A Look at Skincare in the 1800s

They couldn’t buy these creams, but they could make them.

Go the grocery store today and you’ll see a huge range of skincare available with ingredients that get fancier each year. Back in the old days there were only a few face cream options, like Pond’s Cold Cream and Olay Beauty Fluid. Go back to the early 1800s and there were recipes to make at home, but few (if any) products you could have bought ready-made.

1800s family at fireplace
Via: J.C.Rowland/Wellcome Collection

For most working class and middle class women their days were spent over the fire anyways, so mixing up a batch of some cream or ointment was part of a normal day for many. While we would think of many of these creams as skincare today, they also could have been used for common skin problems that affected the whole family. When taken in this context it was more of a household supply than a woman’s exclusive. Still, the new fad of recipe books in the US meant that a woman in the 1810s-1830s could learn how to make these home remedies- even if no recipe for a such a thing had been handed down in her family.

Justine from the YouTube channel “Early American” has taken a few of these fascinating recipes and recreated them using authentic techniques and methods. She and her partner, Ron, specialize in Early American living.

Via: YouTube/Early American

Their cabin is equipped with all the modern conveniences of that era, including a stone fireplace, a portable iron burner, and a simple wooden table to serve as the kitchen countertop. From this kitchen she uses recipes from the period (or “receipts” as they were known back then) and recreates some of the skincare products of the early 1800s.

While ingredients like spermaceti, an oil found in whale craniums distinct from whale oil, can no longer be had- other 1800s skincare ingredients are still used in natural skincare to this day. Oatmeal, beeswax, and almond oil are just a few of the components that will be quite familiar to most consumers of skincare products in the modern era.

almonds in a fabric bag
Via: Unsplash/Nacho Fernández

The usage of some of these recipes is where things might get a little messy compared to our convenient modern formulations. Instead of being able to use an oatmeal-based moisturizer from a pump bottle, Justine uses the water drained from cooked oatmeal on her face as a soothing facial treatment. And she uses an almond paste in the bath to calm and moisturize the rest of her skin, too.

You can see how she makes several of these historical cosmetic treatments in the video below.

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