The 1910s were a turning point in cosmetic use for women. The Edwardian period, which lasted from 1900 until 1910, idealized pale skin and the appearance of youth, but also held onto the notion that makeup was for the stage and women of ill repute. Ordinary women definitely wore makeup, but denied that they were doing so, utilizing home remedies to achieve wrinkle-free faces, tiny waists, and firm skin. “The aim was not to attract attention,” says Ashley Miller of Flea Market Insiders, “but to enhance natural beauty and to make women look young and healthy.”
The look of the 1910s was quiet sophistication: powder for the much desired pale skin, eyeshadow (which came in a paste), and a lip stain, which was supposed to appear as spare as possible. As the decade progressed, the obvious use makeup became more acceptable, as new products were developed and marketed, but women continued to use cosmetics with questionable elements, both because they were available, and because the side effects were not yet known.
The makeup used 100 years ago might surprise you, but you also will likely recognize some names and ingredients.
Throughout the Elizabethan era, the Victorian age and onto into 1900s, pale skin was an indication of a life of wealth and leisure, whereas tan skin was associated with being of a lower class (totally not racist at all), so women went to intense measures to make sure their skin was as pale as possible.
Lemon juice was wildly popularly, according to Shara Strand, a New York City makeup artist with her own line of mineral-based cosmetics. Women used it, in conjunction with other tonics such as rum, vinegar, and glycerin, to lighten their skin, and also to remove sunburns.
Lemon is still used to lighten and brighten skin today, and it’s definitely not as insane an ingredient as some of the other things on this list, but at the time it was a big departure from the makeup women had been using until the early 1900s, which contained elements like lead and could literally kill you.
What problem does Vaseline not solve? You can use petroleum jelly (or “wonder jelly,” as it was called when first patented in 1865) to get smooth skin, relieve chapped lips, remove your makeup, protect cuts and burns, and even get makeup stains off clothing.
In 1917, chemist T.L. Williams developed Maybelline mascara after watching his sister, Mabel, blend Vaseline with coal dust as a means of dyeing her lashes. “Maybelline” comes from combining “Vaseline” with the name Mabel.
Yes, you read that correctly. Lipstick became popular in the early 1910s, when leaders of the suffragette movement such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, started wearing lip rouge at rallies, associating it with women’s emancipation and female rebellion.
“The main ingredient of red colored lip stain was carmine, which is made out of cochineal insects,” says Ashley Miller, a vintage makeup and fashion expert and an editor at Flea Market Insiders,”So carmine is essentially the blood of crushed lice, which sounds disgusting but is still used as a makeup ingredient today.”
According to Miller, lipstick prototypes in the 1900s were made from castor oil, stag fat, beeswax, and of course, carmine. The lipstick situation improved after World War I, when synthetic chemicals allowed for a more natural look that miraculously didn’t rot.
Women had been utilizing henna, the dye prepared from the flowering henna plant found in northern Africa, western and southern Asia, and Australasia, for hair dye and body art, since the late Bronze age. Throughout the Edwardian era, women applied henna to their hair via a toothbrush to achieve various shades of red color.
In 1914, Vogue featured an article on Turkish women using henna to outline their eyes, and the “discovery” (which women outside the U.S. had actually known about for centuries) prompted the creation of commercial eyeshadow, which was sold by the Max Factor company.
Before the 1920s, the term “makeup” was reserved for actors, since everyday women were not exactly supposed to be obvious about wearing it. Nevertheless, rouge was super popular throughout the 1910s, a staple which you were then supposed to fervently deny that you owned.
Until the later part of the decade, the idea of pale skin dominated, but cheek pinching was also a favored method of maintaining an appearance of youth and vitality. Of course, you couldn’t go too far, lest people think you were painting your face. Rouge pots were tiny and easy to hide and came with blotting papers, but the most daring women went to cosmetic counters, where they created dyes to apply to their cheeks. Margaret Mixterr’s 1910 book, Health and Beauty Hints, included a recipe for homemade rouge.
Belladonna, a plant also known as deadly nightshade, isn’t always deadly. It contains chemicals that can block functions of the body’s nervous system, and it’s used as a sedative as well as a painkiller, and in various ointments. It’s in eye drops used to achieve dilation, but it has to be prescribed by a doctor and not used super casually and on the regular.
In the 1910s, women sought it out in order to dilate their pupils and make their eyes look softer and darker, a practice that can be traced to Italy. Belladonna’s extract, atropa belladonna, is super poisonous and prolonged usage can result in blurred vision, rapid heartbeat, vomiting, hallucinations, and other stuff you don’t want.
In Mixter’s 1910 book on health and beauty, she recommends a “magic potion” for getting rid of wrinkles. “Add a dram or two of gelatine, along with two drops of tincture of benzoin and a few drops of attar of rose to an ounce of rosewater. Pour into a jar. Leave until set in a jelly. Apply this to the outer corners of your eyes morning and night!”
