Persicaria tinctoria leaves in the beautiful garden, washed them, and mashed them vigorously in a mortar for about five minutes. Then I transferred the mashed leaves into a tub, added some cold water and then the raw silk scarf. After kneading the dye into the fabric for a couple of minutes, I could rinse my scarf and hang it to dry. The end result is a beautiful soft green scarf, that is not just a souvenir, but a tangible reminder of the traditional Laotian knowledge about natural dyes preserved and shared at Ock Pop Tock.

Strike notice 4: feeding a strike

Yesterday, British universities entered their fourth – and hopefully final – week of strike. Like Lisa Smith, I am member of the striking University and College Union, and I have decided not to cross picket lines, be they actual or virtual.

We hope to return very soon with our usual offering of twice-weekly posts. In the meantime, we wish to thank our contributors whose posts have been delayed. We are very grateful for your support!