Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day

Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day

by Madeleine Marsh
Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day

Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day

by Madeleine Marsh


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Cosmetics have been used to increase attraction since Ancient times whilst Compacts have been a symbol of love for generations but especially since the 1920s. In this fascinating book, vintage accessories’ expert, Madeleine Marsh, discusses just what makes compacts so desirable and reveals their hidden secrets from cameras to cigarettes. Madeleine shows what to buy and where, what to spot when buying and how to make the most of your compacts, vintage cosmetics or beauty accessories.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783408634
Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Limited
Publication date: 02/20/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 850,982
File size: 33 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Madeleine Marsh is an author and expert in the history of cosmetic products.

Read an Excerpt


The Foundation of Make-up

Beauty in the Ancient World

FROM THE DAWN of time men and women have decorated their bodies. Prehistoric peoples painted and scarified the skin to indicate tribal allegiance, to scare their enemies, and honour their gods but the first recorded use of make-up for pleasure derives from Ancient Egypt.


The Egyptians pioneered the development of cosmetics and fragrances. They lived and died surrounded by kohl jars, make-up boxes, perfume vials and polished metal mirrors, all of which were buried with them to provide eternal beauty in the afterlife. They painted their eyes, rouged their lips, spent hours arranging their hairstyles, and many of the time-consuming grooming practises that we take for granted today were established four thousand years ago on the banks of the Nile.

Depilation and Moisturising

A smooth skin was highly prized and body hair was removed with pumice stones, tweezers, and bronze razors, all of which have been found in tombs. The Hearst Medical Papyrus (a list of cures and remedies inscribed in the second millennium BC) recommended a concoction of heated lard, insect droppings and boiled bird bones as a wax depilatory, or more simply suggested rubbing the offending hair with blood from the vulva of a female greyhound.

In a harsh, hot climate moisturising the body was practised by every class. When Howard Carter opened up Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, he discovered sealed jars containing traces of scented skin cream that was still fragrant after 3,000 years. At the other end of the social scale, during the reign of Rameses III when the tomb builders of Deir el-Medina laid down tools (one of history's first recorded strikes), a major cause of their pioneering industrial action was the non-supply of castor and sesame oils, which were an agreed part of their monthly rations and essential for keeping the skin supple in desert conditions.

Eye paint and Face make-up

Make-up was used both for prophylactic and decorative purposes. Thick lines of eye paint helped protect the eyes from the sun's glare and powdered kohl was also included in eye medicines. Worn by both men and women, eye paint came in two main colours – green made from malachite (copper carbonate) and black from galena (lead sulphide). Ingredients were ground on a cosmetic palette, mixed with oil or water, then applied to the eyes either with the fingers or a kohl pencil – a slim stick sometimes with a small mixing spoon or spatula at one end. Kohl pots came in a range of styles from small alabaster boxes to long slender glass tubes,and containers were often decorated with the image of Bes – protector of the household, pregnant women and children, and the deity associated with pleasure. Decorating the eyes also had a symbolic value, simulating the eye of Horus (the falcon god) and providing a protective amulet against the evil eye.

Yellow ochre paint was used to lighten the skin (men also used a darker orange tone); red ochre was powdered to rouge the lips and cheeks. The Turin Erotic Papyrus – the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of a girlie magazine and a monument to human athleticism and sexual invention during the Rameses' period (1292-1075BC) – includes the illustration of a female nude, straddling a vast phallus whilst calmly painting her mouth; lip brush in one hand, mirror and cosmetic tube in the other. Like Twentieth Century pin-ups, even if you had no clothes on, you needed to be sure that your make-up was flawless.

Skin Decoration and Tattooing

Henna was used to tint fingernails and decorate the skin; more permanent markings were provided by puncture tattooing. According to evidence from mummies and statuettes, tattooing appears to have been largely restricted to women including dancers and concubines. Geometric designs were inked on the body (often around the stomach area) whilst the inner thigh was tattooed with representations of Bes, a good luck charm whether you wanted to ward off sexual disease or ensure a safe labour.

