Category Archives: Vanity

1764: Keep skin white by boiling down “four little dogs”

It is common knowledge that in the 18th-century, aristocratic and wealthy bourgeois women smothered their faces with whiteners and rouges. In some circles, it was considered scandalous to appear in public under-powdered or even unpowdered, such as Lady Ilchester did when she attended the opera in 1777.

The custom was even more exaggerated in France, where the madams and mademoiselles attempted to outdo each other with alabaster-white faces, fluorescent red rouges and enormous beauty spots. Many of these cosmetics, of course, contained substances now known to be poisonous: ceruse (white lead), cinnabar (red mercury) and other substances thick with arsenic or sulphur.

Doctors of the mid-1700s, alert to the dangers of excessive make-up, came up with a radical new beauty regimen – simply washing the face and keeping it clean – but this was slow to catch on. In 1764 Antoine Hornot, a distiller to the royal family and a prolific writer, offered his own recipe for keeping the skin healthy and pale using only natural ingredients:

“A distillation of four calves’ feet, two dozen egg whites and eggshells, a calf’s cheek, one chicken skinned alive, a lemon, a half-ounce of white poppy seeds, half a loaf of bread, three buckets of goats milk and four little dogs, one or two days old.”

Source: Antoine de Hornot (writing as M. Dejean), Traitee des Odeurs, 1764. 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.1320: Cure baldness with year-old pot-roasted mice

A Celtic medical manuscript, written in Irish Gaelic and dating to the early 14th century, offers several animal-based cures for common illnesses and conditions. To bring an end to paralysis:

“Take a fox with his pelt and with his innards. Boil him well till he part from his bones… the patient’s body being first well scoured, bath the limbs or even the whole person in [the fox’s] brew.”

The manuscript also contains instructions for a medieval hair restorer. If rubbed regularly into a bald head, this substance will produce instant hair growth – but it must be handled with care:

“With mice, fill an earthen pipkin [pot]. Stop the mouth with a lump of clay and bury beside a fire, but so as the fire’s great heat reach it not. So be it left for a year, and at a year’s end take out whatsoever may be found therein. But it is important that he who shall lift it have a glove upon his hand, lest at his fingers’ ends the hair [will] come sprouting out”

Source: Celtic medical manuscript, c.1320; cited in Medicine in Ancient Erin, 1909. 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.

1899: Navy officer slammed for kissing 163 women

Richmond Hobson, ‘hero of the Merrimac‘ and sex symbol of the 1890s

Richmond P. Hobson (1870-1937) was an American naval officer. Born and raised in rural Alabama, Hobson enrolled at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis at age 14. In 1889 he graduated top of his class, though Hobson’s rigid discipline and dislike of both alcohol or tobacco made him unpopular with classmates.

When war broke out between the US and Spain, Hobson was sent to Cuba. In May 1898, he was ordered to seize control of a coal ship, the Merrimac, and scuttle it in the harbour mouth at Santiago – an attempt to trap Spanish ships inside the harbour. Hobson did manage to sink the Merrimac but not accurately enough to block the harbour mouth; he and his men were captured and detained by the Spanish.

Though Hobson’s mission had failed, the jingoistic American press presented it much differently. Hobson was hailed as the “hero of the Merrimac“; his courage and daring had thwarted the Spanish. Newspapers carried stories of his bravery and portraits of the dashing young officer, who became a celebrity and a sex symbol, even as he remained a prisoner-of-war.

Hobson was released later in 1898 and repatriated to the United States. He made a series of public appearances, most of which were flooded with eager young ladies. But these public audiences produced “shocking spectacles” that led to Hobson’s fall from grace with the press:

“The scene in the Chicago Auditorium, when Lieutenant Hobson was kissed by 163 morbid women, was loathsome. It is deplorable. It is sad that a man of his excellent courage and fine intelligence should so far forget the dignity of the American navy as to lend himself to a public exhibition of female hysteria… We shall never tire of boasting of his nerve and his unflinching devotion to duty; but no one is likely ever to hear us boasting about his modesty or his good taste.”

