Cosmetics and Perfumes in Stuart Times

In the Elizabethan Age feminine extravagance was often satirised by English dramatists and poets. During the seventeenth century, writes Brenda Gourgey, it rose to even more fantastic heights.

The vigorous, turbulent Stuart century was an age of cosmetic extravagance. Encouraged by poems like Jonson’s “Celia” and Herrick’s “Julia”, women patched, painted, perfumed and powdered themselves to achieve the pink and white complexion, the pale hand, the curly hair so admired by the Jacobeans.

“Her mouth compar’d t’an Oyster’s with

A row of Pearl in’t stead of Teeth;

Others make Posies of her Cheeks,

Where red and whitest colours mix;

In which the Lilly and the Rose,

For Indian Lake and Ceruse goes.”

A delicate image, indeed, but one involving the fashionable woman in some danger. A Restoration quack might claim that her “Balsamick Essence” was “faithfully prepared without Mercury”, but many other skin clearers like white lead or stone lime were harsh, and lead poisoning and permanent scarring often resulted. Another preparation, made from powdered white mercury, lemon juice, egg  shells and white wine, was hardly less caustic.

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