Washing with mercury and urine: How to be a Georgian Court beauty

We all like to make ourselves look good and the Georgians were no exceptions. During the reign of the George’s, hair got bigger, dresses wider and beauty practices more complex. Beauty was much revered in Court and for the courtiers looking good meant that they could get nearer the king and queen so they needed to go out of their way to beautify themselves. For women this meant a varie-ty of complex, and sometimes fairly disgusting and dangerous sounding, beauty techniques. The practices they used were quite different the ways we beautify ourselves today.

georgan beauty

Courtiers tried to keep the skin as soft and luscious looking as possible. They had to battle against disease and old age. Smallpox was a dangerous disease of the time and if one did manage to sur-vive it pock marks remained on the skin. In the endeavour for beauty, women were known to apply patches of velvet, leather or paper to cover the skin and give themselves the appearance of a much smoother complexion. Quite a long way from the foundation we use to cover blemishes to-day. To soften the skin, the ladies of the Georgian court would wash in their own urine or else use a rather more appealing mixture of rose-water and wine. To get rid of red spots, the ladies of the court has the option of trying a foul sounding concoction of pigeons dung, along with barley flower, linseed and vinegar.

Beauty 1

Courtiers would go to extremes to keep themselves look youthful. Mercury was popular to get a fresh faced look; it would remove the top layer of skin leaving the face raw. It was painful and dan-gerous process and it’s probably best that we all stick to modern exfoliators rather than attempting to copy their techniques. Older ladies could employ plumpers, which were placed in the mouth, to stop their cheeks from sagging and give them a more youthful appearance.

Beauty 2

Courtiers also took great care to make sure they had the stylish hairstyles of the day. Curled hair was very fashionable in the Georgian Court, however Georgian courtiers didn’t have the advantage of electric hair curlers. To make hair grow naturally curly it was suggested that ladies could shave off all the hair and rub the scalp with daffodil roots. Alternatively ladies could set their hair in at least 100 curl papers overnight, an uncomfortable and time consuming process. To enhance the height of the hair without modern hair spray, cushions were used to provide height. The Georgian courtiers would have also used a strange recipe to make hair strong and thick:

Take Rosemary, Maiden-hair, Southernwood, Myrtle berries, Hazelbark, or each two ounces; burn these to ashes on a clear hearth, or in an oven; put these ashes in white-wine, to make a strong lye, and wash the hair daily at the root.
Let’s not forget about smell. Georgians weren’t too keen of washing their bodies very often so they would cover themselves in perfume or hide sponges soaked in essential oils under their clothes to hide their unwashed odour. Perfumes could include alcohol and turpentine as well as more pleasing smells such as rosemary and cedar.

Beauty 3

The Georgian courtiers put a lot of effort into beautifying themselves. The range of techniques and ingredients they used is staggering and a little gross. We can definitely be grateful that we don’t have to strive as hard as the Georgians in our aim to look (and smell) good. I, for one, don’t plan to start washing in pigeon dung anytime soon.

Above recipes taken from the following sources: Lemery, New Curiosities (1711), Kettilby, A Collection of above 300 receipts (3rd ed, 1724), M.W., The Queens Closet Opened (1671), Salmon, Poly-graphice (1672, 1701), Wolley, The Accomplish’d Ladies Delight (7th ed, 1696), Collection of Re-ceipts in Cookery, Physic and Surgery (2nd ed, 1724)

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