Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Blood of Bat: 17th century cosmetic preparations

I’ve been reading Cosmeticks, or the beautifying Part of Physick (1660), which claims to have been written by John Jeams Wecker, with its translation into English at the behest of the herbalist Culpepper. These seventeenth century cosmetic preparations are addressed by its author to ‘Ladies’. Its lotions and remedies fall within in a triangular field defined by Body Shop style herbal placebos, magic, and the downright dangerous.

The majority are preparations for the hair: getting it growing, stopping it growing, changing its colour, improving its condition. The reader is expected to have a go at concocting these remedies for herself, as the title page says 'Being familiar remedies, for which every one may be his (sic) own Apothecary'. You were not expected to be squeamish in your determined pursuit of beauty: ‘the oyl of earth-worms doth increase the hair’ (p. 55). A water against shedding the hair (p. 9) reads in full: ‘Take of pure honey, candy wine, a boyes urine, milk, each one pint, and distil a water, with which you must wash the places from whence the hairs fall’.

Some of the preparations sound amazingly like a witches’ brew: Of ointments that hinder the growth of hair (p. 70) ‘Take the blood of Bats, the juice of Ivy, the juice of radish, Goat’s suet, each a sufficient quantity, mix them, and make an ointment’. This one is a depilatory: ‘Take of Ants Eggs, Juice of Henbane, hemlock, seeds of Fleawort, the blood of a Bat, of a Tortoise, each a sufficient quantity, mix them and anoint the place’ (p. 77). Anointing yourself in a hairy place with henbane and hemlock probably did have quite an effect. Just the occasional note like ‘another free from all danger’ suggests that not all the recipes are to be applied carelessly.

The 17th century pharmacy must have been an interesting place to work. Animal testing wasn’t in, but animal products certainly were: ‘Take a live green lizard, boil it in wine and oil’ (the start of a preparation against ringworm). Or you are told to take ‘earth snails fifty, bruise them all’ (p.18) – quite a messy job. A water to make the face very fair begins more like a stew: ‘Take two young pigeons, two pound of veal…’ Quicksilver, mouse turds - the ingredients are baffling in their variety, their arbitrariness.

As there always are in 17th century books, there are delights of language usage ‘an ointment to illustrate the face’ (p.102) is rather wonderful. There’s An ointment for clefts of the Nibbles…(we would say, dully, ‘cracked nipples’).

And there are the differences of expectation. The author finally comes to a section Of ointments that adorn the breast. All of these preparations, all of them, are concerned to make the breasts smaller. It can’t just be the author having a thing about small breasts, a cultural expectation speaks, and woman are expected to be doing something about themselves. Remedy (as he sees it) after remedy is a recipe 'To keep the breasts small' or 'To make the Brests decrease or grow less' (‘The juice of hemlock mixt with Camphure layd on, makes them less’), or ointments to inhibit breast growth ‘to hinder the growth of the breasts, to make the breasts less, and hard. Not a single one on augmentation, the modern mania.

Occasionally, how hard and squalid people's lives could be strikes the reader, as in a series of remedies to get rid of Lice in the eyebrows.

The ointments to take away the marks of small pox remind us of the horrors from which we have been delivered. This is the poet Richard Corbett, writing about small pox in his poem on the death of Lady Haddington:

Oh thou deformed unwoman-like Disease,

That plowst up flesh and blood, & sowest pease

And leaves such prints on Beauty, that dost come

As clouted shoes do on a floor of loam

Thou that of faces honey-combs dost make.

And of two breasts, two colanders, forsake

Thy deadly trade...

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