S1E6: The Deadly Price of Beauty
Released October 2020
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The Bag of Bones Podcast
Season One Episode 6
The Deadly Price of Beauty
Cosmetics and beauty rituals can be traced back to Biblical times. The Egyptians were known for their severe black-rimmed eyes and startling red lips.
The 1700s French and English brought us the pale, gaunt faces with bright cheeks and lips worn by the aristocratic class
And in the young Americas, the harsh white painted face was replaced with a more powdery natural look but still keeping the appearance of smooth, pale skin with softer pink cheeks. For no one wanted to be accused of manual labor or having to spend too much time in the sun.
But if these women (& men) would have known of the toxic properties they were putting directly on their skin, would it have changed the face of beauty? If they had known that the thick white paste they smeared on the face and shoulders was made with lead and that the rouge for their cheeks was laced with mercury- leading to many of the ailments of the aristocracy of that time… Would they have seen the error of their ways and let go of their perception of beauty?
I think not…
With the Europeans making their home in the new America, fashions saw a change. While it’s not until we look back at the practices of the day are we able to piece together the cause for the day to day maladies and even death were in part due to their daily beauty regiments.
Even today we take our cue of what is in style and what is not from celebrities and influencers. It was not so different in the days gone by. Long hair, short hair. Heavy make-up, light make-up, full- voluptuous figures, thin, frail fragile frames. No matter what is considered in Vogue, the masses will set aside our long term health to “fit in” with the fashion of today.
These days we may roll our eyes and cringe at the beauty regiments of time gone by. We wouldn’t dream of putting lead based-products on our skin, would we? But then, It was the style and no one wanted to be considered “out of style.” So they took the risk, as it was the only way to achieve that white, almost translucent skin that was very much in style.
The practice of slathering your skin in thick white lead-based pastes and creams and then dusting with powder, was not only the fashion but necessity. It was the method of hiding the skin blemishes of the time caused by small pox and other diseases. But they soon discovered that it could even hide the signs of aging.
No matter what century you’re in, apparently no one wants to admit how old they really are.
In the 1700s, women would want to look so pale that they even used blue pencils to trace their veins. The rouge they used for their cheeks and sometimes lips was made from cinnabar which contains mercury, or carmine which is the color you get after boiling and crushing beetles.
The affects of these products caused hair loss, abdominal pain, dry skin, birth defects, skin rashes, nerve damage and eventually death.
As the century went on, the heavy make-up went away, but the desire to have pale skin was still very popular. It was also considered a status even in the later centuries as those who didn’t have to work outside in the fields.
Woman turned to products that could “erase” what they considered blemishes such as freckles, moles, sunspots… the popular fix-all product of the time? Arsenic.
Oh sure, we know the deadly, damaging outcome of using arsenic today, and if they knew it back then, it was quietly swept under the rug or blatantly ignored as products of all kinds were released to the public proudly proclaiming the benefits of arsenic. These were the “safe” benefits, of course.
Since the new trend was wearing less make-up, arsenic was able to brag about its properties being lightweight and the one product that would take away all of your skin woes.
Advertisements proclaimed that arseinc wafers, lotions, tonics, creams and soaps could… assist with the removal of pimples, blackheads and freckles. It would eliminate dark circles, liver spots and wrinkles… quote “brightening and beautifying the face in a very short time making the skin clear, soft and velvety.”
Now who wouldn’t want that? And it worked. The advertisements, for once, spoke true. However- Instead of “hiding” the blemishes, the harsh properties of the toxin destroyed red blood cells, leaving the skin smooth, pale and… paper thin.
Besides, ‘just” death, who wouldn’t be willing to tolerate a little baldness, abdominal pains, and organ failure to get all the beauty benefits from arsenic.
And what’s worse, just in case they had a glimmer of common sense and stopped using the product, every “symptom” that the arsenic products were quote-unquote curing would come back almost overnight as if on steroids along with instant death-
Herein lies the rub-By injesting the poison in small doses on a regular basis helped them create an immunity but the moment they stopped it was as if all the past poison caught up to them- so it would prompt the user to keep… using.
And it’s not that the women didn’t “know” necessarily… if they couldn’t afford the store-bought version of arsenic laced products, they made them at home by distilling arsenic from fly paper in water and purchasing rat poison to add to their lotions and powders.
As the ideal of beauty shifted in the 1800s and painted faces were more associated with actors and uh… women of ill-repute, the trend for a more natural look started making its way across the nation.
