Most women like to read Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire. I like to read La Belle Assemble, a British women’s magazine published from 1806 to 1837. It featured poetry, short stories and serialized novels, book and theatre reviews, fashion plates, and non-fiction articles on all kinds of topics from science to politics, from household matters to beauty.
While browsing the December 1807 edition, I stumbled on an article about the cosmetics used at the time. The author begins by making a case about why cosmetics should be used, and then discusses two of the most used products of the time, Balsam of Mecca and Virgin Milk. The article is quite long, and written in an old-fashioned style, but it is still very interesting and I hope you will enjoy it too:
Of the Cosmetics used for the purpose of beautifying the Skin
Under the general term of cosmetics are comprehended all the expedients invented to preserve its beauty or to correct its defects. All the processes which are used to embellish the skin, to soften it, to maintain its freshness and lustre, to give colour to the complexion, to prevent or efface wrinkles, to whiten or clean the teeth, to stain the hair and the eye-brows— all these processes, I say, form a part of the numerous class of cosmetics. In this chapter we shall treat only of such as immediately relate to the embellishment of the skin.
Many people may perhaps he disposed to ask,—ought cosmetics to he used at all?
Some authors having demonstrated the inefficacy of many cosmetics, and even the dangerous tendency of others, have thought fit to proscribe them all; they have, therefore, pronounced a severe sentence upon them. Among the rest, certain medical men have adopted this opinion, and because some of the compositions admitted to the toilette of the ladies were either useless or dangerous, they bare concluded that none ought to he used, and that water alone might be substituted with advantage in the place of them all.
It is certainly unjust to draw general conclusions from individual facts. Would these same learned doctors proscribe all medicines, because some of them are dangerous? Ought we to renounce the aid of all physicians, became some of them kill their patients? Certainly not; let us choose the best physicians, the best medicines, and the best cosmetics. But to come to a point.
If there were nothing to do but to oppose authority to authority, I could find an infinite number of writers, ancient and modern, who have recommended the use of the means which art has enabled us to discover, to embellish nature. One of them has not thought it unworthy of the medical science to devote his attention to the care necessary for either preserving or repairing beauty, and has left us a work on that subject.
Another more modern author has observed, “that the skin, resembling a spider’s web in texture, is susceptible of the slightest impressions; to moisten, to nourish, to polish it with cosmetic pomatums, mucilages, detergent and bitter ointments, is perfectly suited to its nature.”
I find in the work of a third, that beauty cannot exist without the concurrence of the means which ensure the preservation of health. At the same time it requires particular cares; it must be improved, and I might even say, cultivated, for this brilliant production of civilization and luxury does not appear with all its attributes and all its charms in the wild state nor under the influence of laborious professions or chilling penury.
On this subject I could produce a hundred authorities for one on the opposite side; but of what use are authorities when facts themselves speak? Has not every one of us an opportunity of observing the astonishing difference which exists between females who bestow constant and judicious care on the preservation of their beauty, and those who neglect to cultivate their charms? If a fortunate change of circumstances enable a young female of limited means, who scarcely attracted any observation, to attend to the minute details of the toilette, we in a short time behold a new beauty expand in her. How many village girls, with charms somewhat rustic and figures rather coarse, have by means of a residence in the city, and the use of the toilette, presented us with the brilliant spectacle of the most astonishing metamorphosis. And to what cause are these prodigies owing? To the use of cosmetics.
It was thus I beheld the celestial beauty of Sophia dawn forth. It was thus I beheld her charms arrive at the most enchanting perfection. Sophia has now attained her eighteenth spring, and she is an elegant and delicate nymph. Her dark and coarse complexion has acquired lustre and whiteness; her lips, at the same time that they have become more delicate, have assumed the colour of coral; her arm is finely turned, and her hands are as soft I as satin.
It is unnecessary to expatiate further on the utility of cosmetics. Let us now present the ladies with an account of those which have the best claim to their confidence and attention.
