In the Fall of 2020, newreports 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.
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.” Like contemporary injectables and thread lifts, the results were temporary, despite the pain experienced to garner these results.
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.” 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.
 “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,” TheLancet (29 October 1904): 1230.
This month on Around the
Table, I have the pleasure of sharing a conversation with architectural
Milne. She was introduced to an early modern English manuscript in the
archives while researching another project. That text, the Dinner Book of the London
Drapers’ Company, grew into a project of its own, and her newly-published edition
is sure to be of great interest to historians of architecture, civic life, and
food. In April, her research came full circle as she publicly launched her book
at the site of the dining in the manuscript: Drapers’
Hall in London. Following my conversation below, Recipes Project editor Lisa Smith, who was able to
attend the book launch, shares some comments about the presentation.
Could you describe the Dinner Book and how you
found it? On what type of project were you working?
unusually, I first came across the Dinner Book as a postgraduate architecture
student trying to get to grips with the City of London as a place, so that I
could design for it effectively. Walking around its streets, I identified the
livery company (guild) halls as important footholds, entry points into the
guilds themselves, and I set myself the task of designing a new livery hall for
recently formed guilds. It did not take me long to figure out that one of the
focal-points of company life was the annual ‘Election Dinner’, when new leaders
of the companies were invested in their new roles at grand dinners held in the
halls. For me, in representing guild hierarchies structured within the hall, this
was a critical moment to design for, and I was keen to research the history of
dinners as much as I could in order to uncover the meaning and cultural context
of these long-standing events. To be honest, my design project was over and
done with far too quickly, but I was able to develop my interest through a
written dissertation. Influenced by Carolyn Steele’s writing on how food shapes
cities, I wrote to a number of guild archivists enquiring records which would
give me insight into the sorts of foods presented at the dining tables of the
Election Dinners. I was intrigued by the mercantile guilds’ attitudes to ‘new
world’ products, and the extent to which dinners were experimental or
conservative. Penny Fussell at the Drapers’ Company invited me to visit
Drapers’ Hall to see a document she thought I might be interested in. That was
the Dinner Book.
At the time
I encountered it, I didn’t really have the skillset to deal with it
effectively, I was not trained in palaeography for a start, but I knew that
this account book seemed rare and important. Spanning from 1564–1602, though
mostly weighted towards the 1560s and 1570s, it listed the foods, drinks,
suppliers, servants, attendees and their positions within Drapers’ Hall at a
series of Election Dinners. For me at that time, the potential of the document was
to ground City sociability in a place, a space and a time, allowing for
present-day dinners to be read through the lens of the past. Slowly but surely
I made progress in making sense of the document.
It was only
many years afterwards during my PhD, and several drafts of transcriptions of
the Dinner Book later, that I was able to say with more certainty why this book
was important for early modern historians, and suggest its significance for
food historians. The period covered by the Dinner Book was one of particular
instability and change in the City. The Drapers’ dinner records for the closing
decades of the sixteenth century indicate that livery companies recognised the
potential of their annual Election Dinners to reinforce the antiquity of
corporate authority, inferring a mythical past as a means of legitimizing their
stake in the future. Naturally, the food presented was implicated in this
endeavour, and mostly tended towards traditionally high-status meats such as
It is interesting how such a beautiful space
(Drapers’ Hall) has such a rich accompanying textual history; that is not
always the case! Is this kind of menu book unique to the Drapers? Do you know
of other examples of similar guild records (in London or elsewhere),
particularly ones accompanying an existing architectural space?
Great Twelve Companies shared a common culture of dining and a concern for
their orchestration, it does appear that The Dinner Book is the only coherently
detailed document which accounts for a series of these sorts of dinners. It seems
to have been produced as a sort of aide memoire to inform the planning of
future dinners as well as giving an account of what was spent year by year. There
may well have been other Dinner Books, but they have not survived, excepting
one very partial record from the late seventeenth century. In individual guild
archives and at the Guildhall, the odd account of comparable Election Dinners
of other companies can be found, but nothing quite matches the Dinner Book.