While this might sound very organic and lovely, benzoin, a kind of tree sap, is no joke. Benzoin is only intended for topical use, to protect minor cuts from infection, so you are definitely not supposed to apply it in or around your eyes, or use it for an extended period of time (say, morning and night, regularly). It can cause burning or redness, and even more dramatic reactions, like dizziness and swelling. In other words, don’t use benzoin without a doctor’s recommendation and supervision.
Worst freckle removers
It wasn’t just pale skin that was fetishized during the early 1900s, but clear skin as well. That meant doing whatever it took to eradicate basically anything on your face that wasn’t skin, especially freckles. Women used home remedies, which included delightful ingredients such as lactic acid, vinegar, sour milk, and horseradish.
If these didn’t succeed in alleviating your freckle problem, doctors recommended hydrochloric acid, ammonium, hydrogen peroxide, and freckle creams, like Dr. C.H. Berry’s Freckle Ointment (used by Amelia Earhart). These creams contained as much as 15 percent mercury.
Mercury poisoning, which can occur if you’re applying mercury to your face on the regular, can cause muscle atrophy, a decrease in cognitive function, insomnia, and more awful symptoms. It wasn’t until 1938 that the FDA caught on to the toxicity in these creams and reduced the amount to less than five percent.
Radium is a great idea in some contexts — treating cancer, for example. Bad ideas for radium on the other hand, include putting into everything, including condoms and makeup.
After radium’s discovery in 1898, people decided it would have luminous effects on the body, and in 1917 a London company called Radior started producing a line of makeup and toiletries with radium in them, including soap, rouge, face powder, and even pads you could strap to your face that were supposed to make your wrinkles disappear. The search for a complexion that literally glowed continued into the 1920s, with a radioactive mud, like Kemolite Radio-Active Beauty Plasma.
Things started go south for the radium party in 1925, when a new disease called “radium necrosis” appeared in a New York Times headline. Five of the reported cases of the diseases, which basically rotted your jaw out your head, were in girls who ingested radium as part of their job in the United States Radium Corporation in the early 1910s.
Using wax to remove unwanted hair dates back to ancient Egypt, but women in the early 1900s utilized numerous types of wax to do more than get rid of hair.
It appeared in all sorts of homemade concoctions, such as those found in The Dudley Book of Cookery and Household Recipes and A Second Dudley Book of Cookery and Other Recipes, collected by Georgina, Countess of Dudley in 1909 and 1912, respectively. You can find recipes for cold cream and hand lotion, which both require white wax and beeswax.
Before mascara became an official thing, women would even apply beads of hot wax to the tips of their lashes to make them appear longer and fuller.
Borax is a naturally occurring mineral that’s used in laundry detergent, hand soap, and other cleaning products, so why not put it on your face?
A recipe for face lotion from The Dudley Book of Cookery and Household Recipes suggests combining “two tablespoonfuls of orange-flower water (or elder-flower water), two tablespoonfuls of rose water, nine grains of borax.”
Borax is a pesticide, and can cause irritation to the skin. Long-term exposure to Borax’s buddy, boric acid, can result in rashes, vomiting, ulcers, stomach pain, and more. Borax was also shown to cause “reproductive toxicity” in rodents, such as diminished levels of testosterone.
Spermaceti is a wax-esque material found in the head of the sperm whale. It is not, as it was once thought to be, whale sperm. It has no smell or taste when congealed, so it was used in all sorts of things during the whaling era and beyond, such as candles, textiles, and, you guessed it, makeup, specifically, cold cream.
This recipe for almond cold cream from Henley’s Twentieth Century Formulas Recipes Processes calls for a combination of white wax, alcohol, water, almond oil, sweet almonds, bergamot, and spermaceti, and is described as “troublesome to make and rather expensive.”
A massage cream from 1910 also includes spermaceti, as well as elderflower oil, witch hazel, and lanolin. The directions suggest you should use the cream to massage accordingly, especially “if you have a double chin or superfluous flesh, rub vigorously to wear away the fat by friction!!”
Rose water has a long history of being used to treat inflammation and irritation, as well as to hydrate and detoxify. It’s still an ingredient in facial toners, moisturizers, and makeup removers today, and in Margaret Mixter’s 1910 book on the beauty habits of Edwardian women, there’s a recipe for an adhesive plaster that includes rose water. You can also find rose water used in the era’s recipes for face lotions and cold creams.
Beet stains can make a kitchen look like a murder scene, but in the 1900s the brightness of the vegetable had a different purpose. It was used as a type of blush, since it was seen as inappropriate to seek out the real thing, at least until around 1914, when Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden, and Max Factor opened cosmetic counters and spas, making the industry socially acceptable. Beet juice was also used to stain lips, and as an ingredient in early lipsticks.
Are we really better off now?
While some of what women used in and as their makeup in the last century might seem like an obvious bad idea, consider what we now know about what’s in the makeup we use every day, and how it’s made. And even if we’re not slathering our faces in mercury (as often), the notion of cruelty free products is fairly new, labor practices in some laboratories are still abhorrent, and there are side effects associated with the long term use of some makeup.
While we might be horrified at past beauty trends and means of achieving them, consider what people might be saying about us and what we did to ourselves in the name of looking good in another 100 years.