When Jane Austen was publishing Pride and Prejudice and Napoleon Bonaparte was being exiled to Alba, cosmetics were used by Regency women “to produce a healthful bloom on the countenance.” As a woman’s face, neck, and hands were frequently exposed to nature’s harsh elements, great care was taken to restore beauty and luster back to her skin. In fact, Regency women were sometimes willing to try strange things, such as “eating chalk, drinking vinegar, [and] wearing camphorated charms,” all in the hope of whitening their skin or maintaining a youthful appearance. Despite the Regency woman’s best efforts, nature often took its toll with women suffering from age spots, freckles, pimples, spots, sunburns, or wrinkles.
Regency women used a variety of things to correct the following flaws:
Age Spots – Age spots were said to ruin the beautiful face of Regency women because it “first attack[ed] the nose, forming on either side a kind of plate, which looks like boiled leather. They sometimes extend to the cheeks and forehead, [and] the skin then acquires a very considerable thickness.” To create beautiful skin this thickness needed to be destroyed and two successive processes were employed to accomplish it. First, the skin was moistened and softened with emollients, and, second, caustics were applied, such as water distilled from bullock’s gall with a small quantity of dissolved salt added.
Black Spots – This involved using one-pound bullock’s gall to a half ounce powdered alum that was then beaten together and turned into a thick mud before it was clarified in the sun. It then separated and the clear liquid derived from it was placed in a phial and exposed to the sun for another three to four months. A new liquid that smelled like lobster would then form and that was used to remove black spots from the skin.
Freckles – Freckle free skin was said to be the type of complexion that everyone wanted when creating the beautiful face of Regency women. The sun created freckles and freckles were known to occur when a woman’s face was “habitually” exposed to air and the elements. Therefore, the primary preventative was wearing a veil, donning a straw hat, or carrying a parasol, but there were also mixtures that could be applied to the skin if none of those methods prevented freckles. One mixture involved bullock’s gall, rock alum, sugar candy, borax, and camphor. Other combinations, such as milk and lemon juice with brandy or “equal parts of roots of wild cucumber and narcissus [with brandy],” could also be applied to the freckles. In addition, Virgin Milk, which was a “tincture of benzoin precipitated by water,” was said to be effective in removing them. For particularly stubborn freckles, one book suggested a freckle wash that was applied two to three times a day and consisted of muriatic acid, rain water, and spirit of lavender.
Pimples – Virgin Milk was one known solution that dealt effectively with pimples and helped create the desirable face of Regency women that was clear and brilliant. Although the recipes for it varied, the following recipe created supposedly made a “safe” and “approved” cosmetic:
Take any quantity of Houseleek and beat it in a marble mortar, squeeze out the Juice and clarify it. When you want to use it, pour a few drops of rectified Spirit on the Juice, and it will instantly turn milky. It is a very efficacious remedy for a pimpled face, and preserves the skin soft and smooth.
Oil of Ben, made from Ben nuts, was also used and was another preparation for cleaning and preventing pimples. It created a “gentle aperient … [that involved] the first juice of house-leek, mixed with an equal quantity of sweet milk or cream.” Another touted pimple cure involved boiling Patience (a perennial closely related to Dock and Sorrel) and Pimpernel (a small plant of the primrose family, with creeping stems and flat five-petaled flowers) in water and then using the decoction to wash the face everyday.
Spots on the Skin – Although spots or moles sometimes highlighted the luster of a woman’s skin, too many were claimed to “distort and impart a coarseness to the features, and totally destroy the harmony of the figure.” Although there were many caustics to lighten spots, it was recommended the mildest of these caustics be used. One of these was distilled water of the blind nettle, and if that was ineffectual, “oil of tartar, mixed with a little water to weaken it.” In some cases even removal was suggested.
Sunburns – Allegedly, a few drops of spirits of wine, sometimes Virgin Milk, or distilled waters of pimpernel, white tansy, and bean flowers helped to lessen or remove sunburn. Another supposed effective sunburn aid was crushed strawberries applied to the face. They were left overnight to dry and in the morning washed off with chervil water because it was said to impart “the most beautiful tint to the skin.” A third remedy for sunburn was more complex:
“Take one pound of bullock’s gall, one drachm of rock alum, half an ounce of sugar candy, two drachms of borax, and one drachm of camphor. Mix them together, stir the whole for a quarter of an hour, and then let it stand. Repeat this three or four times a day, for a fortnight … till the gall appears as clear as water. Then strain it through blotting paper … Apply it when obliged to go abroad in the sunshine or into the country, taking care to wash your face at night with common water.”
However, the best method for sunburn was to prevent it in the first place. That meant wearing a bonnet or hat or using a parasol to shield the face from the sun.
Wrinkles – To remove wrinkles and maintain the beautiful face of Regency women involved them making a pomade of onion juice, white lily juice, Narbonne honey, and white wax. These ingredients were then put into an earthen pipkin and heated until the wax melted. This created an ointment that was applied at bedtime and removed in the morning. There was also a combination of strained water of barley mixed with a few drops of Balm of Mecca that could be used to prevent wrinkles and was stated to be “an excellent wash for beautifying the face and preserving the freshness of youth.” One particularly interesting wrinkle remover was “fresh slices of veal, bandaged on the parts during the night.” Similarly there was the following recipe that prevented or reduced wrinkles:
“Take six new-laid Eggs, boil them hard, take out the Yolks, and fill the cavities with Myrrh and powdered Sugar Candy, of equal parts. Join the Whites together neatly, and set them on a plate before the fire; mixing the Liquor that exudes from them with an ounce of Hog’s Lard. This pomatum must be applied in the morning, and be suffered to dry upon the skin, which is afterwards to be wiped with a clean fine napkin.”
-  The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion, 1833, p. x.
-  Ibid., p. 80.
-  The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, p. 263.
-  Ibid., p. 260.
-  Ibid., p. 271.
-  Buc’Hoz, Pierre Joseph, A New Collection of the Most Easy and Approved Methods of Preparing Baths, Essences, Pomatums, 1787, p. 52.
-  The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion, p. 82.
-  The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, p. 257.
-  Ibid., p. 258.
-  Ibid., p. 259
-  Ibid., p. 258-259.
-  The Art of Beauty, 1825, p. 180.
-  Ibid., p. 179.
-  Buc’Hoz, Pierre Joseph, p 68.