“Like a Collapsible Concertina”: Cosmetic Interventions in Fin-de-Siècle London

Jess Clark

In the Fall of 2020, new reports revealed a marked increased in cosmetic procedures—surgery, injectables, and other dermatological treatments—over the course of the COVID pandemic. During the global crisis, some people of means have flocked to plastic surgeons, cosmetic dermatologists, and other experts for appearance-altering treatment. Observers attributed this uptick to patients’ “opportunity” to be out of the public eye for extended recovery periods, not to mention the distorting effects of long hours on social media and online meetings. Whatever the cause, the “Zoom Boom” meant a surging interest in artificial enhancements. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, some 64 per cent of its practitioners experienced increased demand for online consultations since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Face Harness,” from William A. Woodbury, Beauty Culture (New York: G.W. Dillingham Company, 1911), p. 341. Public Domain via Hathi Trust.

While this level of interest in cosmetic interventions may be unique to 2020-21, invasive procedures that required weeks of downtime are not. We need only to look to a handful of court trials taking place in fin de siècle London to hear dramatic accounts of cosmetic enhancements, their demands, and dangers. In the early twentieth century, London’s periodical press focused on a spate of cases against self-proclaimed “beauty doctors” who promised to renew the youth and looks of British women. The fact these stories only appear in the public record in the case of botched procedures suggests far more widespread—and concealed—instances of dramatic cosmetic enhancements that remain beyond the reach of historians.

One notable case unfolded in October 1904, when Britain’s periodical press covered the scandalous story of a “beauty doctor” taken to court over the alleged defrauding—and deep discomfort—of a client. Under headlines like “Wrinkles Came Back” and “’Beauty Doctor’s’ Promise,” articles detailed a Marylebone Police Court case in which a dissatisfied dressmaker described the effects of unsuccessful cosmetic treatments. Garnering laughter from the court, the dressmaker used vivid language to describe the beauty doctor’s dealings, conjuring unsavory images invoking various foodstuffs:

Madam, she said, put some stuff on her clients’ faces, which had a burning effect, and caused them to swell to a tremendous size. She then put on a sticky plaster, which was allowed to remain fifteen or sixteen hours, and when it was removed the face was like a half-roasted beefsteak. After that she administered a sticky jelly. That left the face like a pudding basin, and it was allowed to remain in that state four or five days, during which time the unhappy victim was unable to part her teeth, and had to be fed with milk in a feeding cup.

Despite these unappetizing descriptions, the dressmaker reported that the treatment’s effects were transformative. When “the mask was taken off….whatever your age, the face was that of a young woman of 18 years of age—full, clear, and fat; beautiful, in fact, without a wrinkle, a scar, or a blemish.” Although the client’s skin was “very, very red,” the effects reportedly delighted the “deluded” customers. Within days, however, “wrinkles gradually reappeared, and the face became like a collapsible concertina.”[1] Like contemporary injectables and thread lifts, the results were temporary, despite the pain experienced to garner these results.

“The Geography of a Dissipated Woman’s Face,” from Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), p. 318. Public Domain via Hathi Trust..

 

It is unclear what precisely went into these “rejuvenating” recipes. While not identified by name, the description of the “sticky jelly” suggests some form of “face skinning”—or chemical peels—which grew in popularity through the early twentieth century. As historian of cosmetics James Bennett has shown, early experimental peels could include “[t]inctures of iodine and lead, lime compresses and chemicals such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, phenol, croton oil and trichloroacetic acid.” By the twentieth century, processes of “écorchement” (or “flaying”) included caustics like salicylic acid, resorcinol, carbolic acid, and electricity to remove upper layers of the skin and reveal the “youthful” skin below. In most cases, reported American beauty entrepreneur Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a client took “board for a week or two or three with the professional skinner.” In doing so, “she pays for her board and torture in advance.”[2] Then, as now, clients remained out of sight in the aftermath of their cosmetic procedures. Whether due to self-imposed or government-mandated isolation, this time represents processes of alleged transformation, albeit at a potential cost.

 

 

[1] “Price of Beauty,” Daily Mirror (24 October 1904): 5. See also “A ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (22 October 1904): 165; “Beauty for £20,” Daily Mail (24 October 1904): 3; “A Concertina Face,” Daily Express (24 October 1904): 5; “A Face Cure,” The Times (24 October 1904): 11; and “Another ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (29 October 1904): 1230.

[2] Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), 185, quoted in James Bennett, “Face Skinning,” Cosmetics and Skin, 25 January 2019, http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/aba/face-skinning.php

Tales From the Archives: FOLLOW THE RECIPE! UN/AUTHORIZING MUSLIM WOMEN’S COSMETIC EXPERTISE IN THE MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN WEST

The Recipes Project is now six years old, and that means we host a lot of content! We now have over 700 posts in our archives. (And thank you 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, making old material new once again.

