Assistants of Beauty



2. The composition of cosmetics

Apparently the only kind of make-up were white and red paint - either as a powder or mixed with a pomad. The recipes speak of powder most of the time, probably because creams tend to go bad without preservatives or cooling - neither was available at the time. Powder doesn't go bad, but storage and handling aren't all that convenient. Ever sneezed while sitting in front of a pot of powder, or dropped one? Therefore, white paints were mixed with a bonding agent (traganth), rolled into little balls and dried. When you wanted to use it, you ground the balls in a mortar.

With the exception of talc white (powdered mineral), white paints were made of metal oxydes. They're at the root of the bad image that 18th century cosmetics now have: The harmless pigments (e.g. talc white) don't cover very well, and better-covering pigments such as zinc oxyde and titanium oxyde had not yet been discovered. So people turned to pigments made of poisonous metals. High on the list is lead white, but also bismuth white and mercury white. Pewter white is introduced (by my source) as harmless, while the author warns off bismuth, "because it really spoils the skin and turns black under sunlight". Lead white "is also bad for the skin if used often, but in some cases it is useful; e.g. a pomad with lead white serves to remove spots from the face". Even in 1805, the author - a chemist by the way - apparently hasn't grasped the true danger that lies in the poisonousness of these substances.

Red paints took the place of modern rouge. They, too, usually came as powders. Pure red powder is too brilliant to use as is, so it was often mixed with white powder before use. This latter variety could also be mixed with traganth, put into little pots and dried. Red paints were applied with a brush; first a paler nuance, then a darker one on top of it so that one bled smoothly into the other.

Red paints seem to have been Mostly Harmless (TM*) as there were enough "natural" pigments, e.g. safflower, cochenille, brazilwood, sandalwood. However, red paints were often mixed with cinnabar and other pigments, some of them probably not quite so harmless.

In addition, there were red, yellow and white lip gloss and mouches. Apparently there was nothing in the way of eyeshadow, mascara and skin-colour foundations, not even skin powder. Slightly glossy skin was actually desirable. There are recipes for "poudre", but they come in white, grey and blond - in other words, wig and hair powder. The book doesn't say so, but would you put grey or blond powder on your skin? Moreover, the powder recipes are between those for aromatic oils for perfuming the hair, and hair dyes.

Pomads were, similar to modern selfmade creams, made of various fats or oils, beeswax or spermaceti as hardening agent, and a relatively small amout of water, often perfumed. The fats used in the book that was my source are butter, lard, almond oil, and cocoa butter. In comparison to modern creams, the water content tends to be lower in pomads, so the stuff is a bit oilier and softer. Small wonder, really, because cream must be stirred until it's cooled, which isn't much fun without an electric mixer.


*) Terry Pratchett



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