BALSAM OF MECCA.
The balsam of Mecca, which is likewise called balsam of India, white balsam of Constantinople, balsam of Egypt, balsam of Grand Cairo, and opobalsamum, is a liquid resin of a whitish colour approaching to yellow, with a strong smell resembling that of a lemon, and a pungent and aromatic taste.
It is one of the most highly esteemed cosmetics, but it is very dear, and extremely difficult to be procured genuine. What is sold by the name of balsam of Mecca at London and Paris, is made by the perfumers at those cities. “It is,” says MA. Mongez, in the Memoirs of the National Institute, “a mixture of the finest turpentine with aromatic oils, whose aroma approaches nearest to that of the genuine balsam. These imitations sell at the rate of twenty-five to thirty-five shillings an ounce, whereas the same quantity of the real balsam of Mecca cannot be procured for less than four guineas.”
It is very certain that the balsam of Mecca manufactured in the west of Europe possesses none of the qualities of the genuine balsam; it would therefore be desirable to know how to distinguish them. The following method hat been pointed out by a person who has visited at Constantinople. Pour a drop into water, and put into this drop an iron knitting-necdle, If the whole of the drop of balsam adheres to the needle, this proves that it has not been adulterated. To ascertain the degree of dependence that is to be placed on this kind of proof, it is necessary to have some of the balsam which we arc well assured is genuine.
The ladies of Constantinople, and those of Asia and Egypt hold the opobalsamum in the highest request, and use it to render the skin white, soft and smooth.
The women of the east slightly anoint their hands and face with it at night when they go to bed; next morning minute scales are detached from the skin in every part on which this precious balsam has operated. This renovation of the skin renders it incomparably white.
The Egyptian females make use of it in a different manner. The dark colour of their complexion, it is true, requires a stronger dose. It is at the bath that they anoint themselves with this balsam. They remain in the bath till they are very warm; they then anoint the face and neck, not slightly like the women of the East, but with an ample and copious ablution, rubbing themselves till the skin has imbibed the whole. They then remain in the bath till the skin is perfectly dry; after which they remain three days with the face and neck impregnated with the balsam. On the third day, they again repair to the bath and go through the same process. This operation they repeat several times for the space of a month, during which they take care not to wipe the skin.
The European ladies who have an opportunity of procuring a quantity of this valuable balsam, are more frugal of it; they seldom use it pure, but mix it with other similar substances, and compose a cosmetic balsam which is thought to possess considerable efficacy in preserving the beauty of the skin. The best method of making it is as follows ;—
Take equal parts of balsam of Mecca and oil of sweet almonds, recently extracted. Mix those drugs carefully in a glass mortar, till they form a kind of ointment, to three drams of which, previously put into a matrix, pour six ounces of spirit of wine. Leave it to digest till yon have extracted a sufficient tincture. Separate this tincture from the oil, and put one ounce of it into eight ounces of the flowers of beans, or others of a similar kind, and you will have an excellent, milky cosmetic.
Others make with it a kind of virgin-milk. For this purpose it is sufficient to dissolve the balsam of Mecca in spirit of wine, or Hungary water; then put a few drops of this solution into lily-water.
The balsam of Mecca, notwithstanding its great reputation has been decried by some. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu describes it as having agreed very ill with her. In a letter written by her at Belgrade, near Constantinople to one of her female friends in London, she says:—” As to the balsam of Mecca, I will certainly send you some; but it is not so easily got as you suppose it, and I cannot in conscience advise you to make use of it. I know not how it comes to have such universal applause. All the ladies of my acquaintance at London and Vienna have begged me to send pots of it to them. I have had a present of a small quantity (which, I assure you, is very valuable,) of the best sort, and with great joy applied it to my face, expecting some wonderful effect to my advantage.