In the newly expanded America, women on the western front, barely wore make-up at all (endangering their lives in a million other ways at the time- but that’s for another episode), but the beauty trend was more natural. Pinching of the cheeks and biting the lips bringing blood to the surface for a pinkish tone, and in the cities, make-up was used, but rarely mentioned and never acknowledged. Thus the popular fallacy (still practiced today) of “I just woke up this way.” Hair color and cosmetics were available in stores but were purchased on the down-low and hidden in medicine containers and tins so no one would “suspect” that the lady of the house was using such vulgar tools of beauty.
While the women were still nibbling on arsenic biscuits, and washing their faces with bleach based cleansers and smoothing in ammonia-based skin cream, that didn’t stop them from staining their eye lashes with soot mixed with oil or for thicker lashes, the bold would use the residue of nitric oxide mixed with lard. And for that “natural” blush, you guessed it mercury was still a favorite and we include copper as a popular “new” ingredient.
How have we not killed off the female population with their beauty regiment thus far? I’m not really sure… But wait, we’re just getting to the good stuff with the discovery of radium.
Crossing into the 1900s America held on to the soft feminine fresh look or the sickly, frail, corpse look for just a bit longer until the mold-breaking, fashion-setting flapper girl of the 1920s set beauty on it’s ear. Long hair was chopped off, dark, smokey eye make-up and dramatic lips were all the rage. The desire for a glowing complexion was in high demand and thanks to Marie Curie and her discovery of radium, that was not too far out of reach.
For a high price, luckily, you could purchase any number of beauty products containing radium including soaps, creams and lotions. promising to “revitalize and energize the skin”.
Even tooth paste got into the radium game with advertisements stating their toothpaste could “increase the defenses of teeth and gums.” “… gently polishes the dental enamel so it turns white and shiny…”
Yeah, well… it also caused cancer. A wide spread rash of cancer and radiation sickness ending in death. So again, luckily, with his expensive creation process and path of death, this fad didn’t last too long.
Moving on- in the age of scientific advances and new-fangled inventions why not see if those could cross over to the beauty industry! How about using x-ray machines to remove unwanted hair? Sure, it worked, long term exposure to the rays would make your hair fall out- but it also thickened your skin, burned or scarred and changed the pigment…
Electrolysis was actually introduced in 1875, but didn’t become popular for hair removal (specifically unwanted eyelashes or scultping of the eyebrows.)until much later. It was painful, time consuming and not always permanent and not to mention, in the hands of the unexperienced, scarring.
Around this time, the pendulum swung far in both directions, concerning eyebrows and eyelashes. From using mouse fur to create eyebrows to plucking them completely off and painting on new ones, the fashion trends for eyebrows changed from one decade to the next.
And the search for thicker, fuller lashes is still a much sought-after commodity and easily acquired.
But in the 1800s, women would glue hair to their eyelids, (which is not unfamiliar to us these days, but it was far more dangerous) they would coat their eyelashes with greasy pomades before bed, rising to swollen eyes that was to be expected so they were told to rinse them with milk… and if that sounds extreme, there were those in the 1890s that would actually SEW hair on to the eye lid… don’t worry, the skin was first numbed with cocaine… not a problem…
In 1902 Charles Nessler (later known as Karl Nessler) patented a “A New or Improved Method and Means for the Manufacture of Artificial Eyebrows, Eyelashes and the Like.” No one really knows what the “artificial eyebrow method from the patent did, but- interesting note, Nessler went on to create the first permanent wave machine in 1909.
Beauty practices then and even to some extent today are not consistent in their regulations and back then, not at all. So that in the years of the “traveling salesman” or the mercantile stores even to the expansion of the cosmetic counters of the modern age… people don’t really know what they are putting on their skin or even ingesting for the sake of beauty for that matter.
And while we may look back and shake our heads at the choices men and woman made for vanity’s sake, we only have to look at the continuing trends throughout time to see that things haven’t changed very much.
We may have changed up our choice of poisons, these days they are mostly man made and have a lot more syllables, but they are still there. You may be surprised that lead and mercury can still be found in cosmetics today and that our toxins of choice are more along the asbestos, formaldehyde, baby foreskin and paralyzing and nerve blocking toxins for the sake of youth-type.
So try not to judge our ancestors too harshly, as we will come under the same scrutiny by our next generation of investigators of creepy history.
So now I ask you… what’s in your cosmetic collection?