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.”