I am very
thankful for the ways in which the Drapers’ Company accommodated me in their
Hall over many years. To be able to research the Dinner Book in near enough the
same location as it was produced, and the kitchens where the dinners actually
prepared, was quite special. Indeed, though Drapers’ Hall has been rebuilt many
times, the memory of the sixteenth-century Hall persists in the arrangement of
interior spaces, so that the present-day main hall where the dinners were eaten
is effectively in the same location, and of a similar scale, as it was at the
time the Dinner Book was written-up. Other companies too retain Halls, though
none survive from the sixteenth century (excepting the fifteenth-century kitchens
of the Merchant Taylors’
Has working with the Dinner Book influenced your
other research interests and recent projects?
encounter with the Dinner Book affected the trajectory of my working life quite
significantly. From a focus on architectural design, I shifted to focus on
architectural history, understanding that the two need to be held in tension,
especially when the complexity of a city like London is in view. If it is not
already apparent, I should clarify that I take architecture to be a broad
discipline concerned with how space is produced by many hands over time. Architecture
is always relational, contingent, and, at its heart, it is really about people.
In this way, the study of food exchanges and dining practices can be very
relevant to urban and architectural historians interested in working from the
inside out of buildings, or thinking about flows of traded goods in the city
more generally. Indeed, I feel strongly that the link between designers,
urbanists and architects on the one hand, and historians on the other, needs to
be cultivated so that cities can be acted within and planned for with
sensitivity and wisdom. Spatial ‘micro-histories’ can be very effective in
engaging a broad-range of people in deep conversations about the way cities
change over the long-term.
Now I work
for the Survey
of London, a group of historians who write histories of London’s built
environment, paying attention to all sorts of stories of the capital city and
addressing a huge range of buildings past and present. We tend to work parish
by parish, and currently I am working on an especially experimental project
centred on Whitechapel in East London. We have taken a participatory approach
to this project, inviting the public and professionals to enter into dialogue
with us and each other about the area, sharing their research, memories and
archives, as we share our findings, all framed within the context of a
digitally accessible online map.
Speaking to people, it is amazing to see how often food or dining comes up,
especially in relation to migrant experiences of settlement and inter-cultural
exchanges. We have been especially excited to commission a film about the local
South Asian restaurant trade – Changing Tastes.
Thanks, Sarah, for chatting with me about such an interesting project! You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahannmilne.
And now, Lisa Smith’s
comments on the book launch.
On April 8, I had the pleasure visiting the Drapers’ Hall in
London to celebrate a book launch for Sarah Milne’s edited volume of The Dinner Book of the London Drapers’
Company 1564-1602. Although I’ve visited a range of splendid medical
buildings, from the Royal College of Surgeons (London) to the Académie
Nationale de Médecine (Paris), this was my first experience of an actual London
guild hall. To say that the Drapers’ Hall is very grand would be an
understatement; the marks of power, pomp, and ceremony remain visible to
historians, even if the main hall is now bookable for wedding receptions.
In the introduction to The
Dinner Book, Dr Milne describes the ‘theatre of hospitality’; beyond the
grandeur of a hall, the guild displayed its wealth through elaborate feasts. At
the Election Dinner of 1564, for example, the first course included foods like
swans, pikes, venison pasties, and custards; the second course included lighter
foods, from quails to marchipane; and the banquet course was comprised of sweet
items, like spicebread, wafers, fruits, and hippocras. The necessity of luxury
was so important that the guild hall even had a separate space for preparing the
banquet course—the hippocras house, which was staffed by three servants during
the 1564 dinner.
There is no modern-day hippocras house, but the book launch
took place in the same room as the early modern great hall. A modern chef
attempted to recapture some of the early modern flavours for us, too, with
treats such as venison pasties and pottage…
In her talk, Dr Milne discussed the complicated nature of
space and public activities in early modern London; the domestic, social, and
business worlds co-existed behind the guild hall gates. The great hall may have
been used for corporate assemblies, but the courtyard house was the Master’s
residence. The parlour was the site of the guild’s day-to-day business. Corporate
celebrations, such as Election Dinners, included entire families: widows,
wives, and occasionally young children. And the garden provided the fruits,
nuts, and herbs used in creating grand dinners.
