Cosmetics Through Time: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun


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Do you ever wonder what it would be like to live without your lipstick?

Cosmetics have been around for thousands of years, promising to make our lips rosier, eyes brighter and complexions clearer. p2

In 4,000 B.C., Egyptian women lined their eyes with leaded paints and copper. This was poisonous to their health but they didn’t know it. For nail polish, the Chinese used beeswax, egg whites and gelatin, dating back to 3,000 B.C.. Certain colors were restricted to royalty. Using the wrong color nail polish was punishable by death.

In Greco-Roman times, the Middle Ages, and Elizabethan times, pale faces were much more desirable for women than any skin touched by the sun. A tan was considered crude and reserved for women who worked the fields. Unfortunately, this led to various creams applied to the face to reduce blood flow, such as lead paint or arsenic face powder, which caused illness.

p3In the mid 1800s, Queen Victoria declared that wearing makeup was vulgar, and should be reserved only for actors. Prostitutes used it, too. This rigid attitude carried over to North America, and so women rarely wore cosmetics until the late 1800s, toward the end of her reign. By the time her son King Edward VII became king in 1901, makeup and its manufacture was beginning to flourish.

On the Western frontier in the 1800s, wearing no makeup was often the preferred look, but there were little tricks women used to make themselves look better. Makeup that looked natural was usually the goal.

Blush: Pinching the cheeks made them rosier, also pinching the lips. Rouge was available to buy in small tins.

Mascara: Some women used beeswax on their lashes to make them look thicker. Kohl is a mixture of soot and other ingredients and was used on the eyelids and eyelashes to darken them—first used by  Egyptian queens. Darkening the area around the eyes also helped protect the eyes from sun glare.

In France, Eugene Rimmel was the first to develop a non-toxic mascara in the late 1800s, sometime before his death in 1887. It was a cake-like substance. Modern mascara as we know it was invented in 1913 by  T.L. Williams, a chemist, for his sister Mabel. He saw his sister applying coal dust and Vaseline to her lashes, and so he made and marketed the stuff. He named his company Mabelline as a combination of her name and Vaseline.


Eyeliner:  Some women used burnt matches once they cooled.

Petroleum jelly:  Vaseline petroleum jelly was patented in the 1870s.

Hair removal: From about 3,000 B.C. women were removing body hair with scary ingredients they made from things like arsenic and starch. By 500 B.C. Roman women were removing body hair with razor blades and pumice stones, and using tweezers to pluck their eyebrows. By the early 1800s, European women were making homemade depilatories—walnut oil was one popular ingredient. From 1895 to 1904, Mr. Gillette perfected the development of his safety razor.

Underarm deodorant:  Mum deodorant was the first invented in 1888 by an unknown inventor from Philadelphia.

Lipstick: Egyptians used a type of henna to stain their lips—back then it was a poisonous substance made of plant dye, iodine and bromine. Cleopatra wore lipstick made from crushed carmine beetles, which gave her a deep red pigment. Lipstick became popular as we know it during the 16th century by Queen Elizabeth I, where lipstick was made from a combination of beeswax and red plant stains.

Acne fighters: Pharaohs in Egypt used a combination of mineral water mixed with sulphur. Ancient Romans bathed in hot sulphurous mineral water. During the 1800s, sulphur treatments were applied to the skin but it was very drying and didn’t always work.

Hair: Sheen was created by brushing the hair a hundred times at night; using lemon rinses; adding eggs to shampoo. Hennas have been very popular since Egyptian times to color the hair. Hair dyes were often used discreetly in England and America during the 1800s, although one didn’t admit it in public.

Max Factor is often referred to as the father of modern makeup. He was born in Poland in the 1870s (original name was spelled Faktor). Later, he moved to Moscow and worked with theatrical groups, where he created cosmetics, fragrances and wigs. He became the cosmetic expert for the Russian royal family. In 1904, he immigrated to New York with his family, and that year at the St. Louis World’s Fair, he introduced his handmade rouges, lipsticks, wigs and creams to American women. His items became so popular he developed his own line of cosmetics.

Besides my list, do you know of anything else women used for personal makeup and grooming? Do you recall anything your grandmother used? I once found an old curling iron in a trunk that didn’t have an electrical cord, but it was obviously intended to be heated in coals. I was shocked they thought of that way back then.

