Recipes for the Inner Chamber: Vernacular Manufacturing in Early 20th Century China

By Eugenia Lean

In the 1910s, a curious print culture phenomenon appeared in China’s urban areas.  Journals such as the Ladies’ Journal (Funü zazhi) and Women’s World (Nüzi shijie) began to run columns and articles that provided recipes for manufacturing soap, hair tonic, perfume, and rouge at home.[i] They often explained the chemistry behind the manufacturing process and promoted the use of modern lab equipment and glassware to produce the desired items. The pieces deemed their detailed technical manufacturing information as highly appropriate for genteel women to apply in their inner chambers.

The cover of the January 1915 issue of Women’s World features a respectable woman who was the ideal reader of recipes for manufacturing cosmetics at home. Source: Chinese Collection of the Harvard-Yenching Library, Cambridge, Mass.

A typical example of the gendered portrayal of domestic manufacturing in these publications can be found in the piece titled, “An Exquisite Method for Manufacturing Hair Oil,” that appeared in first run of the Women’s World (1914–1915) column, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” (hereafter, “The Warehouse”), and its companion piece that appeared in the February issue. As the editor noted in the February entry, the first article had elicited much interest and a woman reader by the name of Mme. Xi Meng had already sent in a request for more tips (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 3). The February issue included a recipe for hair tonic, which listed its ingredients in both Chinese and Latin:[ii]

  • 純粹硫酸                                                      Acidum Sulphruicum [sic]
  • 檸檬油                                                          Oleum Limonis
  • 精製植物油即前節製原料法中自製之油
  • 玫瑰精                                                          Spiritus Rosae
  • 硼砂                                                              Borax
  • 橙花水                                                          Aqua Aurantii Florum
  • 酒精                                                              Spiritus
  • 洋紅細粉亦須自製
  • 丁香油                                                          Nelkeuöl [sic]
  • 肉桂油                                                          Oleum Cinnamomi
  • 橙皮油                                                          Oleum Aurantii Corticis
  • 屈里設林                                                      Glycerin
  • 白米澱粉即本節製法中自製之水磨粉
  • 白檀油                                                          Oleum Santali

(Chen Diexian 1915, vol. 2 [February], 4)

Many of the items could be purchased in Shanghai’s pharmacies, but since spiritus rosae was particularly expensive, the editor wanted to make its recipe readily available. The recipe instructed:

Extract the fragrance of fresh flowers, and attach it onto something solid, so that it lasts and does not disappear. There are many ways of doing this. One can use a method for suction; the method for squeezing, the method for steaming, the method for soaking. None of these are as ideal as the method for absorption. To make spiritus rosae, use the method for absorption (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 6).

What followed was a highly detailed and technical description of how to achieve this method at home. The tools, instruments, and materials needed include bottles, tubes, alcohol burners, hydraulic acid [sic], and no less than five pounds of marble.

China had a long history of manufacturing cosmetics at home. The knowledge behind this domestic production tended not to be written in recipes, but was embodied and passed down from generation to generation. Domestic producers would thus not have been likely consumers of these printed recipes.

As urban consumption of makeup and toiletry items grew in the 1910s, manufacturing such items at home would also seem less pressing. To understand why these pieces appeared when they did — and who was consuming them and why, it is worthwhile to consider what was unprecedented about them.

Appearing in China’s burgeoning mass media, new-style columns like “The Warehouse” made certain skills public, presented them in new terms for new purposes, and made them readily available for a far greater reading and practicing audience than ever before. The new epistemological frame within which the knowledge was presented (chemistry and physics) and the material accoutrement (lab equipment and modern glassware) stipulated as necessary also attracted readers.

The application of these recipes would have required considerable investment in resources and time. Chemistry knowledge was necessary and some called for considerable lab equipment. The instructions to manufacture the spiritus rosae ingredient for hair oil, for example, listed the following items as necessary:

Alcohol Burner—1; Alcohol—2 lbs; Glass tube of 2 centimeter diameter—½ stem; Long-necked glass funnel—1; Double-opening bottle—1; Washing ‘gas’ bottle—1; Wide-mouth bottle that holds 1 lb—1; Wide-mouth bottle that holds 5 lbs—1; Marble—5 lbs; Hydrochloric acid—1 lb (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 4).