Hair care

Henna also served to colour the hair and medical papyri included numerous recipes for hair dyes and scalp treatments. Donkey liver, or a cooked mouse – left to rot then mixed with lard – provided a salve that would prevent greyness. Another remedy suggested strengthening the hair with the juice of a black lizard boiled in oil, whilst baldness could be cured with a pomade of fat extracted from the lion, the hippo, the crocodile, the tomcat, the snake and the Nubian ibex.

Small wonder perhaps that shaving the head was a popular alternative. 'The priests shave themselves all over their body every other day, so that no lice or any other foul thing may come to be upon them when they minister to the gods,' observed the Fifth Century BC Greek historian Herodotus.

At various periods civilian men, and women too, shaved their heads, resorting to elaborate wigs that could be styled and beeswaxed into the latest fashionable shapes. Another artificial favourite was a long and slender false beard worn by both male and female pharaohs as a symbol of status. Tomb paintings show ladies supporting cones of fat upon their heads, which according to one explanation were designed to melt as the evening progressed, thus moisturising their wigs. A less messy theory was that these cones were a hieroglyphic symbol, indicating that their hairpieces were richly perfumed.


Fragrance was used for both cosmetic and religious purposes. The word perfume comes from the Latin per fumum: through smoke. Across the Ancient World incense was burnt in temples to appease the gods, to raise the soul to the heavens and to conceal the all too earthy smells of sacrificed flesh and an unwashed congregation. Perfume was inseparable from love, life and death. As Shakespeare tells it Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony on a barge with scented purple sails 'so perfumèd that the winds were love-sick with them'. Corpses were embalmed with myrrh and cassia and wrapped in scented bandages both as a symbol of eternity and to preserve the body from putrefaction.

Ancient Greece

Perfume and cosmetics (often imported from Egypt and the Far East) spread across the Mediterranean. In Athens, women rouged their cheeks with cinnabar (red mercury sulphide) and blanched their complexions with powdered white lead, products which as the Roman naturalist Pliny observed were 'deadly poisons'. Despite persistent warnings, lead continued to be used in cosmetics until well into the Nineteenth Century and from deadly nightshade – used in ancient times to dilate the pupils (hence its Italian name belladonna: beautiful lady) – to modern day botox (smoothing out wrinkles with botulinus toxin), poisonous substances have remained a constituent of make-up.

It wasn't just women who were dying to be beautiful. In Athens, a culture that venerated the male body, moisturising the skin was an important part of the masculine bathing process, as described by the poet Antiphanes in the Fourth Century BC.

'He really bathes In a large gilded tub, and steeps his feet And legs in rich Egyptian unguents;
His neck and chest he rubs with oil of palm And both his arms with extract of sweet mint,
His eyebrows and his hair with Marjoram,
His knees and face with essence of ground thyme.'

Socrates rejected such perfumed foppery declaring that the only scent a man needed was 'nobility of soul'and in warlike Sparta cosmetics and fragrances were banned.


Warlike Rome however embraced them with enthusiasm. In his Natural History (77AD), Pliny noted with disgust that soldiers had taken to wearing perfume underneath their helmets and that even the standards and eagles of the Legions, the emblems of Roman power across the world, were steeped in scented oils, providing a fragrant symbol of 'our state of extreme corruptness'.

Pliny criticised the vast amounts of money wasted on cosmetic unguents, the most fugitive and as such 'the most superfluous' of luxuries. Nero was famous for his love of expensive fragrances, even perfuming (reports Pliny despairingly) the soles of his feet. Silver pipes were installed in the imperial palace to spray visitors with rosewater and on one occasion the emperor spent a fortune on a waterfall of rose petals, that smothered and killed one of his guests. Nero's wife (and former mistress) Poppaea Sabina was said to bathe daily in milk from her personal herd of 500 asses, and devised her own pomatums to guard against wrinkles.