Is there a certain cosmetic that you couldn’t live without?

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33 thoughts on “Cosmetics Through Time: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”

  1. Mineral oil/baby oil is used as a lubricant/lotion. It’s also found in cold creams that remove your makeup. My sister uses baby oil to remove mascara.

    Some people use baby oil as a suntan lotion(not recommended as you can burn easily).
    I used baby oil to remove “cradle crap”-dry, scaly patches on my children’s scalps.

    Rubbing alcohol is used to dry up your skin acne.

    I use vaseline on my chapped lips.

  2. Hi Laurie! I remember using baby oil for removing mascara and also for suntanning many moons ago. (boy that was a bad habit, with no SPF!). I didn’t know it was used in cold creams, but it makes sense. Now I usually look for water-based makeup because oil-based still makes me break out. I never knew about the rubbing alcohol. Thanks for those additions!

  3. BTW, for anyone out there who is a writer, some of this stuff was being invented and developed several years before it was actually patented. So it could appear in a novel earlier than patented dates.

  4. What a fun blog, Kate! Very informative–now I know how Maybelline came to be. 🙂

    Here’s a little tidbit to share: the Egyptians were indeed a vain lot. During the times when women went bare-breasted, they outlined their veins blue and tipped their nipples in gold. Men were buried with their cosmetics–creams and perfumes–as evidenced when they found King Tut’s tomb.

    Me? I never leave the house without mascara and lipstick. Never, ever, ever. My lashes aren’t long and thick, and my lips are pale (as are most women’s, I guess) and I look half-dead without them.

    Great topic!!

  5. I wear make up on rare occasions when going out of the house, but not sure what I couldn’t live without. I usually do a hint of shadow, blush and lipstick, though perhaps the mascara is the one I couldn’t- Like Pam, I don’t have long, thick lashes, so it does help!

    It’s probably a more modern acne treatment, but I put a dab of toothpaste on acne and leave it for a minute then wash it off. A day or so later, acne’s gone.

    Washing hair with apple cider vinegar gives it a good cleansing, especially for itchy dry scalp, though the smell can be overwhelming. You can pour it on as a rinse after shampooing and you can either leave it full strength or dilute it.

    Beer is another hair rinse, too.

    Witch Hazel can be used as an astringent to clean the face.

    Oh, and my cousin used an iron (like ironing clothes) and would “straighten” her curly hair with it by pressing it out flat.

  6. Pam, what juicy tidbits you’re sharing on Egyptians! LOL–gold paint–I could see that. Blue paint–outlined–yuck!

    LOL on looking half-dead without mascara and lipstick. I’m that way with lipstick. It looks like I don’t even have any lips if I go without. 🙂

  7. Taryn–hi! What a great tip with toothpaste on zits. I wonder what makes that work? The cooling mint, maybe? I’ll have to tell my teenage daughter. She’s going through a rough time right now with skin breakouts.

    I remember on the farm my mom rinsing my hair sometimes with regular vinegar. I didn’t really see a difference…maybe apple vinegar works better. And yes, I’ve heard of beer rinses but never tried it. Witch Hazel–oh yeah, I used to use that, too! It’s amazing how many memories are coming back to haunt me, lol.

    About the iron–I remember a long time ago Oprah said she used to do that, too, with a regular iron. I had no idea. I guess when you have curly hair you want it straight, and when you have straight hair you want it curly (that’s me).

    Interesting comments! Thanks!

  8. What a great blog, Kate! Without makeup I look like my face has been erased. I only go without it when I sleep. Last year, after fiddling with smeary eyeliner for years I had permanent eyeliner tattooed around my eyes. Yeah, it hurt, and it’s not for everyone, but I love mine. Some people have their lips done but I’m not that brave. Eyebrows, maybe…
    And I remember some of that old stuff. I’ve used henna myself, and when I was a little girl my mum used Mum. It was a cream in a jar. It helped with the smell but wasn’t an antiperspirant and made the armpits drippy wet.

  9. Kate the beer rinses were probably to attract men…with the smell.

    We found a curling iron at my grandma’s house that wasn’t electric. It had some kind of clamp on it (I’m trying to remember, i could have this wrong) that she’d clamp to…the top of a kerosene lantern…I think.

    Set it up there, clamped to the top of that hurricane lantern, let it heat. But it could get to hot, no thermostat like now, and burn off the hair it was curling so it was touchy.

