1770: Husband disappointed by what lies under wife’s make-up


In the Georgian period, many well-to-do men became paranoid about women using make-up to embellish – or even conceal – their natural features. There were several apocryphal stories of men marrying statuesque and ravishing beauties, only to discover something much less appealing on the wedding night. One account comes from a letter-writer to The Spectator in 1711:

“No man was as enamoured as I was of her fair forehead, neck and arms, as well as the bright jet [black] of her hair… but to my great astonishment I find they were all the effect of art. Her skin is so tarnished with this practice that when she first wakes in the morning, she scarce seems young enough to be the mother of [the woman] I carried to bed the night before. I shall take the liberty to part with her at the first opportunity, unless her father will make her portion [dowry] suitable to her real, not her assumed countenance.”

These stories have given rise to one of the enduring historical myths of the period: the so-called Hoops and Heels Act. According to this story, the following bill was raised in the House of Commons in 1770 to prevent women from using costume and cosmetics to lure and entrap unsuspecting husbands:

“Be it resolved that all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgin maids or widows, that after the passing of this Act impose upon and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s male subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the laws now in force against witchcraft, sorcery and such like misdemeanours… and that the marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.”

A great number of historical texts claim this bill was raised in parliament and either voted down or passed into law. But the reality is that no evidence of it can be found in Hansard or sundry other records of parliamentary debate and voting.

Source: The Spectator, April 17th 1711. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1684: A recipe for ‘puppy water’ with ‘fasting spittle’


‘Puppy water’ was a rare but highly regarded cosmetic application in the early modern period. It was supposedly good for removing wrinkles, tightening and lightening the skin and eradicating blemishes. This recipe for ‘puppy water’ appeared in the Book of Receipts, an almanac of recipes and home cures published in 1684. The author was Mary Doggett, the wife of the popular Irish actor, comedian and raconteur Thomas Doggett. In addition to a young stout puppy, Mrs Doggett’s recipe called for “a pint of fasting spittle” (saliva collected from a person or persons who had not eaten for several days).

“Take one young fat puppy and put him into a flat still, quartered, guts and all, ye skin upon him… then put in a quart of new butter milk, two quarts of white wine, four lemons purely pared and then sliced, a good handful of fumatory and egremony, and three pennyworth of camphire, a pint of fasting spittle which you must gather into a bottle beforehand, a handful of plantine leaves, six pennyworth of ye best Venus turpentine prepared with red rosewater… Eighteen good pippins must be sliced in with ye puppy.”

Source: Mrs Mary Doggett, Book of Receipts, 1684. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

c.40AD: ‘Death to those who mention goats in my presence’


The Roman emperor Caligula (reigned 37-41AD) is well known for his alleged insanity and perversions, which included acts of incest with his sisters and fornication with numerous married women. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Caligula was also touchy about his appearance – particularly his bald spot and his excessive body hair:

“…Because of his bald head and the hairiness of his body, he announced that it was a capital offence should anyone either look down on him [from above] as he passed, or to mention goats in any context in the emperor’s presence…”

Source: Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, c.120AD. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1598: Get rid of unwanted hair with drowned frogs


Christopher Wirtzung was a prominent German physician of the late 16th century. Wirtzung’s medical guide, The General Practice of Physicke, was written in 1598. It was translated into English in 1619 and subsequently became popular in Britain. Much of Wirtzung’s medical advice is standard for its time. For example, Wirtzung attributes earache and deafness to “worms, fleas and little creeping things” that hatch and grow in the ears. To conceive a male child, Wirtzung suggests sprinkling one’s meat with a powder, made by drying and grinding:

“…the stone [testicle] of a bore hog being two years old, and the pizzle [penis] of a shag, shaven… two pairs of fox stones and 50 or threescore [60] sparrow brains… the pizzle of a bull and… cloves, saffron, nutmeg and rosemary.”

For women struggling with unwanted hair on the face or body, Wurtzel suggests the following homemade depilatory:

“Take a pint of wine, drown 20 green frogs therein, or as many as can be drowned therein, then set the pot 40 days in the warm sun… Afterwards strain it hard through a cloth, anoint the place therewith where you take away the hair…”

Source: Christopher Wurtzel, The General Practice of Physicke, 1598. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1837: Ladies, avoid study or risk losing your looks


The ‘handbook for ladies’ was a flourishing literary niche in the Victorian period. Two of its more prominent authors were Alexander Walker and his wife Mrs Alexander Walker (Mrs Walker’s own Christian name was never revealed). In 1837 Mrs Walker made her first foray into the genre with the lengthily titled Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress; and especially by the Adaptation, Colour and Arrangement of Dress as Variously Influencing the Forms, Complexion and Expression of Each Individual, Rendering Cosmetic Empositions Unnecessary. There was nothing too remarkable in most of Mrs Walker’s advice. She offered a range of tips on costume, cosmetics and hairstyle, to the “management of a thick waist”. In one chapter Mrs Walker complained bitterly about the use of neck frills. This fashion originated in France, she claims, because the necks of French women were:

“…long, black and skinny, and presents the horrible cordes au cou, or ‘stringy neck’, caused by passion, crying, shrieking, loud talking, etc.”

Mrs Walker also connected beauty to brains – or lack thereof. Several times she repeated the idea, common in the 19th century, that if women studied excessively then their looks would suffer. She urged women not to study male-dominated fields (“masculine studies”) because they may end up looking like men:

“…Immoderate development of the intellectual faculties cannot exist without… encroaching upon beauty and the graces.”

Source: Mrs Alexander Walker, Female Beauty &c., 1837. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.