Make-up Techniques in the 18th-Century.

Submitted by Hazel Dickfoss

It has only been during the 20th century that most of the population have had the resources to alter their faces by using cosmetics. During the 18th century this ability was only affordable for those with the finances to pay for such a luxury. It was a time when your outward physical appearance instantly revealed your background and standing in the community.

The majority of the population hailed from the lower, working classes who hardly earned enough for basic necessities let alone for a luxury such as cosmetics. Faces were pock-marked by small pox, mis-shapened by venereal disease; tooth loss caused sunken cheeks and generally the lower classes had an overall weary and prematurely old appearance due to their poor diet, heavy drinking and disease. The abundance of facial scars and blemishes was so common as to have not been a cause for comment where the folks from the upper classes could afford the niceties to conceal their blemishes not only by using cosmetics but with the fashionable black patches made of silk and taffeta.

Even among the rich only a few had the wealth to care about their appearance and fewer still cared about fashion so to be overly concerned with being fashionable while portraying a woman of the army would be totally incorrect. Survival was a camp woman's all consuming lot in life consequently visible make-up is out of place on the face of most of the women living in camp as it would have been for working class town dwellers also

On the other hand if your biography is that of an officer's wife or a "lady" plying the oldest of professions, cosmetics would be appropriate. Face powders to make the complexion appear very white was the fashion of the day, applied not only on the face but extending down over the bosom as any sun tan was only for those who labored in the fields. Among the ingredients used in the powders were lead and mercury, dangerous and lethal when applied constantly. The basic ideal of a beautiful face was described by Sir Henry Beaumont in Crito; or A Dialogue on Beauty (1752) "the forehead should be white, smooth and open. The skin in general should be white, properly tinged with red with apparent softness and a look of thriving health in it. The cheeks should not be wide; should have a degree of plumpness, with the red and white finely blended together. The eyebrows, well divided, rather full than thin, semi-circular broader in the middle than a the ends. The mouth should be small, and the lips not of equal thickness. A truly pretty mouth is like a Rose-bud that is beginning to grow...."

In contrast to the very white complexion the cheeks and lips were excessively rouged due to the poor quality of the product making application difficult. Eye make-up was not used but the eyebrows were darkened or thickened using mouse skins. Cheek plumpers of cork or leather were inserted too.

Today it is said that you must suffer to be beautiful and the upper class lady of the 18th century certainly did, so be happy that most of us portraying the ordinary (or not so ordinary) woman of the army do not have to trouble ourselves with make-up. However the complexions of modern women are all together too clear for an accurate picture of a woman in camp, the best we could do is to blacken some of our teeth to show the tooth loss most of us would not want to sport all the pimples and pock-marks of our predecessors.

A typical 18th-century recipe for preparing cosmetics at home.

This is one recipe that really sounds like one we would use today.

Fard (face pack).
Take two ounces of oil of sweet almonds, ditto of spermaceti: melt them in a pipkin over a slow fire. When they are dissolved and mixed, take it off the fire, and stir into it one table-spoonful of fine honey. Continue stirring till it is cold; and then it is fit for use.

This useful paste is good for taking off sunburnings, effects of weather on the face, and accidental cutaneous eruptions. It must be applied at going to bed. First wash the face with its usual ablution, and when dry, rub this fard all over it, and go to rest with it on the skin. This is excellent for almost constant use.

Illustration and information were taken from a booklet produced by the Museum of London called Faces (1986) to accompany Let's Face It a special exhibition about the history of Cosmetics. Text by Amanda Herries & Geoffrey Marsh, edited by Valerie Cumming.