Beauty & Health Secrets from the Victorian Era

Come join us in our “Victorian Time Tunnel” and travel back almost 160 years to the 1800’s and let’s take a look at how cosmetics were made and what type of ingredients were used to make skincare products during those times. I promise you will be fascinated!

Victorian ladies (1837-1901) were admired for their flawless complexions which they somehow managed to preserve well into old age – indeed Queen Victoria herself was renowned for her soft and smooth wrinkle-free complexion well into her latter years; this was due not only to the moist English climate but also to the clever handcrafting of herbal creams and lotions using home-grown ingredients from herb and flower gardens. During the early to mid-nineteenth century commercial beauty products were not available, so women had to reply on family recipes which had been handed down from generation to generation for their complexions, bath, body and hair care. Old family recipes were also depended upon for the making of perfume. Ladies could look to popular advice manuals or women’s magazines, such as “Godey’s Lady’s Book” or “Harper’s Bizarre”, for recipes for herbal shampoo, skin creams and eau de Toilette perfumed waters. A Victorian woman spent a considerable amount of time at the dressing table. She would brush and comb her hair, use a mirror or “hand glass”, apply cleansing cream, moisturizer, body lotion and hand cream and finished with a lip balm.

Some of the most popular recipes found in old Victorian archives, are for Lavender Hand Cream, Rosemary Shampoo, Pelargonium Night Cream, Parsley Hair Conditioner, Rose and Rosehip Facial Cream, Chamomile Flower Water and a Green Clay and herbal facial masque – the latter being a favourite for drawing out impurities from the skin and improving and smoothing skin texture.

During Victorian times, traditional herb and flower gardens were an integral part of family life in England and Europe and generations of women indulged in home beauty treatments thanks to herbs grown in pots on kitchen windowsills, cultivated in tiny “allotments” in town and city gardens and gathered from meadows and hedgerows in the rural countryside. And, for the wealthy, herbs were grown extensively in magnificent formal herb gardens, usually enclosed with English Lavender, Bay or Rosemary hedges. Easy to grow and with outstanding culinary, medical and cosmetic uses, it is exciting to see that herbs are undergoing a revival today! Plants were all grown organically and essential oils mixed in water were used to sprinkle on plants as an “environmentally friendly” natural insecticide. And from herbs, trees, roots, fruits, leaves, flowers, nuts and grasses the Victorians steam distilled “essential” oils, the life force of a plant, offering many diverse skincare and medical benefits.

Not only herbs, but fruits and vegetables were used in many different ways by Victorian women in a bid to maintain their beauty and health. Some practices popularly used in those days sound quite bizarre to us and yet they clearly worked. They rubbed damp tobacco on insect stings, slept with small pieces of sliced carrot stuck into their nostrils to dislodge mucous and rubbed grated ginger in sesame oil onto their foreheads for immediate headache relief! They took baths with handfuls of freshly picked Rosemary, Lavender and Water Mint and used diluted lemon juice on a small vaginal sponge as their only birth control option. They kept apiaries in their gardens and used the honey, beeswax and propolis from the hives to make a base for their skincare products; beeswax was melted gently in double boilers and pure rosewater added – made from rose petals always gathered at dawn (when the oils from the petals would produce the best and strongest perfume). Infusions from various herbs and plants were prepared and cooled overnight and finally, essential oils were added; more unusual and non indigenous plant oils were brought from India or Europe. Natural colourants such as Tea, Mulberry, Saffron, Beetroot, Blue Chamomile and Carrot were used to create soft colours in Victorian products and some standard ingredients would comprise Beeswax, Soapwort, Spring Water, Arrowroot, Rosewater, Lecithin, Honey, Agar Agar Gel, Fullers Earth, Green Clay, Powdered Almonds and Walnuts, Green Clay, Rosehips, Apple Cider Vinegar, Witch Hazel, Vanilla Pod extract and Borax.

Victorian ladies certainly knew the secrets of herbs passed down to them by their grandmothers; they were aware that Lavender flowers and Valerian leaves would encourage a good night’s sleep, that crushing and sniffing Basil leaves would stimulate their memories; that crushing and sniffing Peppermint leaves and drinking Peppermint Tea would help them to offset morning sickness in pregnancy and rubbing Sage leaves over their teeth would help maintain the whiteness and remove food stains. They also practised a rather horrific and painful skin peeling procedure …diluting sulphuric acid and applying it directly to their skins with a brush… to sizzle away the wrinkles! We find this bizarre, but in fact if you think about it, the practice is not so different to our 21st century chemical Alpha-Hydroxy acid skin peels today!. This practice resulted in the “patient” being unavailable to visitors or to any form of socialising for at least eight weeks while the skin healed and thereafter appearing only with hat and veil covering the face. Naturally, Victorian ladies kept out of the sun at all times, and parasols were used to protect the face from the sun’s rays when outside. Arsenic “leaves” – paper leaves soaked in an Arsenic solution, were also used to rub all over the face and neck in an attempt to “whiten” the skin. The complete reverse to our 21st century desire to “catch a tan!”

Throughout the 1800’s and indeed during previous centuries, herbs and flowers were always planted by moonlight as the moon has more pull on garden plants than we may imagine. Man has been planting by the moon since 1300 BC – as the moon controls the tides, so it controls the ebb and flow of all of the earth’s fluids, even lava, which is why more earthquakes occur at full moon. As the moon begins to wax (rise), it draws water into the top layers of the earth. As the moon wanes (sinks) water levels drop so it is best to sow seed in the first week of a new moon when conditions are moist. Picking herbs for fresh tea and plants to distil oils from for cosmetic use was done under a waxing moon only. Fruit was always picked during the waxing moon for maximum juiciness and sweetness.

During the Victorian era the science of ingredients was largely unknown; of course we now know that the ingredients used to make products in those times have great benefits for the skin. Many components of plants have the exceptional ability to destroy free radicals which attack the collagen in the skin resulting in loss of elasticity and the onset of wrinkles and lines. Anti oxidants such as Vitamin A, E, B and C are powerful anti free radical agents and many of the herbal extracts and essential oils the Victorians used contain these. Pelargonium regenerates skin cells and boosts circulation, Rosehip soothes and heals and restores skin texture. Lavender is a natural antibiotic and antiseptic and an outstanding blemish, burns and scar tissue healer. Elderflower and Eyebright extract, both popular Victorian herbs, were mixed into a vegetable plant gel to tighten and firm the skin around the eyes.

Written by Lindsay Salthouse – SA/UK Registered Aromatherapist/Herbalist.

The Victorian Garden Organic Skincare Company (1850 -2009)

“In grateful memory of my great-grandmother, Lady Frances Glover-Anderson

who left a wealth of fascinating Victorian information contained in her diaries and

to whom The Victorian Garden Organic Skincare Company owes its existence”

Visit our natural & organic online shop
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