Category Archives: Posts

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!


Strike Notice 3: international women’s day

Strikes in British universities are still ongoing. As explained in our previous posts, two of our editors (Lisa Smith and myself) are members of the striking University and College Union, and have decided not to cross picket lines, which also include virtual ones.

Today is International Women’s Day. I’m certain that Twitter and other social media will be full of information on inspirational women, historical or alive. While I welcome this, I think it is important to stress that women do not need to be inspirational to matter. It is fine not to be exceptional.

It is also important to stress collective women’s movements, and I guess many of you will know where I am heading here: women’s strikes. In fact, the 8th of March is also the day of the annual International Women’s Strike. Today I shall be doubly on strike then: I will be on strike from my university job, but I will also avoid doing household chores.

I shall also be re-reading Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata (first performed in 411 BCE). Lysistrata is an Athenian woman who encourages a group of women from various Greek city states to go on a sex strike, with the aim to persuade their husbands to end the everlasting Peloponnesian War. Here is how she introduces her plan:

If we sit around at home
with all our makeup on and in those gowns
made of Amorgos silk, naked underneath,
with our crotches neatly plucked, our husbands
will get hard and want to screw. But then,
if we stay away and won’t come near them,
they’ll make peace soon enough. I’m sure of it.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata 149-154 ; translation A. Sommerstein

The other women are reluctant at first, but soon follow Lysistrata’s advice and swear an oath to withhold sexual favours. This eventually leads to the desired outcome: peace.

It is tempting to read Lysistrata as a proto-feminist play, but Aristophanes clearly was more interested in lewd jokes than in the fate of real women. It’s also worth remembering that the play would have originally been performed by male actors only, adding another layer of slap-stick humour.

Perhaps Aristophanes is the arch mansplainer then?  For how badly does he fail to imagine the daily, mostly invisible, labour of women. While there are historical examples of sex strikes, withholding from domestic chores and child-rearing duties is much more likely to yield results (see the examples of the 1975 Icelandic Women’s strike and of the 2016 Polish Black Monday). And frankly, Lysistrata’s strike sounds like a lot of emotional labour to me: all that preening to then have to push away one’s lover! And anyway, how feasible would that have been in classical Athens, where there was absolutely no concept of marital rape?

Much of what we do at The Recipes Project is to bring to light invisible labour, of women, of enslaved people, of marginalised people.  We never forget that mission, and we thank you for bearing with us while we are on strike!

If you wish to read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, you can do so on the website Perseus (translation by Jack Lindsay).