The greatest irony about beauty is that so many times the things we've thought to preserve it were the very things that destroyed it the fastest. White lead to obtain that pearly complexion, arsenic to preserve the skin, belladonna to enhance those gorgeous eyes, and so on and so forth. A volume could be written on corsets, of course, and many have. So, in the interest of time, today I'd simply like to focus on the cosmetics, and save bone training for another day.
Ann Thistlethwaite, Countess of Chesterfield. A slender, well-kept lady of her day. I'd like to imagine she was quite fashionable, given how nicely her hair was powdered, how pristine and white her skin was with just the faintest hint of rouge on her youthful cheeks. The early 18th century was hardly unique with their poisonous beauty treatments. You'd be surprised, but the danger was not in the hair powder, and only on occasion did a lady (or even man) with somewhat eccentric hairstyles happen to catch fire on low-hanging chandeliers.
The real killer in the mid-18th century was the white lead foundation so prized by the upperclass at the time, no thanks to fashions originating from the Elizabethan period (as I'm sure you're all aware of Queen Elizabeth's infamous bright red hair and ghostly complexion.) The opacity of the lead itself was what made it so popular, allowing every blemish or spot to be thickly disguised. It is little to no surprise that quite a lot of actresses especially died at young ages from lead poisoning, given that stage make-up had to be even heavier than the average lady's.
The lead didn't stop there, however, and despite the fact that it was known to be poisonous, there were even instances of lead in hair products, rouges, and all manner of cosmetics beyond foundation. In fact, when it came to rouge, they'd make some lovely combinations of lead and vinegar or lead and mercury for just the right touch of healthy, luscious pink. It was a pretty vicious cycle, the lead foundations, because the more one would apply the more their skin would break out into horrible rashes or open sores, so they'd apply even more to cover that up. Combine this with the mercury and copper to further agitate one's skin, and it really makes you begin to realize the truth in the age-old saying "you have to suffer for beauty."
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There was a time during Victoria's reign in which cosmetics were deemed improper, and I've no doubt that more men and women were spared from premature deaths by their own hands, if you'll of course ignore all of the horrible 'medicines', barbaric surgery, lack of proper hygiene, and various other dangers of the times. This couldn't last forever, though, and there were still plenty of people applying make-up like crazy.
Eventually, the a la mode of cure-all beauty treatments became arsenic. Of course there were safer options for freckle removal, such as honey and sand, or vinegar, buttermilk, and lemon juice washes. Still, basting their faces simply wasn't enough for women seeking true beauty. So, after all else failed, they always went back to arsenic. From better to worse, or maybe it's the other way around. I'll have to get back to you on that.
Then, finally, as the Edwardian era was beginning to come to its end, we have something even worse than arsenic or lead. A cosmetic so awful, that routine use of it left people with honey-combed bones, tumors, and even disintegrating jaws. I'm talking, of course, about Radium.
It wasn't really something used for cosmetics alone. Once Radium was discovered, because it seemed so magical with its glowing qualities and seemingly mysterious characteristics, companies were throwing Radium in just about everything. Butter, paint, dishes, clothing, contraceptives, medicines, you name it. There was even Radiated water. One man was so convinced of its efficacy that he drank several bottles a day, and when he was buried, he had no jaw left so speak of.
The main belief was that Radium invigorated and revitalized. Funny how that seems to have been the same belief for mercury throughout history. If it burns, surely it must be working. It seems that France and England were the main victims of Radium marketing, though there was still some use of it in the American market. Shamefully, that didn't prevent the most famous disaster of Radium poisoning from happening on American soil, and maybe some day I may touch on the Radium girls. Because of their suffering, and the drawn-out legal battles that eventually resulted (though it did not prevent these young women from dying in the most painful ways one can imagine) finally made the world realize Radium was not to be trifled with.
Some day, we may look back on the beauty products we wear now and wonder what grandma was thinking greasing her face down with -INSERT UNKNOWN DEADLY POISON HERE-, which is a great case for product testing, but there's no turning back the clock now for the many who had to suffer and die so that we could learn from their vanity. Victims of beauty in the cruelest sense of the word.