What women used for makeup 100 years ago

makeup application

Makeup seems to have been
around forever, but 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

lemon juice
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
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.

red beetle
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
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

henna dye
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.

rouge makeup
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.

deadly nightshade
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

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.
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 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 radiation
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.

hot wax
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.

whale tail
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
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
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 juice
Beet stains can make a kitchen
look like a murder scene, but in the 1900s the brightness of the vegetable had
a different purpose and it was all about makeup. 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
we really better off now?

makeup brushes
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.
Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.