A few months ago, I posted a beauty article taken from an early nineteenth century magazine, La Belle Assemblee, about the cosmetics used at the time. You ladies loved it, so today I’m sharing with you another beauty article from an earlier edition of the same magazine, this time about how to keep the skin looking white and flawless.
It’s quite long, but it’s fascinating to learn how they thought skin worked and how to keep it looking its best. And even though they didn’t get everything right, some of the advice sounds very modern and is valid still today. Without further ado, here’s the article. Enjoy!
On the beauty of the Skin
The beauty of the skin contributes in so astonishing a manner to beauty in general, that many women who are deemed very handsome, possess no other advantage than that of a beautiful skin. Accordingly it is upon this essential part that women bestow in preference the most assiduous care. The greatest part of cosmetics have no other object than to preserve all the perfections, or to repair the defects of the skin.
A white skin, slightly tinged with carnation, soft and smooth to the touch, is what we commonly call a fine skin. Such was the skin of Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis XIV.; it was so delicate that no cambric could be found fine enough to make her chemises. Cardinal Mazarine used to tell her, that if she went to hell, she should he condemned to suffer no other punishment than to lie in Holland sheets.
The skin seldom possesses all the qualities requisite for its perfection, and when it does, various causes, external and internal, daily contribute to deprive it of them. In fact, the skin by its numerous relations with most of the internal organs, undergoes various kinds of alterations according to the different dispositions of those organs. It is seen alternately to lose its lustre, to become pale, yellow, brown, sun-burnt, greenish, purple, according to the different states of certain parts of the system.
The apparent state of the skin depends, therefore, in a great measure on the state of the internal organs; accordingly, in our climate, carnation may be regarded as the true thermometer of the state of health. I say in our climate, where the whiteness of the skin renders the most delicate shades infinitely more perceptible. Thus a fresh and blooming tint, rosy lips, a lively and sparking eye, are indications of good health. But if the complexion is pale, livid or lead-coloured; if the eye is languid; if the lips are deprived of that charming coral hue, it may then he affirmed that the functions are deranged, that health is impaired.
External causes are not less injurious to the beauty of the skin; and their influence is so much the more powerful as it is continually acting, and gradually destroys it, as water falling drop by drop will at length wear a hole in a ruck. The external causes which are incessantly concurring to destroy the beauty of the skin, are principally the air, the heat of the climate, and light. These three causes combined contribute to deprive it of that whiteness, that lustre, that polish, that delicacy, that softness, which enchant and delight us in more than one way. Every body knows what a difference there is between the parts of this organ which are continually covered, and those that are constantly exposed to the contact of the air and light.
It was in conformity with this incontestable truth that the first cosmetics were composed. They consisted, as we shall see in another place, of different kinds of pastes, applied at night to the face and removed the next morning. By this expedient, the ancients found means to skreen during that interval the parts, the delicacy of which they were desirous of preserving, from the influence of external causes.
The ancients certainly acted agreeably to an incontestible theory; but their practice was attended with some inconvenience, so that it was found necessary to have recourse to other means. Nevertheless, the Venetian ladies, so celebrated for the admirable beauty of their complexion still make use of a paste composed of flour and white of eggs; this they mould into a kind of mask, which they put on the face at night; thus renewing the custom which the ancients have recorded as practised by the courtezan Poppa, and which the French historians inform us was used by the effeminate Henry III. of France.
An eminent physician, De Senac, was of opinion that women would always retain a youthful face, if they could preserve the rotundity of youth, which produces white by the tension of the skin, and red by the fullness of the blood-vessels Colours artificially applied, and paints of all sorts, are but wretched imitations of what ought to be; and De Senac discovered a method of obtaining in reality that effect which paints produce only in appearance.
“It is necessary,” said he, “to prevent the perspiration of the face; by these means a happy obstruction of lymph and blood will take place in the small vessels, and the skin will be kept more stretched. There will be white, red, and no wrinkles; and who can wish for anything more? Now,” continued he, “oil prevents perspiration; nothing more is necessary than to rub it upon the face, or to apply to the latter only such drugs of which oil forms the basis, and not planters, which by drying it, render it still more wrinkled than before.”
