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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Seventeenth century white face make-up

I have often wondered what was the composition of the white make-up used by Elizabeth I and court ladies of the seventeenth century. Was it a form of lead, as frequently thought? These two recipes come from Delights for Ladies, 1636.

To anoint the face and to make it white 

Take fresh bacon grease, and the whites of eggs, and stamp them together, and a little powder of bays and anoint your face therewith, and it will make it white.

A white fucus or beauty for the face 

The jaw bones of a hog or sow well burnt, beaten and searced through a fine searce [sieve], and after, ground upon a porphyrie or serpentine stone, is an excellent fucus, being laid on with the oil of white poppy.

The second basically creates a layer of white calcium phosphate on the skin; ground jaw-bones of pigs seem to have been a common source for white face-makeup, though the term ‘fucus’ was applied to colours other than white, and in fact derived from a Latin term applied to red dye. The ‘oil of white poppy’ was perhaps an infusion of petals in oil; I think the lard-based make-up would have been a cheaper option. The link between animal products and cosmetics is pretty well entrenched here. Little refinement is involved – the final product is removed from the dead animal by more stages in the second recipe, but it contains only two ingredients. You could not avoid knowing that you were basically slapping the ashes of pig bones on your face.

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