This month, we’re featuring a post by Montserrat Cabré on ideas about medieval Muslim women, which first appeared in 2014 as part of a fascinating series on beauty recipes organized by Jessica Clark. Enjoy!
-The Editor

By Montserrat Cabré

“I saw a certain Saracen woman from Sicily,” claimed an anonymous twelfth-century author in Latin, “curing infinite numbers of people [of mouth odour] with this medicine alone.”[1]

Knowledge about beauty circulated extensively in medieval Western Europe, and this know-how was almost always associated with women. Virtually every medieval healthcare handbook in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic contained sections devoted to questions of beauty. In particular, tracts on women’s cosmetics abounded. Recipe collections included a considerable number of beauty recipes, serving either the laity or a variety of health practitioners.

Latin medical texts, and the vernacular traditions they inspired, did not simply acknowledge women’s interest in cosmetics, but also emphasized their expertise. Texts portrayed women as active agents and producers of collective knowledge on beauty.  Cosmetic recipes—often penned by male authors—conveyed women’s common interests and shared knowledge in beautification.

At the same time, Latin medical texts ascribed specific practices to certain individual women or to particular groups of women.  As we see in the opening quotation, texts very rarely included women’s given or family names. Instead, other features identified them: their place of birth, where they lived, or, often, their religious identity.  As the works of reputed Arabic physicians and surgeons were admired in medieval Western Europe, Christian sources unambiguously distinguished Muslim women’s expertise in the art of beauty treatments. However, Moorish women’s collective authority would eventually become lost in favour of other women.

For example, in the earliest versions of the Salernitan De Ornatu Mulierum, a twelfth-century Latin treatise written by an anonymous male author, a certain “ointment… which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes” was recorded as a recipe for noble Saracen women. However, less than a century later, the new Latin version of the same text attributed the depilatory to Salernitan noblewomen.[2]This was neither an accident nor a simple adaptation of a recipe for new audiences. Rather, it marked the beginning of an on-going erasure of Muslim women’s authority from Western cosmetic literature.

This obliteration of female Muslim expertise happened gradually. Later vernacular texts dealing with cosmetics still acknowledged their collective or individual authority about beauty. For instance, we see six acknowledgements for recipes from an unnamed Saracen woman in the late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ornatus Mulierum.[3]

Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.
Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.

The fifteenth-century Vergel de Señores (Garden of Gentlemen), an anonymous Spanish recipe book for household use, attributed certain beauty treatments to Moorish women. The text devoted a long section to cosmetics, mentioning the practices of ladies (señoras) and their particular investment in knowing recipes that beautified the face. The expertise of Moorish women was called upon, however, when referring to cosmetic recipes containing lead and mercury. The dangerous effects of these ingredients had worried physicians and surgeons for centuries, particularly in regards to potentially noxious effects on the gums and teeth. The compiler of Vergel advised his readers to use them wisely, detailing safe practices.

Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]
Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]

The authority acknowledged to Muslim women on cosmetics, however, did not last.  Sometime before 1563, Juan Vallés compiled another household manual which was meant to go into print—albeit it never did. The Regalo de la Vida Humana also contained a long section of cosmetic recipes, copied extensively from the Vergel de Señores. Its author, Juan Vallés, still acknowledged women’s authority in beauty treatments, but he narrowed their agency by gracefully tending to portray them as the intended audience of the recipes rather than asserting their expertise. And significantly, he omitted any mention of Moorish women and their knowledge of beautifying recipes. Having been recognized as experts in the medieval traditions, Muslim women did not make it into the new texts. Stripped of identifying traits, female agency was impoverished and transformed into an audience of Christian women.[4]

Ultimately, noticing these shifts reveals the delicate and fragile nature of the acknowledgement of collective and anonymous authority over knowledge –that is, of the particular types of authority granted to women.  Recipes, therefore, should be treasured sources for they offer us a unique perspective to detect and trace how specific groups of people, particularly vulnerable people, are empowered or unauthorized over a long time span.

[1] Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula. A medieval compendium of women’s medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001), p. 46.
[2] Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula, pp. 169, 246.
[3] Montserrat Cabré, “Beautiful bodies”, in Linda Kalof, ed., A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Medieval Age (Oxford: Berg, 2010), pp. 134-136.
[4] Juan Vallés, Regalo de la Vida Humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. I , pp.  306-310, 410-411.

Montserrat Cabré works at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.

Follow the Recipe! Un/Authorizing Muslim Women’s Cosmetic Expertise in the Medieval and Early Modern West

By Montserrat Cabré

“I saw a certain Saracen woman from Sicily,” claimed an anonymous twelfth-century author in Latin, “curing infinite numbers of people [of mouth odour] with this medicine alone.”[1]

Knowledge about beauty circulated extensively in medieval Western Europe, and this know-how was almost always associated with women. Virtually every medieval healthcare handbook in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic contained sections devoted to questions of beauty. In particular, tracts on women’s cosmetics abounded. Recipe collections included a considerable number of beauty recipes, serving either the laity or a variety of health practitioners.

Latin medical texts, and the vernacular traditions they inspired, did not simply acknowledge women’s interest in cosmetics, but also emphasized their expertise. Texts portrayed women as active agents and producers of collective knowledge on beauty.  Cosmetic recipes—often penned by male authors—conveyed women’s common interests and shared knowledge in beautification.

