The Faces Behind the Masks: The "Toilette" in 18th Century England

Many people have the idea that the eighteenth century was a romantic period, full of adventure and alive with cultural changes and discoveries. Few look past the beautiful clothes and the fastidious application of cosmetics, though the reality of personal hygene and health was completely opposite to people's outward appearances.

While the Black Plague had ceased to decimate Europe by this time, many diseases still ran rampant from a lack of suitable medication and sanitation practices. Smallpox was a particularly virulent disease that left all survivors with pock-marks on their skin --- deep pits created by pustules drying out and scarring the epidermis. This disease is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why almost everyone who wanted to be fashionable wore a lot of makeup in order to hide the scars.

Step One to A Beautiful Complexion

The picture on the left shows a "patch-box", in which pieces of silk, taffeta, or even leather were applied to the face with an adhesive in order to hide the pock-marks. These were considered to be quite fashionable at the time, and were often dyed brilliant colors. (Gunn, 113.)

Other people who did not want to wear patches on their faces to hide skin disfigurement would use a thick coat of face powder to make their complexions look white and smooth. Unfortunately, the base element in face powder that made people's faces look so pale was not the talc that we use today, but finely flaked lead ! For the full, tantalizing recipe for Lead Face Powder, click here. (WARNING: Do not recreate this at home! Lead is easily absorbed by the body and has the side effects of severe head pain, nausea, dizziness, bowel problems, blindness, and, if large enough amounts have been ingested, paralyzation or even death.) (Gunn, 110.)

Many a young lady's death in the 1700's can be attributed not only to poor sanitation in English towns and cities, but also to their avid use of harmful cosmetics.

Applying Finishing Touches to One's Face

Rouge was another favorite cosmetic. Its name is derived from the French word for "red." Like the popular white face powder, rouge was created from questionable ingredients, including carmine (a lead-based pigment.) People used rouge with wet bits of wool to daub fashionable red spots on their cheeks --- the general idea was that it made an aesthetically pleasing contrast to one's pale, powdered face. (Gunn, 115.)

Rouge was also available as a lipstick for both men and women. Sticks of solid rouge were created by mixing carmine with plaster of Paris (the material used by children today to make molds of their feet in art classes.) (Gunn, 115.)


Attending to One's Hair

Besides their complexion, women in the 1700's subjected their hair to various tortures, the least of which was powdering their hair after curling it with hot tongs and applying lard as the base to which the powder would stick. Fashion demanded that women have big, complicated hairstyles with which to complement their clothing. Many women resorted to wearing hairpieces and wigs to add "volume" to their hair. Since many of these were difficult to attach and sculpt on a daily basis, women often had their hair done (curled, larded, powdered, and then adorned with small flowers and feathers) once every few weeks and leave it unwashed so it would stay that way. (Gunn, 116.)

Not surprisingly, these ladies suffered from a lot of scalp problems. Infestations of lice and/or fleas were common enough even among those who did not --- or could not afford to --- enjoy such an extensive cosmetic procedure. Those wealthier ladies who let themselves be the willing victims of fashion often found mice nesting in their hair because the lard had attracted their hungry attention.(Gunn, 117.)

The Kinder Side of Beauty Aids

Fortunately, not all beauty remedies in the 18th century had harmful side effects. While baths were taken far and few between, people did wash themselves. (Soapholder on left.) They usually used home-made soaps and tonics that used ingredients that were easy to find in the garden or in a field somewhere, and everyone doused themselves with large amounts of perfume in an effort to keep away not only bad odor, but also what they believed caused sicknesses.

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(Gunn, 117, Fig 21.)


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