Secrets of the Cosmetic Art (Part 3)

Georgian faces

Continuing our theme of beauty the following extracts from  Fashionable Magazine, October 1787  suggests various methods for changing the colour of the hair, we would as usual however add our caveat that these should not be tried at home, as potentially very unsafe!


There are many simple contrivances to make red, or other ill-coloured hair, more pleasing to the sight, by changing it to a black or dark brown, without a possibility of injuring the person even when applied to the eye-brows. Among these may be recommended, the roots of the caper-tree or holm-oak; the barks of the walnut-tree, the willow, and pomegranate’ the leaves of the myrtle, the wild vine, the rasberry-bush, the mulberry-tree, the fig-tree, and the artichoke; the green shells of walnuts or beans; and poppy flowers, ivy berries, or red beet seeds. Either of these articles may be boiled for this purpose in wine, vinegar, or rain-water, with the addition of a little marjoram, sage, betony, balm, or any other cephalic herb; and being strained off, the liquor may be used at pleasure. The usual way is to rub the hair well with the liquid on going to bed.

Alum, and most preparations of lead, boiled and applied in like manner, will produce the same effect.

If, after washing the head with spring water, the hair is every day combed in the sun with a comb dipped in oil of tartar, the hair will become quite black in a week’s time.  The hair may be moistened with oil of Benjamin, to give it a fine scent.


 Boil a pint and a half of ley prepared from vine-twig ashes; a quarter of an ounce each of turmerick, celandine roots, and briony; one drachm and a half each of lily roots, saffron, and flowers of mullein, yellow stechas, St. John’s wort, and broom. After straining off the clear fluid, use it frequently to wash the hair, which will in a short time change to a beautiful flaxen colour, which may be easily made more or less light at pleasure, by a very little attention to the several ingredients, and such other circumstances as cannot easily escape notice.

Grace hair colour
Image via the Frick Collection

This image shows the natural colour of Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s hair taken from the painting of her in the Frick Collection which seems to confirm her use of hair powders.

Another amazing publication we have come across is the 1773 edition of The Golden Cabinet being the Laboratory or Handmaid to the Arts  which again provides with some spectacular solutions to age old problems including a cure for baldness.  If anyone tries this at home we would love to know whether the outcome is successful and whether you have any friends remaining after the experiment; given the ingredients used it would seem highly unlikely your friends would stay around for long!!!!

French hairdresser
Image courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library


This is a hard thing to cure, yet the following things are very good.  Rub the head or bald places every morning very hard with coarse cloth  till it be red anointing immediately after with bears grease; when ten or fifteen days are passed, rub every morning and evening with onion till the bald places bed red, then anoint with honey well mixed with mustard seed applying over a plaster of labdanum  ( which is a sticky brown resin obtained from the shrub Cistus ladanifer)  mixed with mice dung.

Hair oil
Image courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

If the former fail, bathe with a decoction of burdock roots made with a lixivium (of salt of tartar) two parts, and muscadel one part; immediately applying this unguent; take thapsi or turbeth one dracham (in powder) bears grease one ounce, mix them, which use for sixty days. If this mixture make not the hair come, the defect is incurable.

Old Bumblehead the 18th trying on the Napoleon Boots, 1823. Louis XVIII and Napoleon II – in spite of the “Bears grease”  the French king Louis XVIII is not able to put on Napoleon’s boots. Napoleon’s son stands ready to catch the Bourbon crown if it might fall.


Wash the hair very well with a lixivium of quicklime, then dry it very well; that done anoint with oil of myrtles or oil of omphacine  (oil from an unripe fruit) and powder it well with sweet powder, putting it up every night under a cap.  If the party be naturally of cold and moist constitution anointing and powdering must be perpetually used once or twice a week during life, the hair being put up every night.


Distill hogs grease or oil of olive in an alembic with the oil that comes there from anoint the hair and it will grow long and soft.


Anoint the ends thereof with oil omphacine or oil of myrtles, they are eminent in this case to preserve the hair from splitting. Also an ointment made of honey, bees wax and omphacine or bears grease.

Our final offering on this  subject is an unusual article that we felt worthy of inclusion which tells us that in 1765 whilst shampooing did not take place in Europe, a procedure known as shampooing was taking place in China, although it most certainly was not shampooing in the way we understand it today and brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘Chinese torture’!

Article by Charles Frederick Noble  dated 1765

Barbers that attend the factory shave after the English fashion, with short razors or sharp knives. but those who dress the Chinese go about the streets with a bundle of razors, scizars, combs, brushes, pomatum, tooth-pickers, ear-pickers, corn and nail cutter, and other such instruments upon their shoulder and, as they walk, make such a tinkling noise with an iron instrument as those fellows do who have a show in a box for the entertainment of children in London.  The operation of a Chinese barber, which he perfects  every morning, is very tedious, in cleaning and plating the hair and in shampooing his customers.

Shampooing is an operation not known in Europe and is peculiar to the Chinese, which I had once the curiosity to go through, and for which I paid but a trifle.  However, had I note seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been very apprehensive of danger, even at the sight of all the different instruments that were arranged in proper order on the table before the operator began.

He first placed me in a large chair, then began to beat with both his hands very fast upon all parts of my body.  He next stretched out my arms and legs, and gave them several sudden pulls that racked my joints; then got my arm upon his shoulder and hauled me sideways a good way over the chair; and as suddenly gave my head a twitch or jerk around, that I thought he should have put my neck out of joint.  Next he beat with the ends of his fingers very softly, but very quickly all over my head, body and legs, every now and then cracking his fingers with an air: then he stroked up my ears, temples and eye lashes; and again racked my joints.

After he had gone through this process he proceeded with his instruments to scrape, pick and syringe my ears, every now and then tinkling with an instrument close to my ears.  The next thing was my eyes; into which I patiently suffered several small instruments to be thrust and turned about; by which operation, he brought away half a teacupful of hot, waterish stuff.  this was not only the most painful, but the most dangerous part of the whole operation which made me afraid to make the least motion with my head lest I should have suffered more; so I sat with resolute patients, till he pulled out these instruments and was about to use others to my eyes, but I had suffered so much that I would not permit him to meddle with them any farther.

He next proceeded to scraping, paring and cleaning the nails of my fingers and toes and then to cutting my corns.  I only wanted to have had a lock of hair plaited to complete the operation.  But, after he had spent half an hour with me, it ended here, for which I gave him the value of a penny.


This was part of a four part blog about cosmetics, so in case you missed the others here are the links to them

Secrets of the Cosmetic Art (Part 1)

Secrets of the Cosmetic Art (Part 2)

Secrets of the Cosmetic Art (Part 4)

Header image: Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Thomas Gainsborough, National Galley of Art

4 thoughts on “Secrets of the Cosmetic Art (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: Sunday breakfast and browsing | History Inc

  2. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 31) |

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 9-25-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.