The opinion of this physician is just in more than one respect. It is certain that nothing contributes more to the beauty of the skin than to retain in it the products of insensible perspiration; but yet the method which he recommends does not fulfil all the conditions, and is not adapted to all cases; nay, there are even women whose skin would rather be injured than embellished with oil. We may go still further, and assert that oily applications, properly so called, would sometimes prove pernicious, and would always produce the effect which De Senac expected of them.
It is true that by the application of unctuous cosmetics, we counteract as much as possible the effect of the exterior causes that destroy the beauty of the complexion and the delicacy of the skin. But there are, as I have already observed, other causes, and it is unnecessary to remark, that this medium would be absolutely nugatory when interior causes impair beauty. What benefit can be derived from topical applications, for instance, when the defects of the skin depend on a derangement of the stomach, or a diseased liver, or infection of the lungs, or the interruption of some secretion?
It is not to exterior applications but to a skilful physician that recourse ought to be had, and when all the functions have returned to their natural course, the skin will resume its original freshness and lustre. It is therefore to internal causes that we ought first to direct our attention; and the first step towards recalling beauty, is to restore health. Whiteness is one of the qualities which it is requisite for the skin lo possess, before it can be called beautiful. In this point, the taste of the ancients correspond with ours; they held whiteness of the skin in such estimation, that they regarded this quality as the distinguishing characteristic beauty. The name of Venus, the goddess of beauty, is explained by the Celto-Briton primitive ven, which signifies white, as we are informed by La Tour d’Auvergne Carret, in his work entitled Des Origines Gaulnises.
I have observed that many causes may injure the whiteness of the skin, and that the air in particular is the natural enemy of the lilics of a beautiful complexion ; but unfortunately for our handsome women, it is not the only enemy. A laborious life, or excess in pleasure; too much sleep, or too frequent watching; too intense application, or the languor of a life of indolence and apathy; melancholy and violent passions, grief, fear, anxiety or hatred, are all prejudicial to the beauty of the skin, tarnish its lustre, and efface or alter its colours. On the contrary, a life of prudence and regularity; easy and varied occupations; benevolent, exalted and generous affections; the exercise of virtue, and that inward satisfaction which is its most valuable reward; such are the causes that preserve the flexibility of the organs, the free circulation of the humours, and a perfect state of all the functions whence result both health and beauty.
The diet also has a very great influence upon the colour of the skin. Buffon has observed that the delicate complexion and happy physiognomy of the nobility and most persons of the higher classes, are partly owing to the aliments they use. It has been remarked, for instance, that the use of barley-bread renders the skin more pale, and that persons who are in the habit of eating salt and dried provisions, seldom have a fine complexion. I have found in the works of physicians various observations which confirm the opinion of Buffon, but it is not my intention to swell out this chapter with them.
Water has not a less influence on the beauty of the carnation, and an accurate judgement of the quality of the water of a district may be formed by merely consulting the complexion of the inhabitants. It is therefore of considerable importance with respect also to beauty, to make use only of wholesome water.
The liver, according to physicians, has the most direct relations with the skin, as is demonstrated likewise by facts. Hypochondriac affections give the cutaneous surface a dull, brownish colour: in consequence of the bite of a viper an unctuous bile flows toward the skin. The complexion of the bilious is always distinguished by a yellowish colour; in persons of that constitution acrid, cutaneous diseases are more frequent; sometimes the St. Anthony’s fire is seen to accompany fevers of a bilious nature, and general and critical eruptions to succeed obstinate quartan fevers.
All these facts, to which might be added many more, clearly demonstrate not only that the acrid and chronical maladies of the skin proceed from diseases of the bile and liver, but that the complexion itself depends in a great measure on the action of that viscus. It must therefore be obvious that it would be unavailing to endeavour to counteract certain defects of the complexion, and especially its yellow or brown colour, by means of cosmetics, for these recourse must be had to internal remedies.
