Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, April 2, 2010

A Victorian Lady's Toilette, by Kathleen Bittner-Roth

Today I am pleased to welcome romance writer, Kathleen Bittner-Roth to History Undressed.  She is an up and coming romance writer who I'm eager to see in print!  I've been eageraly anticipating her article today, so without further ado, I give you...


The Victorian Era fascinates me because so many changes took place during that time—the advancement of women's rights, the industrial revolution, electricity, telephones, medical advancements, even flush toilets (first in France, then England. They were way ahead of the U.S.).

One thing that always attracts my attention is how the Victorian woman appeared so well kept. My grandmother, who had a lovely complexion, taught me to wash my face once a week with sugar to slough off dead skin (a very light scrub on a wet face, adding more pressure as it melts). She also taught me to use a facial of crushed strawberries, to occasionally rinse the hair in lemon juice to add highlights, and her list went on. I asked her where she learned her little tricks and she said her mother instructed her. A little backtracking placed my great-grandmother, born around 1854, smack in the Victorian era. My grandmother, born around 1885 reaped the benefits of her mother's teachings.

Victorian women believed in lots of fresh air and exercise in the form of walking and riding, for the specific purpose of keeping the complexion fortified, from the inside as well as the outside. They believed in walking in weather that produced a fine mist or light rain without a parasol and with the face to the rain. These women were quite specific in how they cared for themselves and kept diaries filled with recipes. In one of the diaries of a Victorian noble woman I ran across, she wrote about her belief in personal care this way:

"As long as we are not ethereal spirits, as long as we have to live as mortals, we should submit ourselves to our condition, doing all that is in our power to ameliorate it. And indeed cleanliness already brings us a step nearer to the angels of light while slovenliness, on the other hand, keeps us down in the depths of our original mire."

Imagine your mother reciting that very thing to you as a child; or how about you reciting this to your small daughters over and over! Cleanliness, it seemed, was also a moral and spiritual issue.

Beyond my grandmother's recipes, I began collecting others I found from the Victorian period. They believed in cleanliness inside and out. Lemon juice and water drunk in the morning and at night was one way of keeping the internal organs flushed and clean.

The toothbrush, such as we use today, was not invented until 1938 (by DuPont), but Victorian women did clean their teeth with toothbrushes made from boars hair or horse hair (horse hair was preferred because it was softer—mostly used by the wealthy). Although one could purchase toothpowders, they were usually made at home, as were mouth rinses. Salt, although rough on the gums, was used to clean teeth on occasion, but thought to be better used on men. Marseilles soap, a delicate soap made from olive oil, sea water and ash, which had been around for 500-600 years, and still available today, was used in the mouth 2-3 times a week. You might get a chuckle out of the following recipe for a tooth cleaner:

1. Phosphate of dry chalk...2 ounces

2. Powdered myrrh...8 grains

3. Iris powder...1 ounce

4. Mix together and add:

5. Solution of cocaine...1 drop (yes, you read this right)

6. Eucalyptus oil...13 drops

7. Mix together and strain. Excellent for sensitive teeth and tender gums

In their baths, Victorian women used pumice stones after a good soak and sloughed their skin with dry salt mixed with glycerin (I've paid a good price for the same type of thing at spas today). They used flowers from the lime tree in their orangeries in footbaths.

Hair was washed in many things, from bicarbonate of soda to salted rainwater mixed with an infusion of colocynth. Rinses were lemon juice, herbal mixtures and even beer to bring out the luster and body. Hair was cut ¼ inch at the new moon during the first quarter. It was believed they would never have split ends, nor would the hair be robbed of any vitality using this method. My grandmother left the new moon stuff out, but was faithful to the ¼ inch a month. She possessed the most beautiful red hair, wound about on her head until she was 80 years old.

Victorian women used nail polish, something that was invented by the Chinese some 2,000 years ago. They called it nail lacquer, and sorry, I don't have a recipe for that.

Care of the face was a delicate matter. It meant washing in rainwater exclusively. There were those who believed in hot water only, while others believed in closing the pores with cold water

One concoction that was used universally was orange flower and rosewater mixed with olive oil. Many believed that was all one needed for the face to remain soft and supple. Another recipe was equal parts of brandy and milk. I found this recipe to refresh the face:

1. wineglassful of fresh lemon-juice

2. pint of rain-water

3. five drops of rose-water

4. This should be kept corked, and used from time to time will preserve the colour of the skin.

There were many ways of making rouge, the most dangerous contained lead, but by far the best were those invented by the Chinese, made from diluted beet juice.

Last, but certainly of vital importance to a Victorian lady, was her lips. Here is a recipe for pomade which could usually be found in her reticule or on her dressing table:

1. Pure beeswax...2 parts

2. Olive oil...11 parts

3. Tincture of benzoin or roses...3 drops

4. Melt wax over slow flame, add oil. Mix and remove from heat. When cool enough, add perfume. Put in miniature tins, allow to set.

Well, there you have it. These are only a few of the recipes I have collected from the Victorian Era, the period in which I write. What about you, do you have any old recipes you'd care to contribute?

Kathleen Bittner Roth is a prepublished author who writes Historical Romance in the Victorian time period. Her website is www.kathleenbittnerroth.com


Undine said...

