Transforming the Wrinkled Hide of Hecuba: Cosmetic Politics in 16th and 17th Century England

William Salmon’s widely popular and multipurpose Polygraphice1 went through several versions by the early 1700s. Salmon included in this practical guide recipes for a wide range of topics including art, cosmetics, and medicinal concoctions along with the principles of alchemy, a scientific practice still held in high regard in the late seventeenth century. His volume focuses, in part, on cosmetics and face painting. In its introduction, Salmon explains:

Though you may look so much like the Image of death, as that your Skins might be taken for your Winding-sheets, yet by our directions you may attain such a rosid colour, and such a lively cheerfulness, as shall not make you look like natures workmanship, but also put admiration into the beholders, and fix them in a belief, that you are the first-fruits of the resurrection. Thus we teach you lipid mortalls to retrace the steps of youthfulness, and to transform the wrinkled hide of Hecuba into the tender skin of the greatest beauties […].

Cosmetics flourished in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Owing to its popularity among everyday people, Salmon’s Polygraphice did not fall short on keeping up with the latest fashion trends. The popular obsession with cosmetics, both positive and negative, informed the wider societal fear of the deconstruction of racial and class boundaries. Of particular interest in the book are the recipes for skin whitening. These recipes can help us to put early modern conceptions of race and class into perspective.

To make a very good Wash to whiten the skin, and give a good complexion.
            Take Limons, hens eggs boiled, of each twelve, Turpentine eight ounces, distill all in Balneo Mariae, with which wash: when you wash, you may drop into it a drop, two or three of oil of Oranges or Cinnamon, for fragrancy sake (pg. 403).

Skin whitening cosmetics grew in popularity during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Art historian Romana Sammern defines 16th and 17th century beauty when she says that wrinkle-free white skin, rouged cheeks, and red lips epitomized beauty standards of the day. The Queen’s unmistakable image of milky-white skin and fiery red hair was, in reality, an attempt to cover small pox scars. However, Elizabeth’s appearance quickly translated into the beauty standard among women in Elizabethan England and subsequent eras.

Illustration of Queen Elizabeth I, Nicholas Hilliard, 1592.
Courtesy WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia

A primary ingredient in the Queen’s facial cosmetics, lead (also called ceruse) was the most popular make-up element. Sammern notes that lead substances were easy to apply to the skin and created a smooth, unblemished texture. A fucus – lead-based face paint – was created in various ways; recipes included talc powder, vinegar, chaphire oil, pearls, bull’s galls, and wine spirits. These, in various amalgamations, were boiled and distilled. The resulting white substance was then applied to the face to create a pleasing complexion.

Another excellent Fucus made of Pearl.
Dissolve Pearl in distilled Vinegar; precipitate with oil of Sulphur per Campanam; then sweeten and digest with spirit of wine; abstract the spirit, and you have a magisterial Fucus will melt like Butter. (pg. 397).

Red and white tones had significant societal implications. In one sense, it was believed that the face could be “read” to determine a person’s humoral state.  Humoral medicine tied the four bodily fluids to the four elements which in turn related to four colors: black, yellow, white, and red. A second reason a milky-white skin tone was important was because a white complexion was an indication of a leisurely, upper-class lifestyle while a ruddy or tanned complexion pointed to the working class, laborious lifestyle that men and women of lower ranks endured. During this time, anxieties over class-hopping emerged. Some anti-cosmetic discourse centered on class demarcations and how some women used white make-up to impersonate the upper classes.

While the whiteness of a person’s skin was indicative of health, beauty, and rank, a fair complexion was also a marker of racial superiority among early-modern English people. Cosmetics defined the ‘here’ versus ‘there’ ideology of 16th and 17th century society. Early-modern writers conceptualized that all people, regardless of region of origin, were born “white” but used cosmetics and paints to make their skin appear darker as in the case of North American Indians and African peoples. Thus to the sixteenth and seventeenth century analytical mind, race was something actively done to the body and was not biological.

One must keep in mind the context of this era; colonial explorers were only just beginning to encounter new kinds of people, and the reasons for differences in appearance were widely debated by early-modern thinkers. The use of cosmetics and anti-cosmetic rhetoric informed the larger fundamental fear of the deconstruction of racial boundaries. To value whiteness was to imply the purity of English people as opposed to the “Otherness” of darker toned populations.

William Salmon’s Polygraphice is a valuable source in understanding the early-modern mind that placed race and rank in society above all else. His inclusions of skin whitening recipes can tell us this much. Cosmetics from this era place this kind of demarcation in society in a wider perspective.

1Hunter Collection, uncat., Toppan Rare Books Library.

References consulted:

Poitevin, Kimberly. “Inventing Whiteness: Cosmetics, Race, and Women in Early Modern England.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 59-89.

Sammern, Romana. “Red, White and Black: Colors of Beauty, Tints of Health and Cosmetic Materials in Early Modern English Art Writing.” Early Science and Medicine 20, no. 4/6 (2015): 397-427.

Post contributed by Toppan Library Intern Emma J. Comstock.


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