Given the nascent state of China’s glassware industry, chemical apparatuses were often imports and available for purchase at a cost at exclusive scientific-appliance stores such as Shanghai’s China Educational Supply Association. Once producers procured the ingredients and equipment, they then had to follow detailed instructions.

To achieve the method of absorption, practitioners were instructed to drill holes into stoppers that were to plug the glass bottles; the holes had to be large enough for a glass tube and funnel to be inserted; the glass tube then had to be bent. Instructions on how exactly to use an alcohol burner to heat the glass and mold it to the appropriate shape were provided.

Visual of lab equipment needed for a recipe on how to manufacture spiritus rosae, an ingredient for hair oil, in “The Warehouse” column in the Women’s World. Source: Tianxuwosheng 1915, 5.

While genteel women were the supposed readers of these recipes (and those with the curiosity, means and knowledge to apply these recipes could have done so), participants in the reading community of these recipes included men. Male consumers of these pieces included connoisseurs of technology, dabblers in chemistry, young students and budding industrialists.

It was far from automatic for the well-educated, male or female, to turn toward production and manufacturing as the literati had long felt a severe distaste for hands-on engagement with things for subsistence or commercial purposes. Yet, by 1915, there was a growing sense that this was necessary. The persistence of internecine warfare and imperialist aggression dashed the initial hopes of the 1911 republican revolution. With the chaos of republican politics threatening national strength many of China’s lettered men and women started to explore new regimes of knowledge and experiment with new social and occupational roles, including those of the once taboo realms of industry, manufacturing and commerce.

It was in this context that these recipes helped cleanse the hands-on work in industry and manufacturing of its negative connotations. These “how-to” pieces became sites where experiential engagement with chemistry and manufacturing was promoted as crucial in strengthening China, as well as a sign of good taste and bearing. They became part of the arsenal of strategies available for readers navigating their new cosmopolitan identities in a post-civil-service-examination arena of urban playgrounds and industrial centres. By appreciating these pieces with a sense of refined curiosity or in a posture of playful leisure, readers could define their sense of exclusivity based on notions of production that were tasteful and authentic in terms of their scientific, domestic, and noncommercial nature.

The domestic realm as a site of production also served as a metaphor for the larger marketplace in treaty ports that existed beyond the reach of the state. There, scientific, commercial, and manufacturing knowledge increasingly displaced moral knowledge and statecraft as the preferred epistemological foundations for a competitive nation.

Just a few years later, a strong reaction rose against presenting chemical experimentation and manufacturing as a dilettantish endeavor appropriate for genteel women. With the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Sai Xiansheng, or “Mr. Science,” would emerge as part of the slogan “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy,” and science was, along with democracy, promoted as the foundation of a powerful nation. The portrait of the genteel woman engaging in leisurely production of cosmetics at home became emblematic of a “traditional” culture that had long fettered China’s modernization.

These recipes have been long overlooked by historians as insignificant as a result. Yet, they deserve to be reconsidered. Though they vanished quickly from the pages of China’s urban periodicals, they were historically significant. They were indicative of a period before science and manufacturing had been formalized in China and when efforts to learn and do industrial production was “vernacular,” occurring in ad hoc, informal and curious places (Lean 2020).


[i] Articles in the Ladies’ Journal include Ling Ruizhu, “A brief explanation of the methods to make cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.1 (Jan 1915): 15-18; Hui Xia, “Method for Making Rouge,” Funü zazhi 1.3 (March 1915): 15-16; Shen Ruiqing, “Method for Manufacturing Cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.5 (May 1915): 18-25. In 1915, Women’s World featured a new column from January to May, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” that ran recipes and instruction on manufacturing cosmetics every month.

[ii] These ingredients are better known as sulfuric acid, oil of lemon, the essence of roses (i.e., the scent of roses), borax or hydrated sodium borate, orange flower water, alcohol, oil of cloves, oil of cinnamon, oil of orange peel, and sugar alcohol, rice starch and oil of sandal wood. A couple of ingredients are not listed in Latin. Glycerin is English and Nelkeuöl, which is misspelled in the article, and should be spelled Nelkenöl, is the German word for oil of cloves. The first ingredient, sulfuric acid, is also glossed and spelled incorrectly as “Acidum Sulphruicum.” The foreign-language rendering of several of the ingredients helped establish that sense of cosmopolitanism. Yet, mistakes were present and speak to the complex nature of the translation process and the diverse linguistic circuits these recipes traversed.


