Victorian Cosmetics 2 – More Recipes for Unguents

I’m adding one more recipe for a Victorian unguent from the wonderful Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness written in 1875 by Florence Hartley. I’m not sure that this one will be a great money spinner for me in terms of my post-retrenchment recovery plan, but the stories that come with it are fascinating – an experiment that has run for 85 years and a strangely named Victorian disease of the skin.

Actually, maybe it’s not quite the end of the recipes because there are some wonderful freckle removers, pomades, perfumes, hair dyes and hair-growth tonics yet to be recorded. I have, however been on a book-buying binge this past week and The Anglo-Boer War will make a re-entry next week. Before then though, the “receipt”, as Florence called it.


Take 1 drachm of pitch (see last post for translation of measurements)

and 1 ounce of lard

Mix well and apply twice a day to the affected parts.

This is used for ringworm and scald head.”

Heiskell’s Ointment for scald head

It’s not an elaborate recipe but I was interested greatly by scald head. A book written in 1802 by A.F.M. Willich, The Domestic Encyclopedia or a Dictionary of Facts, And Useful Knowledge (It’s available in full and for free at Chest of Books) describes the conditions thus,

“SCALD-HEAD, or Tinea Capitis, a disease chiefly incident to children, born of scrophulous [he means morally degenerate] parents: it is infectious only by contact, and appears to be seated in the roots of the hair, which protrude numerous small vesicles emitting an ichorous humour [he means a foul-smelling watery discharge], and at length degenerating into ulcers that form a dry scab, or a hard crust, sometimes half, or a whole inch in thickness, spreading gradually over the whole head. CAUSES: This malignant eruption often arises from un-cleanliness, improper or coarse food; but more frequently from the contaminated humours of wet-nurses.”

I don’t think I like Mister Willich at all. By 1875, medical books described scald head as the common name for Porrigo, or ringworm of the scalp.

This image of a child with scald head is from a 1916 book of childhood skin diseases. It is available to buy on Etsy. Click here to view.

The wonderful Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms  shows scald head as an actual cause of death in 1752. Bear in mind, this was a time when the terms ‘suddenly’, ‘bladder in throat’, ‘wine disease’ and ‘teeth’ were legitimate causes of death. I don’t imagine it was really the ringworm that was responsible for the poor unfortunate’s demise.

Scald head as a cause of death on a death notice from England in 1752.

Florence’s remedy for this awful and potentially deadly affliction mentions pitch. Pitch, tar and bitumen seem to be slightly different from one another, but for our purposes we needn’t go into too much detail. They are sticky, more solid than liquid (pitch shatters when hit with a hammer), they smell bad, they’re black and they’re made by burning wood. Pitch was used to caulk the seams on wooden sailing ships, to waterproof barrels and apparently to treat ringworm and eczema; mixed with lard, of course.

Which leads me to the 85 year-old experiment. The pitch drop experiment started in 1927 at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. It was set up to show that even while appearing solid at room temperature, pitch is in fact a liquid with a very high viscosity; over 200 billion times that of water. A lump of pitch was placed in a glass funnel and the scientists watch and wait as it slowly drips down and out of the funnel. A drop has fallen, on average, every 10 years. That’s 8 drops. Since 1927. Its initiators were awarded the IgNobel Prize for their experiment and if you want to add years to your life, you can watch the following clip to see why. I feel the reporter’s agony as he narrates perhaps the dullest TV insert EVER. The ninth drop is expected to fall in 2013. If, however, you miss this momentous occasion, there is apparently enough pitch in the container to keep flowing for another 100 years. There will be time…

5 thoughts on “Victorian Cosmetics 2 – More Recipes for Unguents

  1. People seem to have died of some very strange things in the past – tbe of the stomach is one that doesn’t make any sense. I think they just went for whatever was visible. Ultimately, if you’re dead, you’re dead. Some people now die of a whole range of things. There is no simple cause, never was. Good post. Am impressed with your obscure books. We may need to do an obscure book off some time.

    • Thanks Barb.

      Most of the obscure books are sadly not mine. I search for them on the internet archive or open library and I read them online. It’s not nearly the same thing as holding an old book, but if you read online as opposed to downloading them, you see the pages as they were printed and you “turn” them with the click of a mouse.

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