The Dinner Book is a wonderful window into the food, people, and activities of an early modern guild hall, listing as it does the foods served, the people paid, and the activities undertaken. In preparation for the feast dinner of 6 August 1571, for example, we learn that Treacle the Cook spent two days preparing the meal; that Mr Crowley preached for two days; that the Master Wardens’ wives sold the hall comfits and biscuits; that the grocer Henry Falks provided a substantial amount of luxury spices and dried fruit; and that the hall bought eighty pounds of butter from the market.
Thanks, Lisa! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.
In recent years the home has come to be the focus of multidisciplinary and cross-period inquiry, yet the kitchen, although seen as the ‘heart’ of the home in some places and periods, is still a relatively under-explored space. Studies of material culture, technology and domestic work all point to the kitchen’s wider social and cultural importance. Since the early modern period, kitchens have been a nexus of class interaction, and the place of domestic food production. Subsequently, studies of the kitchen have the potential to contribute to social and cultural histories of everyday life. This workshop brings together scholars researching the histories of the kitchen from a range of geographical and chronological perspectives.
The deadline for registration is Wednesday 11th January. For more details, including the programme and how to register please see:
In her last post on College of Physicians manuscript 10a214 (26/09/2013), Rebecca Laroche examined the collection’s attributions to one “Dnam Yelverton” to explore the varying statuses of women who contributed to the volume. This entry not only continues that line of exploration, but incorporates a new geographical twist that allows us to make some exciting new connections among the manuscript’s compliers.
Page 61 of the CPP manuscript contains three recipes, the first and third attributed to Mistress Wilmer of Bowe – “To cause to avoyde grauell” and “To driue away small pocks or measles.” The second recipe, which uses dead dead bees to provoke urine, is labeled as “per Eliza: Downing.”
While Mistress Wilmer is not the only contributor to be directly linked with a place, her association with Bowe is particularly interesting. After all, if it is fair to associate Bowe with the area of London once known as Stratford-at-Bow, then the geographical scope of our volume grows even wider. As we noted in an earlier post (20/06/2013), the parish of Hackney on London’s west side, as well as the town of Stamford, can already be associated with the manuscript.
Mistress Wilmer, however, adds to the network in a second, even more interesting way. According to Charles Wilmer Foster’s The History of the Wilmer Family, George Wilmer earned a degree at Cambridge, married Margery Thwenge before 1606, and resided at Stratford-le-Bow. George died in 1626, and Margery remarried prior to 1630.
George Wilmer’s will, however, is what offers us the most tantalizing connection to the CPP manuscript. The document’s fourth witness is one E. Layfield, whom Foster connects to Edmund Layfield, preacher at the nearby St. Leonards-Bromley. The will was proved on 26 May 1626, just short of three years before Layfield delivered a subsequently published sermon entitled The mappe of mans mortality and vanity at St. Leonards.
As Rebecca Laroche will show in the next post, Edmund Layfield is very likely the husband of Anne Layfield, who stakes the only direct claim to the CPP manuscript. The inscription “Anne Layfield, her Booke of Physicke and Surger, 1640” appears on the flyleaf, and, thanks to Mistress Wilmer, we can be more certain than ever as to the nature of the networks in which she moved.
But this connection between the Wilmers and the Layfields introduces new challenges as well. If, as we have been positing, the first section of the CPP manuscript, where Mistress Wilmer’s recipes appear, can be associated with Calybute Downing and his mother Elizabeth, how might they fit into the network? The Downings certainly must have enjoyed a connection to the Layfields, since the book eventually made it into Anne’s possession. The positioning of Mistress Wilmer’s recipes, however, suggest that the Downings must have had their own connection to her east end household, the exact nature of which remains to be uncovered.
The mappe of mans mortality and vanity. A sermon, preached at the solemne funerall of Abraham Iacob Esquire, in the church of St. Leonards-Bromley by Stratford-Bow. May. 8. 1629. By Edmund Layfielde Bachelour in Divinity, and preacher there.