Reports were also scathing about the young women who rushed to kiss the “hero of the Merrimac“:

“We have no doubt they are heartily ashamed of themselves. They ought to be, at any rate.”

Hobson remained in the Navy, reaching the rank of captain, before resigning in 1903. The following year he was elected to the House of Representatives, serving there until 1916. In 1933 he received the Medal of Honour and a special pension for his exploits aboard the Merrimac.

Source: Pullman Herald, January 21st 1899. 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.

1842: American girls eat paper to get pale

James Silk Buckingham (1786-1855) was an English politician, social reformer and travel writer. Born in Cornwall, Buckingham joined the Royal Navy as a teenager and saw combat in the 1790s. In the 1820s, he became a world traveller, spending years in the Middle East and North Africa before taking up residence in India.

After serving one term as Member of Parliament for Sheffield (1832-37), Buckingham resumed his travels, this time in North America. His observations of the United States were published in a three-volume set in 1842. In the third volume, Buckingham claimed that many American girls would eat paper to acquire pale skin:

“Young ladies at school, and sometimes with their parents, will resolve to become extremely pale, from a notion that it looks interesting. For this purpose, they will substitute for their natural food, pickles of all kinds, powdered chalk, vinegar, burnt coffee, pepper and other spices, especially cinnamon and cloves. Others will add to these paper, of which many sheets are sometimes eaten in a day… this is persisted in till the natural appetite for wholesome food is superseded by a depraved and morbid desire for everything but that which is nutritious… Such practices as these, added to the other causes… sufficiently account for the decayed and decaying state of health among the female population of the United States.”

Source: James S. Buckingham, America: The Eastern and Western States, vol.3, 1842. 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.

1799: Elizabeth Drinker has her first bath for 28 years

Elizabeth Drinker (1734-1807) was a Philadelphia wife, mother and prolific diarist, keeping a chronicle that spanned almost 50 years. In 1761 she married Henry Drinker, a prosperous Quaker merchant. Together they had nine children, five of whom survived into adulthood.

Henry Drinker was fond of two things: bathing and keeping up appearances. In June 1798, he followed the example of other well-to-do Philadelphians and had a bathhouse erected in his backyard. This outbuilding cost him almost five pounds, a large sum for the time. It featured a wooden floor, a deep tin bath and a new-fangled shower head, powered by a hand pump.

The new addition proved popular with the Drinker household as Henry, his children and the family’s servants all took to bathing regularly. Elizabeth Drinker, however, was not so keen. She did not use the bath until July 1st 1799, more than 12 months later, writing that:

“I bore it better than I expected, not having been wet all over at once for 28 years past.”

The recollection of her last bath was accurate: it can be traced by to June 30th 1771, when the family was visiting Trenton, New Jersey:

“[Henry] went into the bath this morning… Self went this afternoon into the bath, I found the shock much greater than expected.”

Elizabeth visited the Trenton bathhouse again two days later but “had not courage to go in”. While Mrs Drinker did not like taking baths, she was not averse to forcing them on her servants. In October 1794 she reported that the family’s slave, “black Scipio”, had acquired lice. She ordered that Scipio be:

“…stripped and washed from stem to stem, in a tub of warm soap suds, his head well lathered and (when rinsed clean) a quantity of spirits poured over it. [We] then dressed him in girl’s clothes until his own could be scalded.”

Elizabeth did eventually become more comfortable with using the bathhouse. In August 1806, she reported taking a bath – after which the entire household followed her, all using the same water:

“I went into a warm bath this afternoon, H.D. [Henry] after me because he was going out, Lydia and Patience [the Drinkers’ maids] went into the same bath after him, and John [Henry’s manservant] after them. If so many bodies were cleansed, I think the water must have been foul enough.”

Source: Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, June 30th 1771; July 1st 1771; October 2nd 1794; July 1st 1799; August 6th 1806. 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.