At the same time, Latin medical texts ascribed specific practices to certain individual women or to particular groups of women.  As we see in the opening quotation, texts very rarely included women’s given or family names. Instead, other features identified them: their place of birth, where they lived, or, often, their religious identity.  As the works of reputed Arabic physicians and surgeons were admired in medieval Western Europe, Christian sources unambiguously distinguished Muslim women’s expertise in the art of beauty treatments. However, Moorish women’s collective authority would eventually become lost in favour of other women.

For example, in the earliest versions of the Salernitan De Ornatu Mulierum, a twelfth-century Latin treatise written by an anonymous male author, a certain “ointment… which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes” was recorded as a recipe for noble Saracen women. However, less than a century later, the new Latin version of the same text attributed the depilatory to Salernitan noblewomen.[2] This was neither an accident nor a simple adaptation of a recipe for new audiences. Rather, it marked the beginning of an on-going erasure of Muslim women’s authority from Western cosmetic literature.

This obliteration of female Muslim expertise happened gradually. Later vernacular texts dealing with cosmetics still acknowledged their collective or individual authority about beauty. For instance, we see six acknowledgements for recipes from an unnamed Saracen woman in the late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ornatus Mulierum.[3]

Untitled 2
Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.

The fifteenth-century Vergel de Señores (Garden of Gentlemen), an anonymous Spanish recipe book for household use, attributed certain beauty treatments to Moorish women. The text devoted a long section to cosmetics, mentioning the practices of ladies (señoras) and their particular investment in knowing recipes that beautified the face. The expertise of Moorish women was called upon, however, when referring to cosmetic recipes containing lead and mercury. The dangerous effects of these ingredients had worried physicians and surgeons for centuries, particularly in regards to potentially noxious effects on the gums and teeth. The compiler of Vergel advised his readers to use them wisely, detailing safe practices.

Untitled
Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]
The authority acknowledged to Muslim women on cosmetics, however, did not last.  Sometime before 1563, Juan Vallés compiled another household manual which was meant to go into print—albeit it never did. The Regalo de la Vida Humana also contained a long section of cosmetic recipes, copied extensively from the Vergel de Señores. Its author, Juan Vallés, still acknowledged women’s authority in beauty treatments, but he narrowed their agency by gracefully tending to portray them as the intended audience of the recipes rather than asserting their expertise. And significantly, he omitted any mention of Moorish women and their knowledge of beautifying recipes. Having been recognized as experts in the medieval traditions, Muslim women did not make it into the new texts. Stripped of identifying traits, female agency was impoverished and transformed into an audience of Christian women.[4]

Ultimately, noticing these shifts reveals the delicate and fragile nature of the acknowledgement of collective and anonymous authority over knowledge –that is, of the particular types of authority granted to women.  Recipes, therefore, should be treasured sources for they offer us a unique perspective to detect and trace how specific groups of people, particularly vulnerable people, are empowered or unauthorized over a long time span.


[1]  Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula. A medieval compendium of women’s medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001), p. 46.
[2]  Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula, pp. 169, 246.
[3]  Montserrat Cabré, “Beautiful bodies”, in Linda Kalof, ed., A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Medieval Age (Oxford: Berg, 2010), pp. 134-136.
[4]  Juan Vallés, Regalo de la Vida Humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. I , pp.  306-310, 410-411.

 

Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.

Beauty Recipes: A December Series

By Jessica P. Clark

"Productos de Belleza Luxor," 1918. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.
“Productos de Belleza Luxor,” 1918. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

When the editors of The Recipes Project invited me to compile a series on beauty and cosmetics, we thought it a timely topic for the holiday season. As twenty-first-century consumers, we associate the holidays with the careful selection and purchase of gifts. These are often of the luxury variety, including wares that beautify recipients: scents, cosmetics, grooming products and tools. While we typically purchase these goods, historical gift-givers relied on recipes to concoct homemade offerings. Foodstuffs and preserves, healing remedies, and potpourris helped forge social bonds and convey good tidings.

But research shows us that beautifying goods were not always associated with luxury. Up until the twentieth century, beauty recipes served a variety of functions: as medicines, to conceal age, to disguise debility. The research featured in December’s special series on beauty is no exception. Rather than highlight the relationship between beauty and luxury, our contributors foreground quotidian uses of beautifying goods as medicinal aides, dangerous but necessary appearance enhancers, or professional tools of the workplace (in this case, the theatre).

This means, of course, that we have expanded beyond holiday-appropriate themes of luxury and exchange. Instead, contributors Montserrat Cabré, Kirsten James, and Sean Trainor introduce us to the multiple meanings and uses of beauty recipes — even those with potentially deleterious effects. They also remind us of the close historical linkages between cosmetics and other beautifying goods in western beauty cultures, as perfumes and hair tonics were produced alongside powders and paints. Ultimately, a focus on function over luxury highlights changing uses of beauty recipes from the twelfth century, not to mention western attitudes about self-fashioning more generally.

We hope you’ll join us this holiday season as we explore the “serious” side of goods now associated with luxury and self-indulgence. And we look forward to hearing from readers working on historical beauty recipes across geographic locales and historical moments, so please get in touch via Twitter or in the Comments section!