Once upon a time, if women wanted to wear makeup on cold winter days, they were doomed to shivering. If they attempted to come close to the fire to warm themselves up, their waxy makeup would melt away. The horror! Something had to be done, and fire screens were invented. Placed near the fire, they allowed women to finally “save face” (that’s were this expression allegedly came from).
If you have ever visited an old historic house, especially in the United States, you have probably heard this tale. It’s a nice one, isn’t it? Too bad there isn’t any truth in it.
Makeup was rarely made of wax
Before the Roaring Twenties, in the US only actresses and prostitutes wore makeup. Creams and lotions may have been available in shops, but makeup had to be made at home. Few did, and even fewer used wax in their concoctions. They were more likely to include stuff like honey, eggs, almond oil, and lemon.
In Europe, wearing makeup was common among the upper classes. White pastes, usually made with lead, were applied all over the face to achieve that ghostly white look that let everyone know you didn’t have to work for a living. They were also used to hide the ravages of smallpox, although in the long run, they would only finish the job and ruin the face completely. Beeswax, instead, was usually only applied on the lips to give them some shine.
So, why were fire screens used then?
In a time without central heating, fireplaces were often the only way to warm a room. But they weren’t that effective. I still remember how cold my grandparents’ house was. When I was little, they used to live in old farm. The warmest room was the kitchen, where the fireplace was.
But its heat never reached the other end of the room. Didn’t even travel half-way there. If you wanted to keep warm, you needed to stand very close to the fire. But you were able to do so only for a few minutes at a time. The heat was too hot.
Too bad they didn’t have a fire screen. That would have easily solved the problem. By placing one between the fire and the people nearest to it, the heat would keep them warm without scorching their skin. But they didn’t prevent makeup from melting. Even if women had worn wax-based makeup, the heat was never that strong to melt it.
Although very useful, fire screens were rare. An expensive accessory, few could afford to spare the money for one. Those who could bought little works of art. Their fire screens were usually skilfully embroidered, doubling up as beautiful decorations for the home.
Had you ever heard of this myth?