A few drops of mercury on your eyelashes. A dash of deadly nightshade in your eyes. A splash of ammonia for your face, and the unforgettable chin reducer for that undesirable neck.
How the Quest for Weird Beauty Ideals Injured, Scarred and Killed Victorian Women
In a class ridden and beauty obsessed society of the 1800’s, it was the desire of every woman to look richer and thinner than they actually were. Maybe no different to any other age in history, including ours. However, the Victorian ideals of beauty were quite different to what we would call 'beautiful' today.
To be rich meant that you did not have to work outside in the sun. That was the domain of servants and poor farm workers. The rich could afford to stay indoors all day. The lack of sun and outdoor air greatly reduced any semblance of a healthy & rich skin tone. A pale skin suggested that you hardly ventured outside. The more paler and ghostly your face, the more rich you were, and the higher your social status. This near death look for women became the infatuation of privileged white Victorian society, both in North America and Europe. Women desired, but were also encouraged, persuaded and even pressured to engage in all sorts of strange practices and dangerous treatments to achieve this 'ideal look'.
One such dangerous practice was to try to catch tuberculosis, a fatal disease that causes nodules to grow in the lungs. Eventually, these nodules affected breathing to the point that the patient died. However, Victorian women loved the beauty that tuberculosis caused - the pale skin, thin waist, and red lips and cheeks of those infected. This led to women purposely contracting the disease in order to look “beautiful”. According to Alexis Karl, a researcher from New York, the “…the dying of tuberculosis look which entailed extremely pale translucent skin had connotations of purity and innocence. It was further enhanced by weakness and fragility. Women of money are going to have white skin — they’re not going to be working outside.”
To get this near-death look, women would also squeeze a few drops of belladonna into their eyes to enlarge their pupils. Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) is a poisonous plant, native to parts of Asia and Europe. It is sometimes known as deadly nightshade. Belladonna's components can inhibit the nervous system and cause blindness, as well as a fast heartbeat, inability to urinate or sweat, hallucinations, spasms, mental problems, convulsions, seizures, coma and ultimately death. Belladonna was used almost daily by many women at the time.
To keep their faces fresh, women were advised to coat their faces with opium overnight, followed by a brisk wash of ammonia in the morning. For the woman with sparse eyebrows and eyelashes, mercury was often recommended as a nightly eye treatment, eradicating the need to use heavy makeup. “The look of the consumptive was very desirable: the woman with the watery eyes and pale skin, which of course was from the cadaver in the throes of death,” says Karl.
Arsenic, a natural metalloid found in the earth’s crust, is an extremely toxic compound that can be tolerated for a time when eaten in small amounts (and has occasionally been used in medicine). Long-term exposure, however, is extremely unpleasant: nervous system and kidney damage, hair loss, conjunctivitis and growths called arsenical keratoses plague the body along with, yes, vitiligo, which causes pigment loss in the skin. Arsenic, which became addictive as a person’s tolerance built, was used in as many forms as possible. Lola Montez, a Victorian actress and traveling beauty writer, wrote in her book The Arts of Beauty about how women in Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic) regularly bathed in arsenic springs, “which gave their skins a transparent whiteness.” She also warned of the price: “once they habituate themselves to the practice, they are obliged to keep it up the rest of their days, or death would speedily follow.”
Pale skin was further encouraged with veils, gloves and parasols, but could also be bought: Sears & Roebuck sold a popular product called Dr. Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers, which were just that–little white chalk wafers filled with arsenic for delicate nibbling. They were specifically advertised as “perfectly harmless.”
White paints and enamels became popular amongst women, in an effort to cover their natural skin tone and mimic an extremely pale complexion. These products were made from lead, which is corrosive–the more paint you wore, the more you needed to wear next time to cover your damaged skin.
The ideal body shape of the time was an extremely thin waist and a disproportionately large bust and wide hips. Corsets were used extensively to achieve this unnatural look. Corseting of the waist to make an hourglass figure -- left lasting effects on the skeleton, deforming the ribs and misaligning the spine. According to beliefs of the time, "Women needed to wear corsets to shape their bodies away from nature and toward a more "civilized' ideal form”. To investigate skeletal changes from corseting, Rebecca Gibson of American University, studied remains dating to 1700-1900 AD held at the Musée de l'Homme at the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris and at the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London. She measured the width of their rib cages, the angle at which the ribs meet the spine, and the angle of deviation of the spinous processes of the vertebrae. Of the seven mounted skeletons that Gibson examined from the Musée de l'Homme, every single one of them had deformed ribs pushed into an 'S' shape and vertebral spines misaligned from vertical, both of which are "consistent with long-term pressure on growing ribs and vertebrae and inconsistent with other types of documented damage such as rickets," she notes. Three additional sets of skeletal remains from the Museum of London had the exact same pattern of ribcage deformity.
The 1800’s were a time of great progress in technology and innovative products. There was an unending belief that modern science and new inventions could solve all and every human problem including perceived beauty flaws. One such invention that became popular was Professor Eugene Mack’s Chin Reducer and Beautifier for $10 – the equivalent of $250 today. The bizarre contraption gave the wearer a massage that, it was claimed, could not only deal with swollen glands, but also dispense with flabbiness, give “a rounded contour to thin, scrawny necks,” and add a “healthy paleness to the cheeks.” Also available at the time were nose correctors, spring-loaded dimple machines and electric face-molding masks.
While we are vastly safer and more informed about our beauty products today, will historians of the future look at our routines and treatments with laughter and horror? A case in point; In 2015, Oprah put the power of her name and endorsement behind a SkinMedica anti-wrinkle cream with a very interesting special ingredient: human foreskins from circumcised infants. According to advertisements, Oprah calls the SkinMedica cream a “magic fountain of youth and miracle wrinkle solution.” Which makes sense, since the company uses babies' foreskin fibroblast as a culture to grow other skin or cells. But not everyone was happy about mogul's miracle cream. Members of the uncomfortably-named Foreskin Awareness Project protested Oprah's endorsement. “Imagine how Oprah would respond if a skin cream for men went on the market that was made from parts... of little girls,” said their founder, Glen Callender. “That would be an outrage and rightly so.”