If Looks Could Kill

There is so much focus on beauty in modern media. Ideas of what constitutes as beautiful or ugly are constantly thrown at us, through regular advertisements of cosmetics and adoration of “beautiful” celebrities. The perfect beauty regime is much sought after and, today, the beauty industry is worth billions. Recently there has been much discussion of what is beautiful and I personally find it exhausting trying to adhere to what society says is beautiful, after all beauty is supposed to be in the eye of the beholder, right?

This focus on attractiveness is not a modern phenomenon, even the Romans stressed importance on beauty. Roman author, Pliney the Elder (23AD-79AD) wrote that women desired to achieve beauty through colouring their eyelashes, and even warned women against “sexual excess” as this would make their eyelashes fall out![1]

Early modern contemporaries similarly enjoyed their beauty regimes. There any many examples of recipes from this time for home-made cosmetics. In A Supplement to the Queen-like closet (1670), Hannah Woolley includes numerous recipes for maintaining beauty, for example, “to make salve for the lips” which melts together “white Bees-wax”, “pure fallad Oyl” and “white sugar candy.” The use of bees-wax in lip salve is still a popular notion today as it has many benefits, especially its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-oxidant qualities.[2]

Woolley does include a rather bizarre instruction to wash the face. She advises that there is “no better thing to wash the face with, to keep it smooth and to scour it clean, than to wash it every night with Brandy.”[3] Not sure about any other modern day minds but I would rather keep to drinking my brandy.

Margaret Baker is another lady who had a keen interest in beauty and cosmetics. In her recipe book  she wrote many instructions for early modern cosmetics, for example how to make powder for the face. Karen Bowman recently researched this topic, please click this link which will take you to our class website where her work is published.

The most interesting recipe book I have come across in research for this post is a book by Lola Montez titled The Arts of Beauty; Or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet (1858). I still class this as a recipe book because over the course of this year I have learnt that a recipe book is an umbrella term which includes how to guides, medical prescriptions and, most obviously, food recipes. Montez, originally born in Ireland, became a famous Spanish dancer and travelled most of Europe. From her book, it is evident that she was well travelled as she recounts beauty hints and tips that she found whilst abroad, particularly in Italy and France thus portraying how internationally widespread the pursuit for feminine beauty was.

I recognised some of Montez’s beauty tips as they are still recommended today. She warns against poor diets as this is “most destructive to beauty.”[4]This idea is still very much advised today as we are told that the foods you eat have a profound effect on your skin.

Montez also places much importance on female beauty, similarly to modern media. She states that “it is a women’s duty to use all the means in her power to beauty and preserve her complexion.”[5] This is echoed in modern media as we are constantly told that women should do all they can to keep themselves beautiful, by keeping up to date with new beauty products and not to let themselves go.

Like Woolley, Montez does include some strange recipes for beauty. She writes that she “knew many fashionable ladies in Paris who used to bind their faces, every night on going to bed, with thin slices of raw beef, which is said to keep the skin from wrinkles, while it gives a youthful freshness and brilliancy to the complexion.”[6] Upon first reading this, I thought using raw foods on your face abhorrent and an extreme measure in the quest to stay beautiful. However, when I then remembered the cliché tip of using cucumber to rejuvenate they eye areas the use of food didn’t seem all that unusual. Nonetheless, I think I’ll still steer away from putting raw beef on my face.

Montez also highlights the importance of a pale complexion and explains the extreme lengths that some women went to in trying to achieve this. She saw “ladies flock to arsenic springs and drink the waters, which gave their skins a transparent whiteness; but there is a terrible penalty attached to this folly; for when once they habituate themselves to the practice, they are obliged to keep it up the rest of their days, or death would speedily follow.”[7] This shows even more extreme lengths that women would go to in the attempt to fulfil society’s idea of beauty. Today there are still concerns over the dangers of some beauty products, for example the scare over high levels of lead in lipstick.[8]

The changing ideals of beauty prove just how crafted “beauty” is. Recipe books from history illustrate this to us, whilst showing that beauty has always been of interest to many women. Such books are interesting to help parallel similarities and differences in the beauty world today.


[1] Pliney the Elder, Natural History Book X p.529 online version https://www.loebclassics.com/view/pliny_elder-natural_history/1938/pb_LCL353.529.xml

[2] Lola Montez, The Arts of Beauty; or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet (New York, 1858) p.9.

[3] Ibid.p.9.

[4] Ibid.p.29.

[5] Ibid.p.38.

[6] Ibid.p.40.

[7] Ibid.p.41.

[8] https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/16/is-there-danger-lurking-in-your-lipstick/?_r=1 [accessed 10 May 2017]


Montez Lola, The Arts of Beauty; or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet (New York, 1858).

Pliney the Elder, Natural History Book X p.529 online version https://www.loebclassics.com/view/pliny_elder-natural_history/1938/pb_LCL353.529.xml

https://morenature.com/blogs/nature-news/36137220-the-benefits-of-beeswax-lip-balm [accessed 10 May 2017]

http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/view/search;JSESSIONID=71f7bcdc-df76-49dd-9c06-3442a951abb6?search=SUBMIT&q=margaret+baker&sort=call_number%2Cmpsortorder1%2Ccd_title%2Cimprint&QuickSearchA=QuickSearchA [accessed 10 May 2017]

https://sites.google.com/view/uoebakerproject/beauty [accessed 10 May 2017]

https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/16/is-there-danger-lurking-in-your-lipstick/?_r=1 [accessed 10 May 2017]


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
fglover (May 12, 2017). If Looks Could Kill. The Digital Recipe Books Project. Retrieved July 14, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/nwg8

2 thoughts on “If Looks Could Kill

  1. This is a great post! The lengths women go to for their appearance could definitely be considered crazy. But was not and still is not just women who obsess over the beauty standards society imposes. Men too suffer for their looks, albeit much less than women. I recently found some blog posts about recipes that cure men of their baldness. Their danger levels range from unpleasant smells to fatal toxins; https://recipes.hypotheses.org/4742

  2. Beauty is such a fascinating concept to study and what has come to light is that as long as women want to enhance their appearance the danger of doing so is largely overlooked. Even in the Victorian era when we would have thought they would have been alerted to the hazards of some cosmetics they still had White Arsenic Face Cream. The side effects were gruesome; – headaches, confusion, severe diarrhoea, and drowsiness, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain and convulsions. Cocaine Tooth Paste had similar effects, anxiety, irritability, paranoia, damage to heart, brain, lungs, gastrointestinal tract and kidneys.

    I particularly like this recommendation for ladies hair dye;- ” for those women who will not reconcile themselves to wearing their own grey or white hair. Very strong tea dyes light hair which is becoming grey a tolerably good light chestnut. Iron nails steeped in tea for fifteen days will make another dark dye.” Brilliant !
    Bowman, Karen. Corsets & Codpieces, A Social History of Outrageous Fashion. (Pen & Sword, 2015) p. 156.

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