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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Seventeenth century white face make-up


I have often wondered what was the composition of the white make-up used by Elizabeth I and court ladies of the seventeenth century. Was it a form of lead, as frequently thought? These two recipes come from Delights for Ladies, 1636.

To anoint the face and to make it white 

Take fresh bacon grease, and the whites of eggs, and stamp them together, and a little powder of bays and anoint your face therewith, and it will make it white.

A white fucus or beauty for the face 

The jaw bones of a hog or sow well burnt, beaten and searced through a fine searce [sieve], and after, ground upon a porphyrie or serpentine stone, is an excellent fucus, being laid on with the oil of white poppy.

The second basically creates a layer of white calcium phosphate on the skin; ground jaw-bones of pigs seem to have been a common source for white face-makeup, though the term ‘fucus’ was applied to colours other than white, and in fact derived from a Latin term applied to red dye. The ‘oil of white poppy’ was perhaps an infusion of petals in oil; I think the lard-based make-up would have been a cheaper option. The link between animal products and cosmetics is pretty well entrenched here. Little refinement is involved – the final product is removed from the dead animal by more stages in the second recipe, but it contains only two ingredients. You could not avoid knowing that you were basically slapping the ashes of pig bones on your face.

Monday, 8 April 2013

An ointment for lice in the eybrows


Take one apple roasted and cleansed, quicksilver killed [neutralised] with spittle, mix them well and anoint.

Cosmeticks, or the Beautifying Parts of Physick, Johann Wecker, 1660

I worked in a school once where a teacher came into the staffroom during morning break and told us about a child whose hair appeared to be moving of its own accord. I assumed at the time that it was a case of headlice. I hope so. I have never heard of lice infesting the eyebrows, but I suppose there is no reason why they should not.

‘Killing’ mercury with spittle presumably involves briskly whisking the two fluids to get them to mingle. But would this in fact neutralise the mercury? Spittle can have the opposite effect, that of activating mercury in tooth-fillings – see www.hugginsappliedhealing.com/digestive-disturbances.php in which Dr H Huggins points out that chewing stimulates the releasing of enzymes in saliva, and at the same time stimulates the release of mercury from tooth-fillings. Wecker occasionally specifies 'fasting spittle', but does not in this recipe. The mercury/saliva mix may have increased the absorbtion rate of the mercury via the skin. It cannot have done the lice much good, so with luck the whole mess would have worked and been removed fairly quickly.