The vicissitudes of pre-modern life invariably took their toll on the health and appearance of 18th-century Europeans; their faces were often riddled with smallpox scars, their teeth decaying, their gums caved in from lost teeth, their gait uneven from childhood rickets. One way both men and women could hide these defects was to wear a thick face of makeup. A very specific beauty ideal was common to European countries at the time, which often involved using highly toxic cosmetics. Recounting a visit to the theatre in 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described what would remain the fashion for the rest of the century: ‘all the ladies have…snowy foreheads and bosoms, jet eye-brows and scarlet lips’. The only thing she missed out was brilliantly red cheeks. So, how did men and women achieve this desirable look?
A white complexion
For centuries, the fashionable skin colour in Europe was palest white as it suggested wealth and idleness, rather than having to labour in the fields and get sunburnt. This pale look became even more pronounced in the 17th and 18th centuries as fashionable men and women increasingly resorted to artifice to make their complexion yet whiter.
A pasty face could be achieved by using one of the many face creams and washes which promised to whiten and bleach the skin. One advertisement for a ‘Chemical Wash’ promised to get rid of ‘all deformities…[such] as Ringworms, Morphew, Sunburn, Scurf, Pimples, Pits or Redness of the Smallpox, keeping [the skin] of lasting and extreme Whiteness’.
Rather more dangerously, people used heavy white foundations to achieve the desirable pale complexion. These were slathered over the face and bosom, and in order to heighten the effect, some ladies painted blue veins on their bosoms. The more harmless ingredients in white makeup preparations included rice powder, vinegar, hartshorn, gum arabic, and bismuth subnitrate (the latter still being used in modern paints). However, many of the most popular facial cosmetics included lead, as it had desirable opaque qualities. One toxic recipe for white face paint went as follows:
Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of [horse] manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can be pounded into a flaky white powder [chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white], grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.
Of course, the major downside of using lead-based makeup was that it proved highly poisonous to the wearer over time. Incredibly, people used it even though the effects of lead poisoning were pretty well known. Several English socialites actually died from lead poisoning this way, such as Maria, Countess of Coventry, who died of blood-poisoning in 1760 at the tender age of 27.
A white complexion was not, however, deemed complete without a very visible application of rouge. This could range from a large swathe of red from the eyes down to the mouth, to neat red circles in the middle of the cheeks. The most harmless rouge concoctions were made of vegetable matter. Rouges made in this way might contain sandalwood, brazilwood, safflowers, red wine, or carmine (derived from the cochineal insect).
Some of the most popular recipes for rouge were, however, like the lead-based white makeup, highly toxic. Many women used a vermilion-based rouge as it gave a particularly brilliant red colour; vermilion is made from the mineral cinnabar, also known as mercury sulphide! The author of the 1760 work The Art of Beauty warns against using cinnabar as a component of rouge, arguing that ‘it is very dangerous; for by using it frequently they may lose their teeth, acquire a stinking breath, and excite a copious salivation’. The author correctly identifies the effects of mercury poisoning, but goes on to recommend ‘a fine White Paint’ containing the equally poisonous lead!
Aside from the very real dangers posed by cosmetics containing large quantities of lead and mercury, white face paint and vivid rouges were disadvantageous in other ways. For one thing, they were susceptible to run off in stressful conditions, leaving the wearer looking rather ghastly. In Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel Evelina, the narrator says of a distressed Frenchwoman who had suffered an accident, that ‘her face was really horrible, for the pomatum and powder from her head, and the dust from the road, were quite pasted on her skin by her tears, which with her rouge made so frightful a mixture, that she looked hardly human’. Indeed, not everyone thought that rouge made a man or woman more attractive. The French critic Charles-Nicolas Cochin, writing in about 1750, opined that:
It is well known that rouge is nothing more than the mark of rank or wealth, because it cannot be supposed that anyone has thought to become more beautiful with this terrible crimson patch. It is surprising that such distinction has been attached to a colour so common and inexpensive that even the lowliest grisettes [working-class women] can make this expenditure as abundantly as a person of the highest birth.
