I greatly enjoy Jane Austen and have read most of her novels by this point. (I’m trying to pace myself, since I know no new novels will be coming out.) I am also greatly fascinated by the later history of cosmetics as various chemicals started coming into play. When these two come together, this it’s downright delightful!
I was reading Persuasion not too long ago, and I came across a reference to Gowland’s Lotion. As Austen so rarely makes direct references to products of her time, this stood out sharply, and you know I just had to start hunting down the reference. Gowland’s Lotion was a simple (4 recorded ingredients) lotion guaranteed to remove “every kind of coarseness, eruption, and unpleasant appearance.” In short, this lotion was all the mode for clearing up blackheads, pimples, freckles, and blotchiness in order to give fashionable ladies of the court a smooth, translucent complexion. Oooh la la!
Doesn’t that sound amazing!? And historical sources tell us this stuff really worked! You can even look at the ingredients and, with any knowledge of chemistry, see how it’d work. The ingredients – bitter almonds (essential oil, maybe?), sugar, water, and mercury chloride [mercurous chloride, most likely] – would certainly take care of freckles, zits, and uneven complexion. They’d take them right off, along with a good layer of skin! Mercurous chloride is a fairly strong acid; it’s a corrosive that’d strip a layer of skin. Combined with the exfoliation the sugar provides, the user certainly would be left with a blemish-free complexion and a “lovely” rosy glow.
By the time Austen wrote Persuasion, Gowland’s Lotion had already received some bad press. However, it’s all about who you know, and John Gowland had already been appointed the Official Court Apothecary in the court of Frederick, Prince of Wales, heir to George II. Therefore, all the fashionable young ladies of the court were using Gowland’s Lotion to achieve their enviable complexions, and this trend would have spread to the lower classes, provided they could afford a jar. Not being able to afford a jar meant not only keeping your skin in-tact, but also avoiding the risk of mercury poisoning. I think I’ll keep my freckles, thank you very much.
What cosmetic treatments have you heard of that would be considered “crazy” by today’s safety standards?