Secrets of the Cosmetic Art (part 1)

In today’s society millions of pounds are spent on cosmetics in the hope of making us appear more beautiful or better still in attempting to slow down or prevent the ageing process. It seems that this is nothing new and Georgian ladies faced the same challenges. The Fashionable Magazine of 1786 provides us with some amazing ‘top tips’ for looking your best with the aid of cosmetics – we do not however, advocate trying these at home as we aren’t scientists so can not validate the claims being made!!

Georgian faces
Thomas Rowlandson, Six Stages of Mending a Face (1792). Image courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library


This water, which has long been in the highest estimation with ladies on the Continent, received it’s distinguished name from their experience of it’s unparalleled virtues in smoothing wrinkles, and giving peculiar delicacy to the skin, as well as in mitigating the tooth-ache, adding whiteness and lustre to the teeth, and supplying  the breath with a most agreeable frangrance.

The method of preparing Imperial Water has hitherto been little known in England; but the reputation of it’s excellence has given rise to many paltry imitations.

This is the genuine method –

After dissolving, in a quart of French Brandy, gum Arabic, benzoin (the resin from a Styrax tree), sandarach (the resin of a type of Cypress tree), mastic and frankincense, a quarter of an ounce of each add half the quantity of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, with an ounce of pine-nut kernels and sweet almonds and a single grain of musk.

These ingredients being well bruised in a marble mortar, distill them in a vapour bath; and the Imperial Water will be drawn off, which must be kept closely stopped in a glass bottle.

The want of pine-nut kernels may be supplied by half the quantity of spruce fir, or even by the mere addition of almonds.


Take a pound of finely powered rice, half a pound of well levigated (reduced to a fine powder) harthorn, three ounces of ceruss and gum Arabic, mastic and frankincense, an ounce of each; dissolve these ingredients in a pro-per quantity of rose water, which may be increased at discretion and wash the face every day with the fluid.


Take three quarters of a pound of fresh picked rosemary flowers, with a quarter of a pound of each of the flowers of penny-royal and marjoram; and put them into an alembic, with three pints of the best French brandy, carefully closing the mouth to prevent evaporation. Then bury it in horse dung, to digest for thirty hours, and afterwards distill the spirit in a water bath.

This Hungary Water is not only useful by way of embrocation to bathe the face or any other part affected with pain or debility, but it may likewise be taken internally once or twice a week, lasting with considerable advantage, in doses of about a drachm, diluted  with spring water to recruit strength, dispel gloom and exhilarate spirits.  Hungary Water must always be used cold, whether internally  or applied externally.  It is esteemed very serviceable in weaknesses of the eyes.


After washing the eyebrows with a decoction of nut-galls, wet them with a camel’s hair pencil, dipped in a solution of gum Arabic, with green vitriol, and they will, when dry appear of a most beautiful black.

Some use burnt cork, or cloves burnt in a candle, to darken their eyebrows; while others prefer the black of burnt frankincense, or mastic. One of the most simple expedients used for this purpose  is that of frequently rubbing the eyebrows with ripe elder-berries.

Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough.
Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough. The Frick, New York.

Judging by Grace’s eyebrows it seems likely that she would have used one of these methods.


Cut any quantity of polipode of the oak into very small pieces, and place them in a glass vessel covered over about an inch higher than the substance with Lisbon  wine.  Let them digest twenty four hours in a hot-water bath, and  then distill off the liquor by the heat of boiling water till the whole  comes over the helm.  This is the  depilatory fluid; with which a linen cloth is to be wetted, and bound  on the part where the superfluous hair grows.  The cloth is to remain on all night, and the application is to be repeated every other evening till the hair falls off.

A distillation from the leaves and roots of celandine is sometimes  used in the same manner, and has a similar effect.

Secrets of the cosmetic art part 2 

Secrets of the cosmetic art part 3

Secrets of the cosmetic art part 4

Boilly, La Toilette Intime ou la Rose Effeuille. Image @Wikimedia Commons


5 thoughts on “Secrets of the Cosmetic Art (part 1)

  1. What a great find! The first recipe for darkening the eyebrows is interesting, since it makes use of the same chemical reaction that makes iron-gall ink black, but the nut-galls and the green vitriol (ferrous sulfate) are mixed directly on the wearer’s face!


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much for your comments. Some of the concoctions are quite worrying. We’ll have some more beauty tip blogs to follow in due course, so watch out for more lotions and potions 🙂


  2. Pingback: History A'la Carte 7-24-17 - Random Bits of Fascination

  3. Mauree Vallis

    I’d like more information on where the women wearing makeup lived. Was it only Paris or London?
    What about New York, Boston, etc, or even the country, Lexington, Salem?
    I’ve read about women wearing wax, to cover face pox marks from smallpox. Any more information on this?
    Thanks, I love your blog.


    1. All Things Georgian

      Women all over the world have had their own ‘beauty regime’ over the centuries using a variety of natural products. It would appear that during the 18th/early 19th centuries that the UK and France led the way as far as cosmetics were concerned, with USA wearing very little or no makeup. Wearing makeup was also indicative of class, with mainly the upper class ladies wearing up, presumably, it was deemed a sign of affluence, so not necessarily just restricted to London and Paris.

      With regard to using wax to cover pox marks, it seems feasible, although we haven’t come across any specific references to this. It was common for women to use different shaped ‘patches’ to cover the marks, but often these were made from fabric.

      Hope this helps, if you find out anything more about the use of wax we would love to know.


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