In my opinion the frequent use of martials would be found highly efficacious in producing a fine complexion; but this I give merely as a conjecure. I have not yet made any experiment on the subject, but I intend to do so on some female of a brown complexion who may happen to be tired of her colour. Let us now proceed to the methods that have been long known, practised, and recommended. The infusion of hyssop has been highly extolled, and it is likewise said that onions, when eaten, give very beautiful tints to the complexion. Le Camus recommends an hepatic suit, which he says, is highly efficacious either for preserving a fine complexion or acquiring beautiful colours. Its composition is as follows:
“Take roots of agrimony, two pounds; roots of chicory and scorzonera of each one pound; bitter costus, erynginm, Indian saffron, of each half a pound; calamus aromaticus, rapontic, southern-wood, hemp-agrimony, sculopendra, veronica, common hepatica, fumitory, cuscuta, of each three ounces. Calcine the whole in a reverberatory furnace; then add ashes of rhubarb and of cassia lignea, of each an ounce and a half; lixiviate the whole with a decoction of the flowers of hepatica, and extract the salt by the usual process. This salt causes the bile to flow away, cures the jaundice, and gives the skin a pleading carnation tint. The proper dose of this salt is from twenty-four to thirty-six grains in any suitable vehicle.”
With respect to the means that counteract with success the external causes destructive of the beauty of the skin, they form a numerous class, composed of the cosmetics, properly so called. In the next chapter we shall give the most efficacious of these. At present I shall add but a few words on a method advised by some persons. It is said that nothing tends to whiten the skin so much as walking abroad in the cool of the evening, especially near water. This may be possible; but is not the humidity of evening productive of ill consequences, which would make those pay very dear who would purchase a fine skin at that rate, especially since it is an advantage that may be procured in so many other ways?
For my part I think the practice dangerous in our climate, and with the light costume of our ladies. All the physicians will not be of my opinion; we have doctors who enter into accommodations with the ladies as the Tartuffe did with heaven, but those who possess any integrity will give me their support. This reminds me of a discussion which took place on this subject when the ladies began to frequent in the evening the Pont des Arts at Paris. A physician inserted in the Journal de Paris some observations on the insalubrity of the practice of walking in-the evening immediately over the bed of the river.
In the present age,as in that of La Fontaine, we have physicians tant-pis, as well its physicians tant-mieux. These gentlemen never did and never will agree; discord is the essence, I will not say of their art, but of their profession. Now the physician of whom I am speaking, was the physician tant pis. He would have alarmed the fair sex if any thing can alarm them when intent on the gratification of any new whim. A few days afterwards, however, a more complaisant doctor, the physician tant-mieux undertook to pacify the fears of our handsome women. He therefore inserted in the same journal a letter, proving the salubrity of walking in the evening on the Pont des Arts. And which of them was in the right? Neither the one nor the other; they were both wrong. You may perhaps ask how can that be possible?
Nothing is more easily explained: the ladies continued to frequent the promenade in spite of the denunciations of the physician tant pis, and caught cold notwithstanding the assurances of the physician tant-mieux. Our two doctors, therefore, were both wrong; such is the difficulty of hitting the mark with respect to women. Let us, however, decide this question which is so important to the health of the ladies. I shall then assert with the physicians who enjoy the most deserved reputation, that the cold of the evening air checks perspiration, and is liable to produce various diseases, and that this effect is inevitable, if you sit sill exposed to the evening air according to the practice of our ladies in the Pont des Arts.
The cold of the evening is still more injurious to convalescents, as it may occasion relapses. Women, on going abroad after the periods of their accouchement, would do well not to expose themselves to it, if they are desirous of avoiding many painful disorders which are frequently the consequence of this imprudence, such as obstructions of the milk and various others. Such are some of the ill effects of the evening air, notwithstanding all that may be advanced by the doctors tant-mieux.