Lola Montez was among those crusading for better, less harmful, and more natural ingredients in makeup during the mid-nineteenth century.
The beauty products women used to achieve this effect were largely homespun. Working-class women and those living in rural areas would have grown the ingredients required to prepare potions for lightening skin themselves, or bought them from passing peddlers and salesmen. Recipes for making these mixtures were kept by local wisewomen or passed down through families. Medieval writers documented the use of skin lighteners and brighteners with recipes that included chickpeas, barley, almonds, horseradish seeds, and milk all pretty harmless. It’s ironic that those with fewer means would have been forced through necessity to use ingredients for their homemade beauty treatments that were a lot kinder to the skin than the lead-based alternatives that continued to be available. In terms of beautiful skin, it paid to be poor. That being said, these DIY creations still required a huge investment of time and some pretty obscure-sounding components. You could be forgiven for thinking that this recipe from the Trotula was something Harry Potter had to whip up in a potions class:
For whitening the face, take root of bistort and clean it, and root of cuckoo-pint. Grind them in a mortar with animal grease and mix them with warm water, and strain through a cloth. And afterward stir well and thus let it sit all night. And in the morning gently remove the water, pouring in fresh water; water made from honeysuckle as well as from roses is the best thing for this. You should do this for five days. This is done to repress the herbs ‘ harsh properties lest they cause lesions to the face. On the sixth day, having thrown out the water, expose to the sun and let it dry, and afterward take three parts of white lead and one part of camphor, and one dram each of borax and gum arabic. We dissolve the borax in rose water, rubbing it between the hands. All these we mix in rose water. Note that when you wish to whiten the face, take from this mixture a quantity the size of a bean and mix it with cold water, and rubbing a little between the hands, with both hands we anoint the face, but first we should wash the face with water and soap. Then we sprinkle the face with cold water, and we place on it a very delicate cloth; this should be done either in the morning or in the evening. And note that it lasts three days or four.13
Throughout Europe, from the Dark Ages to the Golden Age, snow-white skin continued to be the epitome of beauty during the Renaissance. Idealized images of women (created, it’s worth noting, by male artists) in paintings, frescoes, and sculptures tell us a huge amount about the period’s beauty ideals and aspirations. Women in European paintings from this time are voluptuous, with ivory skin, often offset by deep red lips and flushed cheeks which, in reality, would have to have been created by the use of cosmetics, yet the obvious application of face paint was considered to be dishonest. As well as the ubiquitous lead paste, arsenic, and mercury, raw egg whites were employed to prime the skin, topped with whitening pastes to create a lacquer-effect foundation.
Although physicians cautioned women on the danger of some of the ingredients, and the Church of England considered cosmetics to be the work of the devil, women continued to aspire to virginal white, applying lethal ceruse as foundation to the face and decolletage, with some rather unpleasant side effects:
The ceruse or white Lead, wherewith women use to paint themselves was, without doubt, brought in use by the divell, the capitall enemie of nature, therwith to transforme humane creatures, of fair, making them ugly, enormious and abominable . . . a man might easily cut
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