The ideal 18th-century eyebrow was thin, half-moon shaped with tapered ends, and conspicuously dark. Eyebrows could be darkened with lead, kohl, burnt cork, elderberry juice, or the soot from oil lamps. If someone had lost their eyebrows from excessive plucking, they could always stick on a pair of false eyebrows made of mouse-skin. Satirists made much of this particular phenomenon: Jonathan Swift describes a woman’s ‘eyebrows from a mouse’s hide / Stuck on with art on either side’, and the poet Matthew Prior described in 1718 how: ‘HELEN was just dipt into bed / Her eye-brows on the toilet lay / Away the kitten with them fled / As fees belonging to her prey.’
Beauty patches, made of silk velvet, taffeta or satin and attached with glue, were fairly common in the 18th century. They served several purposes. Due to their dark colour, beauty patches heightened the contrast with artificially whitened skin, and were also very useful in covering up particularly noticeable smallpox scars. In fact, beauty patches developed a whole language of their own. At the French court, for instance, a beauty patch at the corner of the eye signified passion; one on the forehead was supposed to look majestic; and a patch on a dimple was considered playful. According to Joseph Addison in an early issue of The Spectator, the position of beauty patches in England could even be a symbol of political allegiance. He described the following scene at the Haymarket Theatre:
I could not but take notice of two parties of very fine women, that had placed themselves in the opposite side boxes, and seemed drawn up in a kind of battle array one against another! After a short survey of them, I found they were patched differently; the faces, on one had, being spotted on the right side of the forehead, and those upon the other on the left…Upon inquiry, I found that the body of Amazons on my right hand were Whigs and those on my left Tories…
The public attitude towards ‘painting’ one’s face was mixed. At the French court, no one would have been caught dead without a thick face of makeup, but England was more conservative, and the English generally thought it inappropriate for younger women to paint their faces. In Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda, we are supposed to feel pity and contempt for the aging socialite Lady Delacour when she tells the young eponymous heroine, ‘but you don’t paint – no matter – you will – you must – every body must, sooner or later’.
Many moralists condemned the practice of painting altogether. Society was more willing to forgive the foibles of the young, but was particularly vicious towards older ladies who resorted to paint and other beauty aids to hide their aging complexions. Lady Archer in particular came under much critical scrutiny for her continued application of heavy makeup as she grew older:
HER Ladyship’s figure has been for many years common to this metropolis, but the natural complexion of her face, is no more remembered, it having been so long disguised by cosmetic art, that flesh and blood seem not to form the least part of its composition. The art of painting, however, of brushing up an old decayed picture, is not the only art in which she excels…
Never…did any person labour more indefatigably to fill up the wrinkled deformities of nature, with the impotent remedies of art; but all is labour in vain, the remedy worse than the disease, it chiefly consisting of mercurial and a variety of pernicious ingredients, often inflicting palsies and other most fatal maladies: nor…does it ever answer the purpose intended, exciting disgust, instead of stimulating desire: a revolting melancholy instance of which, we have now before us—a PAINTED SEPULCHRE…
If it be men whom [women] aspire to please, if it be for them that they daub and varnish their complexions, I have collected the opinions of mankind, and I promise on the part of the great majority…that the use of paint renders women hideous and disgusting, that it withers and disguises them, that men hate as much to behold the female countenance thus plaistered, as to see false teeth in the mouth, or balls of wax in the jaw; that they decidedly protest against every artifice employed to disfigure the sex.
Anon., The New London Toilet (1778)
Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz, The Toilet of Flora (1772)
Charles Pigott, The Female Jockey Club, or, a Sketch of the Manners of the Age (1794)
J. Williams, The Art of Beauty: or, a Companion for the Toilet (1760)