Victorian Cosmetics: “Receipts for the Complexion” 1875

I am still reading The Ladies Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, written in 1875 by Florence Hartley. The last chapter features recipes or “receipts” for home-made lotions and potions. As a newly redundant lady (work-wise; in all other areas of my life I am still singularly relevant), I really do have to think about ways of making money. Perhaps a range of quaintly Victorian cosmetics in glass jars with curlicued labels will be the answer. Retrenchee’s Olde Worlde Unguents For the Complexion. I’ll start the range with the cold cream.

Cold Creams

Cold Cream is a useful application to hard and dry parts of the skin, to abrasions and cracks. When spread thinly on a rag, it is an excellent application to blistered surfaces or burns, or may be used to protect exposed parts from the influence of the sun. 

Take 2 ½ ounces of sweet oil of almonds, 3 drachms of white wax, and the same of spermaceti, 2 ½ ounces of rose water, 1 drachm of oil of bergamot, and 15 drops each of oil of lavender and otto of roses.

Melt the wax and spermaceti in the oil of almonds, by placing them in a jar, which should be plunged into boiling water. Heat a mortar (which should, if possible, be marble) by pouring boiling water into it, and letting it remain there until the mortar is uniformly heated; the water is to be thrown away and the mortar dried well. Pour the melted wax and spermaceti into the warm mortar, and add the rose water gradually, while the mixture is constantly stirred or whisked with an egg-whisp, until the whole is cold, and, when nearly finished, add the oils and otto of roses.

It sounds wonderful (especially the egg-whisp) but we might need a little translation here: The English apothecaries system of weights is divided into pounds (1 pound), ounces (12 ounces), drachms (96 drachms), scruples (288 scruples) and grains (5760 grains). Their metric equivalents are:

1 pound = 373 grams

1 ounce = 31.1 grams

1 drachm = 3.89 grams

1 scruple = 1.296 grams

1 grain = 64.8 milligrams

A drachm is also referred to as a dram. So when next you ask for a “wee dram” of Scotch, the bartender, if well-schooled in the apothecaries’ system, would give you slightly more than half a teaspoon.

Also, I’d like to point out that at 1.296g, if you lose your scruples late one Saturday night, you really haven’t lost very much at all.

Rose otto is rose attar or rose oil.

Spermaceti is also obviously off the menu. Jojoba oil can be substituted. Spermaceti is a wax found in the head cavity of sperm whales. It was originally thought to be whale sperm and hence its name. Hundreds of thousands of sperm whales were killed in the 19th century to supply the demand for whale oil, spermaceti and ambergris. There are still reports today of spermaceti being used in cosmetics.

“Over 20 cosmetic or personal care products manufactured in China, Iran, the Russian Federation, Romania and the Dominican Republic that claim to contain spermaceti. Several are available in the USA and European Union although their import would violate CITES.” ~ from

1864 Removing the spermaceti from the head of a sperm whale. Photo source: Wikimedia commons

I can imagine nothing worse than using spermaceti on my face, but I thought that perhaps sperm whales had been so maligned by Herman Melville in Moby Dick (published in 1851), that the Victorian woman would feel less than a scruple about doing so. For Ahab, Moby Dick was a very bad whale. When he finally harpoons him, he shouts “… to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” A very bad whale indeed!

Interestingly, Melville’s Moby Dick was not well-received by the critics of the day. His first publisher printed it without the epilogue and made a confusing situation even more so. It was only after World War 1 that Moby Dick enjoyed the acclaim Melville had so hoped for, in what he thought his magnum opus.

(I am quite incapable of talking about Moby Dick without wanting to shout out “CALL ME ISHMAEL” like I was at a pub quiz.)

As ever, I have become distracted…So Retrenchee’s Olde Worlde Unguents For the Complexion. What do you think?

Thanks to Free Victorian Clip Art for the border.

13 thoughts on “Victorian Cosmetics: “Receipts for the Complexion” 1875

  1. Oooh, my favourite topic! It’s also amusing they used arsenic and mercury in make up. No wonder some people’s faces actually peeled off in flakes. In the end, natural is the best.

    • I was quite impressed by the sane-ness of the recipes in this book – very few toxic or simply ludicrous ingredients. Another Victorian book with advice for ladies, tells of Madame Talien who bathed EVERY DAY in 2kgs of raspberries and 10 kgs of strawberries. The book comments on her delightful blush!

      • I was just thinking about faces falling off and I smiled as I was put in mind of today’s chemical peels. These do, at least, have the benefit of not killing you slowly by heavy metal poisoning, but really we’re still paying to have our faces peel off. Okay, I’ll stop now. I’m having a chatty day 🙂

  2. The main product from whales was the blubber which was melted down for oil lamps. It took me ages to figure out that this was the trane oil I kept finding reference to. Ships at sea had huge cauldrons for the melting so could be smelt miles away. So I don’t think Moby Dick had anything to do with it. The delay in recognizing the book might just have been the man love that made people a bit confused and uncomfortable.

  3. I wondered about that too Barb. Surely it would not have been possible to import fruit in that quantity. Perhaps the book was exaggerating and it was all part of a Mme Talien legend. Maybe she went with seasonal fruit? A pea and bean bath in winter.

  4. Pingback: Victorian Cosmetics 2 – More Recipes for Unguents « tracyloveshistory

  5. Have you successfully tried this? I too am trying to dabble in some Victorian era beauty books. I have heard from some people that jojoba oil in place of spermaceti leaves the mixtures too thin, so I bought some jojoba wax to use… but I am worried it might be too thick! Any ideas about proportions?

    • I haven’t tried it yet, although I think the cold creams were quite thick. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve given it a go.

      As for proportions, you can use the apothecary’s measure translation table and the actual recipes from the book (you can read it online). I suspect there will be a fair amount of experimentation though.

      Let me know if you have success and I’ll do the same. I’ve got a reunion this weekend and then lots of kids’ stuff. I’ll give the cremas a shot in September- Spring for us, so appropriate for new beginnings!

  6. Not sure if you will make a living out of this but it does make for wonderful readling. I am also obsessed with old – Tudor England and ancient Rome are my areas of obsession – so I can totally relate to what you are after with this blog. Very, very nice

    • Ah, the Tudors…I am also a fan. I was looking at a picture of a little locket this morning, in fact, and in it is a lock of Catherine Parr’s hair, cut the night she died in 1548. It is still beautifully blonde. That it’s over 400 years old hurts my head a little bit!

      I think you’re probably right about cold creams and pitch remedies.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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