Roman matrons covered themselves in make-up. In Book III of Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) the Roman poet Ovid offered frank advice to women on every subject from how to fake an orgasm ('don't betray yourself by over-acting') to personal grooming.

Stinking armpits and bristly legs were, he emphasised, to be avoided at all cost. Chalk was recommended for whitening the skin, carmine for pinking the cheeks and powdered ash and saffron for emphasising the eyes. If you were not fortunate enough to have a mono-brow (much prized in Ancient Rome and Greece) Ovid suggests inking one in; similarly thin hair could be rectified by wigs; and patches could be used to conceal spots and blemishes. As far as Ovid was concerned there was nothing at all wrong with make-up and artificial embellishments, so long as they were applied in secret:

'On no account let your lover find you with a lot of "aids to beauty" boxes about you. The art that adorns you should be unsuspected ... Let your servants tell us you are still asleep, if we arrive before your toilet is finished. You will appear all the lovelier when you've put on the finishing touch. Why should I know what it is that makes your skin so white? Keep your door shut, and don't let me see the work before it's finished. There are a whole host of things we men should know nothing about.'

Whereas in Ancient Egypt men and women alike showed off their cosmetic accessories and revelled in obviously artificial make-up and false hair; the beauties of Rome were expected to 'appear' natural and were mocked if they were caught out.

'You dye you hair, but never will you dye your old age ... Never will rouge or white paint turn Hecuba into Helen,' warned the Second Century Greek writer Lucian. 'Your hair was made far away and at night you put away your teeth in the same manner as your silks. You lie stored away in a hundred little cosmetic boxes – your face doesn't even sleep with you,' sneered the poet Martial in his epigrams. Even the liberal Ovid had no patience with men who experimented with make-up. 'Don't, for heaven's sake, have your hair waved, or use powder on your skin,' urged the so-called 'Master of Love'who recommended that gentlemen should confine themselves to a decent hair cut and a good wash ('don't go about reeking like a billy goat'). Men should, he adds, remember to clean their teeth, manicure their nails and trim their nose hair but 'All other toilet refinements leave to the women or to perverts.'

Ungodly make-up

It wasn't just Roman satirists who attacked the wearing of obvious make-up. With the rise of Christianity and the collapse of unguent-guzzling Rome, cosmetics and perfumes were stigmatised as sinful luxuries. In the bible Jezebel, the pagan queen of Israel, was demonised not just for cruelly subjugating the Jews, but for painting her face and fixing her hair; her name becoming a synonym for prostitute across the millennia. Saints and early Christian converts condemned any attempt whatsoever to improve upon God's creation. 'What place has rouge and white lead on the face of a Christian woman?' demanded St Jerome in his letters. '... They serve only to inflame young men's passions, to stimulate lust and to indicate an unchaste mind.' 'Women in general should be warned that the work of God ... should in no way be falsified by employing yellow colouring or black powder or rouge, or, finally, any cosmetic at all that spoils the natural features,' insisted St Cyprian. 'Everything that comes into existence is the work of God; whatever is changed, is the work of the devil.'

By the start of the first millennium, the basic paradox of makeup was already established. From Ancient Egypt came a wealth of cosmetics and grooming practices, many of which are still the accepted norm today. The Romans encouraged women to apply their make-up in secret and to use it to simulate natural perfection. The early Christians ordered them to reject cosmetics altogether, dismissing them as deceitful, immoral and a source of shame.

The following history of cosmetics and beauty begins nearly 2,000 years on in the Nineteenth Century, but for the Victorian ladies sitting at their dressing tables, the conflict between natural and artificial beauty was not only still raging, it was at its height.


Unpainted Ladies

Beauty in the Victorian Age

FOR THE VICTORIAN lady – thanks to the industrial revolution and heightened moral sensibility – fashion became a virtual prison. The period ideal of fragile, fainting femininity was rendered almost inevitable by new developments in underwear. With the invention of metal eyelets in the 1820s stays could be laced tighter than ever before, squeezing the waist with steel and whalebone. The corset is 'a tyrant – that aspiring to embrace, hugs like a bear – crushing in the ribs, injuring the lungs and heart, the stomach and many other internal organs,' fumed Mary Eliza Haweis in The Art of Beauty 1878. 'And all to what end? The end of looking like a wasp, and losing the whole charm of graceful human movement and easy carriage – the end of communicating an over-all-ish sense of deformity!'

