Cosmetic Rituals of Eras Past

During my undergrad I took a chemistry class in which my final report was on mercury (Hg, atomic number 80), also known as “quicksilver”. Mercury nitrate was used in felt hat-making in the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries (a process called “carroting”) and the liquid and vapors of this process were highly toxic. Additionally, toxicity could leach out of the hat fabric while the hat-wearer sweated and inspired the phrase “mad as a hatter” (also inspiring Lewis Carroll) after the detrimental neurological effects that resulted. This leads me to examine some of the harmful chemicals of cosmetics of past eras.

Georgian, Baroque and Elizabethan wigs and hairstyles never ceased to amaze me in their decadent over-the-top-ness. That hair fetishism has inspired me and my artwork, drawing piles of winding tendrils, on a few occasions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Wigs remained fashionable for quite awhile and by the 18th century they reached new heights and became elaborate. Royalty were known for their ornate up-do’s (just like Marie Antoinette) and to hold these high wigs in place they would often employ the use of (gag) lard. And to make it even more un-worth it, the lard would often attract insects and rodents. Cages were sometimes set over the wigs at night to keep mice and rats away. Pretty gross… and this post isn’t even going to touch upon the extreme bodice/bustier contraptions women were supposed to suck themselves into.

During the Elizabethan period when red hair was all the rage, women of the day resorted to cocktails of color that involved lead, quicklime, sulfer and water to dye their hair and wigs. The combination of these elements often resulted in headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds. As a fake redhead myself, I know the color is to die for…but not…literally.

Another “in” look was paleness. The more dark and suntanned a person was the more lower on the class totem pole they were apt to be, toiling in the fields and what not. Paleness signaled luxury from the 15th to the 17th centuries. And while diseases like smallpox were rampant causing unhealthy complexions, stylists of the day recommended such beauty solutions as (gasp) powdering oneself with white lead, which was poisonous. Yikes. I’ve also read online somewhere that in the early centuries women would bleed themselves in order to attain an attractive level of “palety”. Double yikes.

I’ve taken painting classes where the instructors encouraged us NOT to touch such colors as Cadmium Red because of its high toxicity level. I’m not entirely convinced that in these early eras that even toxicity and poisoning would have deterred a woman who is preoccupied with how they look. After all, status and “marrying well” was the be-all, end-all in the female purpose category and looks were held above education, unfortunately. Makeup-less health or security in marriage? I can’t imagine that life and choices were ever easy for women back then.

Metal-poisoned makeup dates back to ancient Egypt, though. Both sexes sported Kohl-lined eyes, Kohl being a mixture of soot and galena, a type of dark lead) along with copper ore. Long-term lead exposure can lead to seizures, coma, and death. And if you wanted really red lips one would need to crush ants and beetles, and add some beeswax. OR, worse, one could mix together red clay, iron oxide (rust), seaweed, iodine, henna, and the deadly bromine mannite, which is uber-deadly and could kill the kisser and the kissee alike. Perhaps the daily use of these deadly cosmetics contributed significantly to abbreviated lifespans. (Ya think?)

So what is a Renaissance girl (or guy) to do about that unwanted hair? Well, apparently, before razors and Nair, homemade concoctions involving quicklime and arsenic would burn the hair off when applied to the skin. And to bring in a little later-period cosmetic-ry, in the 1940’s when resources were scarce due to war, women would sometimes resort to sandpapering the hair off of their bodies.

Damn, beautification hurts.


Read more on cosmetic history here:

And read more in-depth about the hairstyle evolution here:


Seduced by Package Design

I’m often seduced by package designs. I’m a pushover for unexpected curves, thematic details, and bold design decisions. The M.O. of Apple (as in stock symbol AAPL) is that all of their iCandy products have a seductive minimalistic design, but great design doesn’t always have to be stark and simple. I see great package design everywhere… especially in liquor stores. I’m drawn to the creative shapes and incredibly effective designs that wine labels and vodka bottles have. I could dedicate a whole blog post to genius wine labels alone. That’s another day. Right now, here are a few designs I like:

With one sinister broken fork tine, it just says "Thanksgiving". I'd get a case of this to last for holidays to come.

A shape you can slip into a bookcase or briefcase or into your local library's night drop slot.

A bit phallic, but also a bit bong-ish...naughty all around and possibly a straight man repellent.

Aside from my liquor bottle fetish, I also really find perfume bottles to be objects of desire, looking sharp and pointy or jewel-like. Again, I could do a whole post on perfume bottles. (Digression: when I was four I would ask my Grandma if I could put on some of her “pume” – she always had a respectable and varied selection in her boudoir.) Well, here are a couple of my “pume” package design faves:

DKNY Be Delicious. I want to eat this. Keep away from children.

I've never found the antidote nor lost my love of the occasional dose of Poison.

This didn't have a name, but the peacock side of it catches my eye. It reminds me of looking and playing with marbles as a kid. Those were wonderous and youthful days.

Like a breakable lily pad, this one is pretty sparkly, and it may cut you with its sharpness. But there's so much would so be worth it.

But my package fascination happens with other items, too. I used to be enamored with Fiji’s square water bottle, but I would betray that design for this one by Evian, however impractical and heavy…and space-hogging:

Drinking water was never so hard to accomplish. Try not to drop it on your foot.

Per, the following design was concept packaging created for Adidas by a Capilano University college student named Jenny Kim and I totally dig it.

These promise to make me fast. Fast like a Solid Gold dancer.

Same with makeup. I sometimes can be made to buy makeup because it just looks so damn good. I don’t currently own these, but I would if they were within eyeshot:

Well behaved women rarely make history...or sexed up package designs ; )

Fred Faruggia makeup. This would be either FUN or a NIGHTMARE to use.

Made by a Brazilian cosmetics company (Ducha) I'm not even sure what these are, but they look fun.

There are just so many great designs out there, I feel like I don’t even know where to begin. I guess this post will have to be one in a series of posts highlighting great design.
Other recommended package design-related sites:

Veerle’s Blog

Packaging Diva



Packaging of the World