17th-Century Skin Care Recipes That Need To Stay In The Past

Exploring a beauty guide from the Age of Discovery.

The Age of Discovery was a period of intellectual stimulation, artistic innovation, and global European expansion. Although this period saw groundbreaking developments in math and science, health and beauty standards were often based on wishful thinking and quixotic cures.

Women of the seventeenth century were no stranger to DIY remedies, and beauty tips were often inserted into cookbooks and housekeeping guides, the ladymags of the 1600s.

These guides are incredibly rare; many manuscripts predating the nineteenth century live in special collections of museums and research libraries. For Christmas this year I received a reproduction of one of these beauty books from 1608, called Delights for Ladies to Adorn Their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories: With Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters.

Talk about a long title. Although I’m super excited to have gotten this, the reproduction was made from a scanned version of the original manuscript, which means I don’t get to see the beautiful color illuminations on each page.

Delights for Ladies is filled with recipes for every household item a lady of the time might have needed, from candies to candles to face powders and hair dye.

Some of these recipes sound like they could work today and some of them are definitely better left in the past, so let’s take a look at how women during the Age of Discovery cared for their skin. Because this book was written in 1608, the language is REALLY different to what we’d use today, so for the sake of clarity I’ve translated the Early Modern English into contemporary English.

Breast Milk To Keep Skin Clean And Clear

To make the simplest cleanser, it was recommended to combine water with breast milk (or cow’s milk as an alternative) and wash the face nightly with the mixture. This combination guaranteed that the skin would “wax faire and clear,” and also help heal sunburned skin.

This probably isn’t the worst beauty cure to come out of history, although I can’t imagine too many people would be willing to steal lunch from a baby just so they could wash their face. However, I have heard many people recommend milk baths for really bad sunburn.

Lemon Juice And Salt To Help A Face That Is Red Or Pimpled

Like the Victorians, Discovery-era people were OBSESSED with zits. Delights for Ladies recommends the following for acne-prone skin: dissolve table salt with lemon juice and use a linen cloth to pat the combination on any spot that is inflamed or covered in pimples. After a few applications the skin should be clear of these impurities.

Salt and lemon juice on a zit sounds incredibly painful. I’m imagining the time I got lemon juice in a paper cut--no thank you. Plus, contemporary research has shown that the acidity of lemons can actually do more harm than good to your skin.

Water Distilled With Elder Leaves To Remove Freckles

This recipe was given by “a mysterious traveler” who had cured himself of freckles: Wash your face in the wane of the moon (both morning and night) with a sponge dipped in water that has been distilled with elder leaves. Let the water dry on the skin. The water MUST be distilled during May.

First: a mysterious stranger? Not a very reputable source. Second: Never trust a person who tells you to get rid of your freckles. (Anne of Green Gables taught us that.) This mystery man also didn’t leave any mention of what happens to the poor fool who distills their water in April or June… More freckles? A sudden breakout of facial boils? There’s just too much at risk here. No thanks, Stranger.

Just about every beauty recipe in Delights for Ladies uses water, some type of powder, and either flowers or lemons. Floral and citrus scents were often used to cover the scent of B.O., human waste, and sometimes even death. People from that era would have gone absolutely nuts over a place like Bath & Body Works.

While some of these recipes served as a base for later beauty remedies, most are definitely best left in the past. I’d rather listen to my dermatologist over a mysterious freckle-curing stranger any day of the week.

  • What historic era's beauty practices would you like to learn about next?
  • Have you ever tried to hide or lessen the appearance of your freckles?

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