    Also, I remember reading a book a long time ago, set in Regency England, where the gowns were so low cut part of the areola around the nipple was visible and, though edgy, it wasn’t forbidden. And women would rouge them so they’d show up more.

    Has anyone ever heard that anywhere? I’ve never seen it since.

    Maybe that was something ‘fallen women’ or kept women did, but it didn’t seem like it in that book.

  10. Elizabeth, you’re so brave to tattoo the eyeliner on! I’m sure it looks great and natural. I think tattoing around the lips would be very risky–the tattooist would have to be excellent. I’ve used Henna, too. It smells! I had one of my heroines use it on her hair in a novel once and had the hero walk in unexpectedly and complain about the reeking smell, lol.

    Mum came in a jar? How weird. That must have been messy to apply. Thanks for letting us in on all this stuff!

  11. Mary, LOL on the beer attracting guys. You’re probably right–in some subtle way that the men didn’t know, they loved dancing with the girl with the long clean hair.

    I’ve never heard that about the Regency before. But it would explain why some TV/movies have the gowns so low-cut I swear you can see everything. The costume designers probably read that book, too!

  12. Mary, that makes me think–guys just don’t have a chance, do they? Trying to resist the smell of beer and rouged boobs, LOL! Then they get slapped in Regency times for being a cad and staring!

  13. I don’t wear makeup anymore. I live in the sticks and nobody else wears it, except on rare occasions. Lip balm is the requirement—your choice of brand.
    As a child in the 1940’s I remember my hair being washed with bar soap and rinsed with vinegar. We smelled like a salad when we were done. In the summer we used lemon juice for rinse and it also lightened the hair. (That was before the peroxide use of the 1950’s). We used bar soap because shampoos weren’t big during the war years. And the soap was Ivory (99/44/100% pure [whatever that meant]).
    For toothpaste we used a soda/salt combination. It actually worked better than the fancy toothpastes of today.
    Fun times.
    Loved your cosmetic research.

  14. Wow, interesting stuff! This is great. I knew the Egyptians used makeup way back there, but didn’t know it was used so much by others.

    I toured an old brothel in Colorado and they showed how the ladies heated a curling iron by propping it in the globe of an oil lamp. That was an eye-opener to me. Prior to that I didn’t know they used curling irons. It’s an interesting tidbit to put in a story sometime. I guess those women were desperate to look good.

    Thanks for the wonderful information!

  15. Hi Mary J–lip balm sounds like a requirement. I’d definitely need some sort of moisturizer for my lips. I remember the use of lemon juice to lighten hair! There used to be a product I think called Sun-In that advertised lemon juice as an ingredient. Nowadays kids color their hair every which color, but in our time we weren’t supposed to show it so much. Good to know about the bar soap being used as shampoo–intersting tidbits.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Hi Linda! That curling iron being heated on the oil lamp sounds like what Mary C was talking about. So there we have it–two confirmed sources! LOL on women being desperate to look good. I think times haven’t change much in that department.

  17. I had board-straight hair as a child, when I hit junior-high age I wanted curls. Mother used a Toni
    Home Perm for those curls and it was not fun! It took for ever to do and was most uncomfortable! The
    things we used to do to improve ourselves, and still
    go through!! LOL.

    Pat Cochran

  18. Pat, LOL, I know how you feel. I’ve had a Toni too! They were really popular when we were teenagers. And who could afford to go to a hairdresser to get it done? Except they always made my hair frizzie after a while. 🙂

  19. Kate, what a splendid post. I loved the bit about the origins of Maybelline. I have used their mascara, the one in the hot pink-lime green case, ever since high school! (a wa-a-a-a-a-a-ay long time ago.)

    Mom and Gram rubbed a teensie dab of Vaseline on the eyebrows, then brushed the brows.

    As a little girl, I remember sleeping on tiny pink rubber curlers (that looked quite phallic, actually, although I knew nothing of the sort at the time LOL) that just tangled terribly when Mom tried to remove them to get ready for Sunday School.

    Another great post from the Junction. Thanks, Kate!


  20. Tanya, you know what? My daughter pulled out a tube of mascara the other day and it was the same hot pink/lime green case we used to use! I was so surprised. Maybelline stuck with a sure thing. That’s smart.