Lean, Eugenia. Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900-1940. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Tianxuwosheng. “Huazhuangpin zhizao ku.” Nüzi shijie 2 (February 1915): 3.

The “Gentle Heat” of Boerhaave’s Little Furnace

By Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen

Ruben Verwaal is curator of the historical collections at Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, and at the Museum for Communication in The Hague. He obtained his PhD in June 2018 with a thesis on the role of bodily fluids in eighteenth-century chemistry. Marieke Hendriksen is a postdoctoral researcher on the Artechne Project at Utrecht University and a long-time contributor to The Recipes Project. She specializes in the material culture of science and art in the long eighteenth century. Ruben and Marieke share an obsession with an eighteenth-century object that has since disappeared: a small chemical furnace.

With the introduction of chemistry into the university curriculum in the late seventeenth century, new practical needs arose for students  such as being able to perform experiments. Would it be possible to build a chemical furnace that provides a gentle heat, yields no smoke, and is safe for students to use? Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738) believed he found the perfect solution in, what came to be called, Boerhaave’s little furnace.

Portrait of Herman Boerhaave by Cornelis Troost, c. 1730.

Boerhaave was professor of medicine, botany and chemistry at Leiden University in the early 18th century.[1] Instead of starting with the most difficult experiments with metals and minerals, he was convinced that students were better off when they learned the techniques of through simpler processes, such as distilling leaves and flowers, and fermenting bodily fluids. But most chemical laboratories were equipped with elaborate devices too complicated for freshmen students, who in the eighteenth century could be as young as fourteen. Moreover, the brick-build furnaces were designed to create high temperatures, in which small and delicate materials like rosemary leaves would burn instantly.[2] Boerhaave hence needed a device that was low-cost, user-friendly, and would provide a gentle heat.

The plan for the oven, • H. Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae, Quae Anniversario Labore Docuit in Publicis, Privatisque Scholis, (Leiden 1732).

A small wooden oven was the answer. Boerhaave claimed he had designed this type of furnace when he himself was studying chemistry in the 1690s. He opened the chapter on instruments in his chemistry textbook with the words: “I shall begin with my simplest furnace; which I invented forty years ago, when I practiced chemistry in no large study, where there was only one little chimney, and where I required several furnaces at once.”[3]

Woman at the Virginal and stove under her feet, by Jan Miense Molenaer, 1630-1640. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This kind of device was probably inspired by ordinary foot stoves. These little stoves, also known as foot warmers, were very popular in the Dutch Republic. Coming in a wide variety of shapes (square, octagonal, cylinder), these stoves often feature in books and paintings. Filled with glowing coals or peat, women placed the little stoves under their robes or blankets to keep warm.[4] Many foot stoves were equipped with a wire bail handle for lifting and easy transportation. Such stoves were used in carriages, sleighs, at home and in church to keep one’s feet warm. This ordinary foot warmer got new applications too, namely as tea and coffee stove,   and we suspect it was the model for the ‘simplest furnace’ in the Leiden chemical laboratory.

Woman carrying a little stove, Harmen ter Borch, 1648–1677. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The gentle heat produced by Boerhaave’s small oven proved very useful in performing all kinds of chemical experiments. Take rosemary, for example, the evergreen aromatic shrub. Distilled atop a “violent fire”, it would have been turned to flame, smoke, and ashes. But when rosemary instead was distilled at “summer-heat” (approx. 85º F), the mild operation would instead reveal the most volatile, fragrant and aromatic part of the plant ordinarily exhaled in summer. The same process could be applied to Angelica, basil, and all other aromatic plants.

Students in the Leiden laboratory, in Herman Boerhaave, Institutiones et experimenta chemiae (‘Paris’, 1724). Ghent University Library.

Boerhaave, in other words, attributed the success of his device to one’s control over gentle heat. Whenever the wooden oven was filled with hot pieces of coal or Dutch turf that was no longer smoking, it established a constant and moderate heat that could be kept up to 24 hours. As such, the instrument was perfect for students to perform all kinds of heating processes and distillations. In fact, he was so excited about this apparatus, that he claimed that “I believe eggs may be hatched by it”.[5]

Was Boerhaave’s little furnace really that user-friendly and effective as he claimed it was? We checked it out by recreating Boerhaave’s stove and performing experiments with it. Check out our next blog to entry to find out whether we succeeded!

Creating an oven from two old stoves… to be continued!