A tiny waist was set off by an enormous skirt, initially supported by heavy layers of petticoats, then from the 1850s by the crinoline – a literal cage of steel hoops that could give a woman a six-foot circumference. The metal crinoline might have been lighter and cooler than scratchy linen and horsehair underskirts, but it was scarcely more liberating. 'Kind feeling alone ought to put an end to this stupid fashion which makes our dress a nuisance in every railway carriage, omnibus and pew, and all other places where the sitting room is small,' grumbled the Alexandra Magazine in 1864.

It was also potentially dangerous. Newspapers reported horror stories about girls getting trapped in machinery and the fireplace was a constant hazard. 'We never see a lady on the hearthrug, without fearing she will make an auto da fe of herself,' mocked Punch magazine in 1859. 'We have put down in India the practice of Suttee, but in England wives and daughters are consumed as well as widows ... Lives enough are lost through their shoes and tight-lacing, without our adding Crinoline as a depopulating influence.'

From her toes scrunched up in pointy buttoned boots to the tips of her fingers squeezed in tight kid gloves the Victorian lady was expected to sacrifice comfort for constraint. The fashionable silhouette was immobilising and rampantly artificial, but the one area of the body where, in theory at least, no artifice was allowed was the face.

Unpainted ladies

Obvious use of make-up was considered indecent and face painting was dismissed as the preserve of actresses and streetwalkers (hence the expression painted lady). 'If Satan has ever had any direct agency in inducing woman to spoil or deform her own beauty, it must have been in tempting her to use paints and enamelling. Ladies ought to know that it is a sure spoiler of the skin, and good taste ought to teach them that it is a frightful distorter and deformer of the natural beauty of the 'human face divine', warned Lola Montez in 1858, who as an exotic dancer and famous courtesan herself might be expected to know a thing or two about the evils of cosmetics.

The classic image of Victorian beauty – a peaches and cream complexion, cherry ripe lips, a pair of sparkling eyes fringed by soft, fluttering lashes – was expected to be natural, a gift from God. Despite any evidence to the contrary, external loveliness was associated with inner virtue. Fashion guides stressed the cosmetic benefits of early rising, cold water, fresh air and temperance. According to the most extreme opponents of cosmetics 'plain living and high thinking' would do more for the skin than powder and paint, and improving the mind was a sure-fire way of improving the appearance.

Lola, writing in the intriguingly titled The Arts of Beauty: or, Secrets of a Lady's Toilet With Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating was a little more circumspect: 'It is true that a beautiful mind is the first thing requisite for a beautiful face, yet how much more charming will the whole become through the aid of a fine complexion!' she urged,' ... It is a woman's duty to use all the means in her power to beautify and preserve her complexion.'

Home-made Remedies and Secret Makeup

Without the concealing aid of make-up, a fine complexion became even more important and was an indicator of youth, health and social standing.


Excerpted from "Compacts and Cosmetics"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Madeleine Marsh.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Page,
CHAPTER ONE - The Foundation of Make-up,
CHAPTER TWO - Unpainted Ladies,
CHAPTER THREE - Actresses, Mistresses, and Suffragettes,
CHAPTER FOUR - Put on a Pretty Face,
CHAPTER FIVE - Hooray for Hollywood,
CHAPTER SIX - On the Art Deco Dressing Table,
CHAPTER EIGHT - Immaculate Grooming,
CHAPTER NINE - Swinging Make-up,
CHAPTER TEN - Glam Men and Hairy Women,
CHAPTER ELEVEN - Material Girls and Boys,
CHAPTER TWELVE - Bling, Botox or the Burqa?,
APPENDIX - Buying Beauty,

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