    I remember those pink rubber curlers! I think those were my mom’s preference. I used the pink spongy ones. LOL

    That’s a good trick about eyebrows and Vaseline, too. 🙂 Thanks Tanya!

  21. Hi Kate,

    Great blog on make-up thru time! I read somewhere that ashes from the fireplace were used to darken the eyelids. I can’t imagine what life would be like without some form of make-up. I use lipstick all the time, can’t go without it, because my lips are dry and I don’t bit them, if I’m wearing something on them … funny the habits we have.

  22. What a great post, Kate!! Love all this info 🙂

    My step-mom is a tattoo make-up artist–and tattoo eraser *lol* I think tattood eyeliner looks great–both my sisters have their eyes lined. She’s offered to do eyeliner on me, but I have this phobia of needles…and having them near my eyes….eeep!!!!

    I’d love to wear nothing but chap stick, but I have freckles so I’ve always worn foundation to try and fade them out. At thirty-eight I’m finally accepting the fact that I don’t have clear skin *lol*. Yesterday I went out with only mascera and chap stick — but I felt kinda naked…like my freckles were showing 😉

  23. Hi Charlene–yes, I’ve heard this too about ashes. I imagine eye infections were common back then if some happened to float near the wrong area of the eye. In fact, I read that making mascara non-toxic was a really big deal back then for that reason.

    Stacey–boy, the things I’m finding out about everyone! Your step-mom sounds like a great person to have in the family! I didn’t realize tattooing eyeliner was so popular–Elizabeth mentioned she’s had it done. I think freckles are pretty. 🙂

    Hi Estella! Lipstick is the one cosmetic I couldn’t live without. 🙂

  24. Fun blog! I have several old curling irons. They are heated in the chimney of a lantern or one had been heated by laying it on the old woodburning stove. It was put to the back of the stove not on the lids to the stove. My mother always said that vinegar brought out the red in my hair and lemon juice brought out the blond highlights. I used a henna rinse in my hair when in high school. My family was camping in the Black Hills and I used the henna in the campground bathrooms and the chemical reaction of the water and the henna gave my hair a green cast. Even Clariol had problems with that one. Finally we bleached my hair white, blonds do have more fun at least temporary blonds do, then recolored it to my natural color. Even then it was a little green.

  25. Boy, and I thought it was primitive when I took my Butane curling iron on camping trips. LOL

    I loved all the info and your blog today, Kate!

    Researching one of my first books, I learned that women saved all the hair from their hairbrushes in wads called “rats” and kept them in pretty jars on their dressing tables. That’s how they got height and lift in all those upswept hairdos – like the Gibson girl – by pinning them into their hair.

    I love make-up and rarely rarely go without. If you caught me on my way to drop off at school in the AM, I might have my hair done, but not always my make-up.

  26. Hi Connie! That’s so interesting how curling irons used to be heated. Thank goodness they all have plugs now, LOL. Ouch on the Henna green hair. I know some lifeguards who had the same problem–after a while the chlorine turned their blond hair green. Thanks for the great story!

    Cheryl–LOL on the Butane curling iron. I didn’t know that about women saving their hairbrush remnants. That’s pretty ingeniuous of them to use it for hair extensions! Thanks for dropping by.

  27. Hi Kate,
    I really enjoyed this article on cosmetics. Women have not changed very much in that respect, have they? We do find resourceful, if not safe, ways to be beautiful even today. My daughter is researching and developing her own line of makeup, she will find this post very interesting!

  28. Hi Nancy! Good luck to your daughter! It sounds like a fun and interesting thing to do. I’m sure there’s much hard work involved, though. Thanks for dropping by!

  29. What fun info! Thanks! Sorry I wasn’t checking in this week…sick secy so I had to do most of the work! I’m a bit older so I find that I really like my moisturizer in the morning. When I was younger I had trouble skin (acne) and had to be very careful about using anything at all on my face although I could use eye makeup. I use less and less these days except for fancy dress up times!

  30. I dont have a reply but more of a question, my great grandpa and my grandma were out 4-wheeling some years ago and found a old rundown shack and one of the things they found was an old bar of soap. my pop said that it used to come in a long rectangle bar, but there is only a chunk left, it has the words regency complexion soap on it. i have look all over the internet and can not find any thing that comes close to it. i was wondering if any one might have any old pictures or anything. thanks brittany lee

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