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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. 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. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Eighteenth-century women chemists


A recipe for lovely skin; or eighteenth-century women chemists

Cucumber pomatum 

Take hogs’-lard a pound, ripe melons and cucumbers of each three pounds, verjuice half a pint, two pippins pared, and a pint of cows’ milk. Slice the melons, cucumbers and apples, having first pared them; bruise them in the verjuice, and together with the milk and hogs’-lard put them into an alembic, and let them stand to infuse in a vapour bath eight or ten hours. Then squeeze out the liquor through a straining cloth while the mixture is hot; expose the pomatum to the cold air, or set it in a cool place to congeal, then pour off the watery part that subsides. And wash it in several waters till the last remains perfectly transparent. Melt the pomatum again in a vapour bath several times, to separate from it all its humid particles, and every extraneous substance, or else it will soon grow rancid. Keep it for use in a gallipot tied over with a bladder. 

The Toilet of Flora, 1775

This is a long and demanding process, and would have resulted in a not unpleasant skin cream. The lard and milk would have provided protein and the vegetables would have been probably beneficial to the skin. The process would have been carried out by women - The Ladies Dictionary (1694) states that:

Every young Gentlewoman is to be furnished … with very good stills, for the distillations of all kinds of waters, which stills must either be of tin, or sweet earth, and in them she shall distil all manner of waters …

Eight or ten hours watching over the first distillation in stills not of glass but of opaque material, so that you could not see what was happening – so presumably you learned to judge the heat appropriately so the mixture did not burn, no small skill in itself. And then washing it several times, and then melting it several times. What we are looking at here is effectively an industrial chemical process, carried out at home, dependent upon skill and judgement for its success; a wealthy home too if they could afford melons. It was clearly a process which could fail, since the result of such a failure is described (it will soon grow rancid). Thus it was important to know how to get it right. Where did the women get their training in this, other than by watching and helping their elders? The inference is that the eighteenth century was a period in which women were passing on skills in chemistry that were used for their own applications.

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