[1] More on Boerhaave, see Marieke Hendriksen, “Boerhaave’s Mineral Chemistry and Its Influence on Eighteenth-Century Pharmacy in the Netherlands and England”, Ambix(2018) and Ruben Verwaal, “The Nature of Blood: Debating Haematology and Blood Chemistry in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic”, Early Science and Medicine(2017).

[2] Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae (Leiden:  Isaac Severinus, 1732), vol 2, experiment 1.

[3] Ibid., vol 1.

[4] Le Francq van Berkhey,Natuurlyke historie van Holland (Amsterdam: Yntema and Tieboel, 1769–1778), vol. 3, 706-707, 1200.

[5] Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae, vol 1.

Teaching a Perfect Knowledge in the Arts and Sciences: Robert Dossie’s chemical, pharmaceutical, and artistic handbooks

Front page to a 1796 reprint of Dossie’s Handmaid

By Marieke Hendriksen

Robert Dossie (1717-1777) was and English apothecary, experimental chemist, and writer. Within just three years, he published three very successful handbooks: The elaboratory laid open (1758) on chemistry and pharmacy for ‘all practitioners of medicine’, Theory and practice of chirurgical pharmacy (1761) for surgeons, and The handmaid to the arts (1758), which taught ‘a perfect knowledge of the Materia Pictoriae’ such as painting, gilding, and japanning. Gibbs (1951, 1953) has written a short overview of Dossie’s life and work, with a focus on his role in the Society of the Arts, but paid no attention to the cohesion of his seemingly divergent work.

Lowengard (2006) has briefly noted that Dossie used a form typical for books about materia medica for his book on the arts, grouping the contents according to techniques employed as well as by the media to which they might be applied, yet his work has never been thoroughly analyzed. Did Dossie indeed transmit a way of structuring and presenting practical knowledge in text from one realm to another? Recipe collections and how-to books before the eighteenth century were often a mixture of medicinal and artisanal recipes and instructions, and the boundaries between medicine, chemistry, and the preparation and application of artist’s materials often so fluid as to be almost non-existent.

Moreover, some earlier printed books on painting and dying techniques did employ the format of a systematic discussion of materials and their preparations, followed by their application, for example Willem Goeree’s 1760 Verlichterie-kunde  What was novel about Dossie’s Handmaid of the Arts though was the combination of this way of presenting practical artisanal knowledge, his attempt to be encyclopaedic in his collection – listing the uses of the same base materials in the production of various artistic and decorative objects, and his very intentional use of the term ‘Materia Pictoriae’.

Rubia tinctorium (madder), one of the many plants that was both materia medica and materia pictoria

The latter appears to have been an attempt to subtly elevate the status of the visual and decorative arts by paralleling the materia pictoriae to the materia medica. Finally, the intended audience gives us more insight in how Dossie understood his own work. From the preface of the book, it appears that Dossie did not so much aim at the people creating visual and decorative objects, but at the professional preparers of artist’s materials, of whom he wrote: “a much greater share of knowledge in natural history, experimental philosophy, and chymistry, is required to the understanding the nature of the simples [sic], and principles of the composition, in a speculative light, than is consistent with the study of other subjects more immediately necessary to an artist.” (p. vii-viii)

In eighteenth-century England, high street chemists and druggists were evolving from preparers and sellers of chemical substances to compounders, stockists, and sellers of drugs and dispensers of medical advice, and it is in this light that Dossie’ work and his division between materia medica and materia pictorial must be seen. Did Dossie intentionally and successfully adapt and implement formats and language traditionally used in one field (medicine) for the organization and transmission of practical knowledge in text to others (chemistry and the arts)? To me it appears that in his mind, materia medica and materia pictoriae were both branches on the tree of chemistry, and that his corpus, which we now tend to see as divergent, was actually a cohesive body of work to him and his contemporaries.


Dupré, Sven, ed. Laboratories of Art : Alchemy and Art Technology from Antiquity to the 18th Century. Archimedes 37. Cham [u.a.]: Springer, 2014.

Gibbs, F.W. “Robert Dossie (1717–77) A Further Bibliographical Note.” Annals of Science 9, no. 2 (1953): 191–93.

Gibbs, F.W.  “Robert Dossie (1717–1777) and the Society of Arts.” Annals of Science 7, no. 2 (1951): 149–72.

Lowengard, Sarah. The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Columbia University Press, 2006.

