“The Beautifying Part of Physic”

I’m diving deep into early modern recipes this month, and as the term recipe was not reserved for the culinary realm during this time that means instructions for all sorts of things: health, hygiene, magic, preservation, and cosmetics, or the “beautifying part of physic” according to one of the first books devoted exclusively to made beauty: Johan Wecker’s Cosmeticks (1660). Wecker’s categorization of cosmetics was in alignment with the contemporary understanding of the body and its operation, best expressed by Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning earlier in the seventeenth century:  the knowledge that concerneth man’s body is divided as the good of man’s body is divided, unto which it referreth. The good of man’s body is of four kinds, Health, Beauty, Strength and Pleasure: so the knowledges are Medicine, or the art of Cure; art of Decoration, which is called Cosmetic; art of Activity, which is called Athletic; and art Voluptuary, which Tacitus truly calleth eruditus luxus [refined luxury?]. This subject of man’s body is of all other things in nature most susceptible of remedy; but then that remedy is most susceptible of error. What cosmetic remedies does Wecker offer? Here’s the title page and his own summary of its contents:

Cosmeticks

Cosmetics Contents

As you can read, this book offers a lot: all deformities of Nature corrected, age renewed, youth prolonged, the least impediment amended. I am wondering if it was “promised to the world” by the prominent physician Nicholas Culpepper; I assume that’s just an advertising ploy. The egalitarian pitch (every one may be his own apothecary) is contradicted by many of the valuable ingredients of the recipes within, but there are also some very simple recipes with basic ingredients—essentially there are hierarchies of recipes for the same goal: whiter skin, smoother skin, spot-free skin, fairer hair, more hair in some places, less in others, a sweeter-smelling body. Women should have rose-water on hand at all times, and lots of lemons, the occasional pineapple, and be prepared to devote many eggs to their beauty regimens.

Cosmetics collage

A few skin-whitening recipes are above, with reference in one to the legendary ceruse, the white-lead concoction which all of my students think Queen Elizabeth I slathered on her face every single day to hide her smallpox scars and project majesty and Virgin Mary-ness, thanks to Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998). We don’t have a lot of evidence for this cosmetic fable (see here), and I can’t find recipes for ceruse in any of the likely seventeenth-century texts, perhaps because it was purchased as a ready-made commodity (especially the preferred Venetian variety), or it was too much of a target for the anti-paint Puritans. I did find a Royal Society recipe of sorts (more like an industrial process) in a charming twentieth-century book about the history of cosmetics, Neville Williams’ Powder and Paint. A History of the Englishwoman’s Toilet, Elizabeth I—Elizabeth II (1957), but most of the cosmetic creams referenced in seventeenth-century recipe books featured the less-dangerous and -expensive “bear’s grease”(or that of any animal, but usually pigs) rather than ceruse. The marvellous Hannah Woolley’s skin waters, ointments and creams echo those of Wecker: even though some of her recipes are equally elaborate, it seems that “beautifying” is more about pampering (and removing) than paint (and adorning). Don’t get me started on patches–they are a whole other story.

Cosmetics Williams

Woolley 1685.jpgBeinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

A recipe for an excellent “Pomatum”, to clear the Skin, from Hannah Woolley’s The accomplish’d ladies delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery : containing I, The art of preserving and candying … II, The physical cabinet, or, Excellent receipts in physick and chirurgery, together with some rare beautifying waters … and also … The art of angling. III, The compleat cooks guide ((1685).

Wash Barrows-grease, or [pig] Lard often-times in May-dew that hath been Clarified in the Sun, till it be exceeding white, then take Marsh-mallow-Roots, scraping off the out-sides, make thin slices of them, set them to macerate in a Balneo, and scum it well till it be Clarified, and will come to rope, then strain it, and put now and then a spoonfull of May-dew therein, beating it till it be through cold in often change of May-dew; then throw away that Dew, and put in a Glass, covering it with May-dew, and so keep it for your Use.


7 responses to ““The Beautifying Part of Physic”

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