You didn't mention the scariest one of them all--arsenic. It was believed that taking small doses of it was a great beauty aid. It was also made into a face wash used to get rid of acne.

Talk about dying to be beautiful.

Lori Brighton said...

So interesting! I love it! It's funny how many of those ideas i still read about today in magazines. Just goes to show you, that in many instances, those Vic. women knew what they were talking about.

Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

Oh, sorry about neglecting the arsenic. Do you know they even had it in the wallpaper (and Victorians wallpapered everything) so they were inhaling it as well. I also forgot to mention that several years ago I visited a dermatologist who advised me to give up expensive creams and facials and led me on a much less expensive path...for a facial scrub he suggested sugar once a week! About fell over. Use it to this day.

Bombchell said...

wow such an interesting read. it's funny how things come in a circle, times when we look to the past to bring back old tricks in beauty. I see sugar scrubs in various stores.

wow at arsenic, then again I guess we have botox now :)

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Kathleen! I'm going to try the sugar scrub!!!


Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

What a great comparison...arsenic to botox. A hundred years from now people are going to be saying, "Can you believe what those women did back then?" As for the sugar scrub, the dermatologist said it has the natural ingredients of some kind of acid (as do the strawberries) that people are paying alot of money for. Put it on wet skin and don't scrub too hard at first. Then it will melt until it is a nice film and kind of leave that on a bit and then rinse off. Thanks for stopping by everyone.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Loved all the ideas, Kathleen. Interested especially the fingernail lacquer. I had made a mention of finternail polish in my western the other day and my critique partner asked me if they had it in 1853. Thanks for giving me the answer...

Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

I have a manuscript where the heroine paints her toenails and was asked by several judges in a contest if I hadn't checked my history. I have always been fascinated with the personal care side of history, so I knew the nail lacquer had been around awhile. Whenever I visit a catle, I always ask the tour guide, "so, where's the toilette?" Some look askance, but I have had others take us on a special tour. lol I digress.

EmilyBryan said...

Fascinating, Kathleen. I love these little tidbits about how people lived their daily lives.

Blythe Gifford said...

Not only arsenic, but lead. This may have been earlier, but I vaguely remember ladies using lead on their faces to disguise wrinkles. (!)

Allison Chase said...

Thanks for a delightful post and the sugar facial advice - I'm going to try it!

librarypat said...

Sorry, no recipes for victorian era beauty products. I question the rouge made from beet juice. I have grown beets in my garden for years and when washing and cutting them up, you get beet juice on your hands. It is a dark red initially, but stains. It turns a brownish black with time and is impossible to get off. It has to wear off. Maybe they used a very diluted solution.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

Yes, a highly diluted form of beet juice, one drop to every 20 parts of orange flower water. This quote is from a Victorian lady's diary: "The Chinese have, however, discovered an inoffensive rouge, made of the diluted juice of beet- root, with which they redden their cheeks."

And yes, lead. No ownder there was Bedlam!

Bearded Lady said...

great post. I love these old victorian recipes. The beet juice was diluted with fats and talc or cornstarch. If you diluted it, then I can see this working nicely.

I don't know any nail recipes off the top of my head either but I do know that they used an old Turkish beauty secret to color their nails - henna. I used to love henna when I was a kid because you could change your hair color without damaging it. Today, I need something a bit stronger for those stubborn grays. Sigh.

Camille said...

That is so interesting. I love it! Thank you, Kathleen, for sharing it with us :) I'm definitely going to try the sugar scrub.

Have you heard of a book about this subject? That would be really interesting to go into every detail and receipe of the Victorian lady's toilette. Your article made my mouth water (if one can say so speaking of this subject... but we're talking of sugar and strawberries, so... :)) !

Cleopatra's Boudoir said...

Hi, great post, I think you will be very interested in my blog The Ladies Compendium, Bath & Beauty Recipes from Antiquity to the Edwardian Era. http://www.ladiescompendium.webs.com

Thanks again for a great post, I am glad to see I am not the only one interested in these old recipes! LOL


Anonymous said...

I was writing a western; now, two after the trinket girl in the first demanded her own book. Telling me the hero was boring; just shooting Indians, card cheats and back shooters. After all Big Boy, dealing with being preggy in 1881 was much more interesting than all that. Well, she will do anything for a friend. Murder, or worse is what she gives her enemies.
I needed then the tools of a Victorian beauty. The sugar trick is something I can use. With proper detail, gives the time and distant morality and it's lack.
Thanks for the help.

MissOlean said...

By chance do know what color nail lacquer was most common?

Anonymous said...

I had never heard of ladies using nail lacquer. One trick that I have used myself for blush is geranium petals.

Gibson Girl Edwardian Fashion said...

@MissOlean: colored nail lacquer was not used at this time. However, ladies did use tinted nail powders to buff the nails (they added a pink tone) or would rub their face rouge onto their nails to tint them red.

I have a blog at http://gibsonglamor.blogspot.com which has a focus on late victorian and edwardian era beauty including beauty recipes, you might find some more information there.

Stephanie Carroll said...

What an awesome resource. Thanks for having this amazing guest post.