Popular ideas of what is beautiful have changed with time and place, but strange beauty secrets are as old as history itself.
In ancient Greece, blond hair was perceived as beautiful, probably because it was unusual. Women would lighten their hair using a mixture of ashes, olive oil & water, and sometimes arsenic.
Cleopatra bathed in the milk of donkeys, as did the 12th century Queen Isabeau of France, who followed it up by rubbing her skin with crocodile glands and the brains of boars.
During the Heian period in Japan, 794 to 1185AD, a woman’s beauty was judged by the length of her hair. The ideal was considered to be about two feet below her waist.
The Hungarian “Blood Countess” Erzsébet Báthory, who lived from August 7, 1560 – August 21, 1614, may have been the most prolific female serial killer in history, bathing in the blood of as many as 650 virgins, to keep herself looking young. Her four cohorts were convicted of killing 80, while Erzsébet herself was neither tried nor convicted due to her rank. She was simply thrown in jail on her arrest in December, 1610, and left there to die, four years later.
On a considerably less macabre note, Mary, Queen of Scots, bathed in wine. Strange beauty rituals weren’t limited to women, either. Novelist George Sands used to soak himself in cow’s milk (3 quarts) and honey (3 pounds).
Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was crowned this day, November 17, 1588. As queen, Elizabeth followed a path taken by women for thousands of years, sporting the high forehead and daubing her face with a powder makeup called ceruse. High lead content made the practice deadly enough, but they would top it off with a rouge containing mercury, leading to an untold number of birth defects and miscarriages. It’s all but certain that the combination of lead and mercury led to her complete loss of hair. Little wonder that she was the “Virgin Queen”.
The quest for the perfect, porcelain complexion would last well into the 19th century, for which some women ate clay. Marie Antoinette and other ladies of the French Court obsessed over flawless, alabaster skin, until the end of the 18th century. They would fake it with thick layers of white powder, made from white lead, or talcum powder, or pulverized bone, whatever they could get hold of. Combined with wax, whale blubber, or vegetable oil, it had a nice, greasy consistency that stayed where they put it.
This was a time of big hair, when hair was piled high on top of the head, powdered, and augmented with the hair of servants and pets. The do was often adorned with fabric, ribbons or fruit, sometimes holding props like birdcages complete with stuffed birds, and even miniature frigates, under sail.
It wasn’t just women’s hair, either. Fashionable European men of the 18th century wore wigs made of both animal and human hair, a practice which spread across the pond into North America. The wealthy wore longer wigs, often powdered and curled, while those who couldn’t afford them wore shorter versions, often styled into a braided ponytail.
George Edward Pickett, he of the famous charge at Gettysburg, was acclaimed for his oiled and perfumed locks. Same with the “Boy General”, the youngest Civil War General in the Union Army: George Armstrong Custer, who would anoint his hair with cinnamon oil.
Well into the 20th century, women chose between slicking their hair down with a greasy brilliantine, or spraying it with shellac dissolved in an admixture of water and alcohol.
Weird beauty tips are easy to find on-line, and I have to believe that each has its adherents. Some say that Preparation H under the eyes reduces puffiness (I hear it works), hot pepper sauce applied to the roots of your hair will help it grow, (the jury’s out on this one). Some believe that urine works as an astringent to clear up acne, (it doesn’t), and rubbing your face with a potato dries up oily skin (that one’s false as well).
Today, we look on past practices as bizarre, but maybe we shouldn’t. If those people from the past were to peer into their own future, they’d see spray tanning, teeth bleaching, and Brazilian bikini wax. They’d see people injecting the neurotoxic output of Clostridium Botulinum into their faces, and sticking metal objects through all manner of body parts.
You have to wonder what our own future will bring. Not even Nostradamus foretold tattooed grandmothers.