The next morning, the change indeed was wonderful; my face was swelled to a very extraordinary size, and all over as red as my Lady H——s. It remained in this lamentable state three! days,’ during which you may be sure I passed my time very ill. I believed it would never be otherwise.; and to add to my mortification, Mr. W–y reproached my indiscretion without ceasing. However my face is since in status quo; nay, I am told by the ladies here that it is much mended by the operation, which I confess I cannot perceive in my looking-glass. Indeed if one was to form an opinion of tint balm from their faces, one should think very well of it. They all make use of it and have the loveliest bloom in the world. For my part I never intend to endure the pain of it again; let my complexion take its natural course, and decay iu its own due time.”
Notwithstanding this mishap which befel Lady Montagu, and which might be owing to a variety of causes, it cannot be denied that the balm of Mecca is used with advantage by the most beautiful women, and that the Turkish ladies, who all make use of it, have, as her ladyship justly observes, the loveliest bloom in the world.
This cosmetic is not a milk, though it bears that appellation. This unmeaning name has been given to several liquids of a very different nature, rendered milky, that is, opaque sod whitish, by means of a light precipitate formed and suspended in them.
I have observed that the appellation of virgin-milk has been given to liquids widely differing in their nature, and this assertion I shall maintain. Is it not, indeed, ridiculous, that under the same name one perfumer shall give me an innocent cosmetic and another a noxious drug, or that I may receive both at different times from the same perfumer? For this reason I would exhort the ladies to compose their virgin-milk themselves, which would be the easiest thing in the world.
The virgin-milk which is in mostgeneral use, and is the most salutary, is a tincture of gum-benjamin precipitated by water.
To-obtain the tincture of benjamin take a certain quantity of that gum, pour spirit of wine upon it, and boil it till it becomes a rich tincture.
Virgin-milk is prepared by pouring a few drops of this tincture into a glass of water, which produces a milky mixture.
This virgin-milk, if the face be washed with it, will give a beautiful rosy colour. To render the skin clear and brilliant, let it dry upon it without wiping.
This tincture of benjamin is likewise recommended for removing spots, freckles, pimples, eresypelations, eruptions, &c.; but its efficacy is very doubtful, or rather, for the truth ought to he spoken, it is incapable of producing any effect in these cases. We shall give in another place directions for preparing more powerful remedies.
The following kinds of virgin-milk are rather more active in their effects :—
1- Take equal parts of gum-benjamin and storax, dissolve them in a sufficient quantity of spirit of wine, which will assume a reddish colour, and emit a very disagreeable smell. Some add to it a small quantity of balm of Mecca; pour a few drops into very pure common water. The ladies make use of it with success for washing their faces.
2- Pound some house-leek in a marble mortar, express the juice and clarify it. When you want to make use of it, pat a small quantity of it into a glass, and pour upon it a few drops of spirit of wine; the mixture instantly forms a kind of curdled milk, exceedingly efficacious for rendering the skin smooth, and removing pimples.
3- Take an ounce of rock alum and an ounce of sulphur reduced to a very line powder, put the whole into a quart bottle, and add to it a pint of rose-water. Shake these substances for half an hour, which will give the water the appearance of milk. Shake the bottle every time before it is used. Steep a cloth in the liquid, leave it all night upon the face, which must afterwards be washed with rose and plantain water.
The name of virgin-milk is likewise applied to a very different liquid: I mean the vinegar of lead precipitated with that of water. This is extolled as a remedy for the eruptive disorders of the skin; but it is repercussive, and of course it is often attended with danger; as a remedy it ought therefore not to be employed without the necessary precautions, but as a cosmetic it should never be used, because it dries the skin and turns it black. It is nevertheless a fact, that most of the liquids sold by the name of virgin-milk are nothing but an extract of lead dissolved in vinegar.
To spare them the dangers attendant on the use of this dangerous drug, I again recommend to the ladies to compose their virgin-milk themselves, rather than to apply to the perfumers, who make at least fifteen or twenty different sorts.