Worling, Peter M. ‘Pharmacy in the Early Modern World, 1617 to 1841 AD’, in Making Medicines: A Brief History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals, ed. by Stuart Anderson (London: Pharmaceutical Press, 2005), pp. 57–76.



Metallic cures: antimonial wine and mineral kermes

By Marieke Hendriksen

In my previous post, I wrote about the ubiquity of mercurial drugs in the long eighteenth century. Mercury is a metal we are all quite familiar with, yet a variety of cures was based on metals and metallic compounds well into the nineteenth century – some of which we hardly hear of anymore today. Drugs based on antimony, a lustrous grey metalloid often found in ores together with either sulfur or mercury, and mineral kermes, a compound of antimony trioxide and trisulfide, were very popular. In universal encyclopedias from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for example, we find complicated recipes to create mineral kermes, which involve repeated distilling of a mixture of sulfur of antimony, fixed niter or potassium carbonate, and river- or rainwater.[i]

Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.
Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

Although it unlikely anyone tried these recipes at home, the use of antimony and its derivatives had a long tradition. Antimony cups were used since antiquity to make antimonial wine by soaking regular wine in it for one or more days.[ii] The fact that antimony frequently occurred together with mercury or sulphur appealed to alchemists, apothecaries, and other medical men and women, as sulphur and mercury were considered the basic alchemical elements. Moreover, as antimony could cleanse the most precious metal, gold, from impurities, alchemists reasoned it could also cleanse and cure God’s most precious creature, created after his own image: man. Hence Paracelsus (1493-1541) and many of his followers advocated the use of small amounts of antimony in iatrochemical drugs, although they were well aware of the fact that it is highly poisonous.

Antimonial wine thus was a tried emetic, yet antimony cups were forbidden in England and France for much of the seventeenth century, as the use of a wine too acidic would result in a lethal concoction. This prohibition was sometimes circumnavigated by creating antimony cups from tin with a small amount of antimony.[iii] In France antimony cups became legal once more in 1658, after Louis XIV was cured from typhoid fever with antimonial wine.[iv] After this royal endorsement of antimony, men of science started to investigate it more closely than ever before. Between 1700 and 1707 the French chemist Lemery wrote an extensive series of articles on antimony and its medicinal uses for the Académie des Sciences, culminating in a book describing all the changes it underwent by chemical procedures, and how the resulting substances could be used in medicine.[v] The Leiden professor of chemistry Gaub too devoted a substantial part of his lectures on metals on antimony and mineral kermes, extensively discussing the chemical procedures that should be applied to create effective medical materials.[vi]

French Apothecary Bottle: Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.
French Apothecary Bottle with traces of Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.

The recipes in the encyclopedias show that mineral kermes was one of the most important medical materials that could be created through chemically treating antimony. As can still be seen in a late nineteenth-centruy French apothecary bottle, it is a reddish brown powder. The powder does not dissolve in water and, like mercury, had a reputation for cleansing the lymphatic vessels, and was also used as an emetic and diaphoretic. The name was probably derived from the Arabic name for a similarly coloured crimson dye made from insects, al-qirmiz. The use of mineral kermes as a drug was apparently first mentioned by Glauber (1604-1670), but how to successfully create it remained a subject of debate into the nineteenth century, even after an official recipe was published by the king of France in 1720.[vii]

[i] De Felice, Fortunato Bartolomeo, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire universel raisonné des connoissances, (Paris, 1773), Vol. 25, p. 345. Wilkes, John, Encyclopaedia Londinensis, or, Universal Dictionary of Arts (London: J. Adlard, 1810), Vol. iv, p. 277.

[ii] Also see one of my previous blogs on The Medicine Chest.

[iii] StClair Thomson, “Antimonyall Cupps: Pocula Emetica or Calices Vomitorii”, Proc. Roy. Soc. Med., Vol. XIX, no. 9, 1925, 123-8.

[iv] C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012, 49.

[v] Lemery, Nicolás, Traité de L’antimoine (Paris: Jean Boudot, 1707).

[vi] Gaub, H.D., ‘Chemiae Praxis. Notes of Lectures by an Unnamed Student. Produced in Leyden.’, Closed stores WMS 4  MS.2479, Wellcome Library Manuscripts, p. 593-685.

[vii] Willich, A.F.M., A Domestic Encyclopedia Or A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge, 3 vols. (London: B. McMillan, 1802), p. 46.