Pain Is Beauty: The 10 Most Terrifying, Unsafe or Just Plain Weird Beauty Tips of The 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Historical beauty was terrifying.
Publish date:
September 16, 2014
victorian era, beauty tips

Ah, the natural and healthy beauty routine of a woman of the past. None of those pesky parabens, or sulfates or whatnot to compromise the historical woman’s health, just nice naturally occurring elements like lead or mercury… Wait a minute, historical beauty wasn’t nice and healthy and natural, it was terrifying.

Without proper scientific testing, beauty advice ranged from the merely useless to outright deadly. The tradition of useless advice has carried on to this day, but thankfully we’ve mostly managed to weed out the really dangerous crap. And now without further ado, the most terrifying, ridiculous, and unsafe beauty tips of times gone by (that I am aware of, and aren’t the obvious ones like white lead foundation, because everyone knows about that one, and are at-home type things and not weird salon treatments like using radiation to remove superfluous hair which continued into the 1940s, which I might do an article on later.)

1. According to “Personal appearance and the culture of beauty, with hints as to character” by Thomas S. Sozinsky, the best way to get rid of acne is to take pills containing compound extract of colocynth, sulphate of iron, and extract of nux vomica. Which sounds kinda normal until we get to the nux vomica. Extract of nux vomica contains strychnine, which is a deadly poison. Other beauty manuals recommend rubbing it on your head as a hair tonic and putting it in skin cream. (These are both also not good ideas).

2. "The Ugly Girl Papers" (a collected series of Victorian beauty columns) says that blondes are prone to having acid stomachs, and that the best way to cure this is by taking ammonia orally. Yup, you read that right. "How She Became Beautiful: A Guide To The Cultivation And Preservation of Beauty," on the other hand, suggests pouring ammonia into your bath and taking it orally for weight loss, which is clearly much saner. (It’s not saner.)

3. "The Arts Of Beauty (or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet)" by one Lola Montez suggests that the best way to achieve glistening, brilliant, beautiful eyes is to squeeze orange juice directly into them. She does warn the reader that this will hurt, but follows up that statement with an assurance that the results are worth it, because apparently screw you, Victorian lady. She also suggests a mixture of salts of tartar, lemon juice, camphor and tincture of cantharides for keeping hair lusciously soft and sexy. (Cantharides are also known as Spanish fly and are an extremely powerful blister-causing irritant, because nothing is as sexy as pervasive blistering of the skin, am I right, ladies?) Lucky for the reader, she does mention that taking arsenic will make you paler, but not to try it because it’s poisonous. So her advice, while unpleasant, probably won’t kill you.

4. Thomas S. Sozinsky suggests a mixture of cantharides and ammonia for a scalp invigorator, because apparently ammonia was the argan oil of the Victorian era.

5. "How She Became Beautiful" also wants to remind you that you should never cut children’s hair because it makes it turn coarse and wiry, but "Personal Beauty: How To Cultivate And Preserve It In Accordance With The Laws Of Health" (the Victorians loved a verbose title almost as much as they loved layers and layers and layers of undergarments) argues that hair is living tissue that draws on the resources of the body, and thus children’s hair should never be allowed to grow beyond six inches in length until they reach 14 years of age, lest it overtax their tiny systems and cause them to perish. Someone else says that girl’s hair must never be touched with scissors after the age of 5 or it’ll be scraggly and limp when she gets older. If I were a Victorian mother, I’d be very worried about what to do with my children’s hair.

6. Baroness Staffe (who, being a baroness, is obviously qualified to talk about this) writes in "My Lady’s Dressing Room" that German and English women have big feet because they drink too much beer. She also asserts that Americans who have recently started drinking too much beer are beginning to develop oversized feet, and that in wine countries like France and Italy, women’s feet remain dainty and lovely. Frankly, I suspect the Baroness may be somewhat biased. She also says that a lady of the French court remained youthful into her 80s by eating nothing but oranges and that her doctor told her that having too many flowers in the house destroys the complexion. A+ advice for killing women less quickly than the people advising women to drink poison. I mean the malnourishment will get em, but it’ll take awhile. Good for you, baroness.

7. "The Ugly Girl Papers" also notes that “The sun has a good effect on obnoxious shades of hair.” Honestly, I’m just amused by the phrase “obnoxious shades of hair.”

8. "Physical Beauty: How To Obtain And Preserve It" by Annie Jenness Miller asserts that a gentle electrical current is excellent for the scalp. This may be explained by the fact that the book also suggests a generous application of extract of cannabis for corns on the feet -- who knows what else they were using it for?

9. "Personal Appearance and The Culture Of Beauty" recommends a wash for irritated eyes made up of rosewater, opium and ammonia. Nothing like opium and ammonia for a soothing eye bath.

10. "The Ugly Girl Papers" reminds its readers that nervous people shouldn’t eat watercress as it’s far too exciting and will spoil the complexion and also to be sure to eat a teaspoon of charcoal every day to clean out your intestines.

And those are the top 10 beauty horrors I’ve discovered in Victorian and Edwardian beauty manuals so far. (I’m sure I’ll find something more upsetting soon though.)