A splash of mercury on your eyelashes. A few drops of deadly nightshade in your eyes. A dash of ammonia for your face.
It’s not that Victorian women didn’t know these beauty practices were dangerous. They were perfectly aware that nightshade could cause blindness; that ammonia could corrode the skin. They just felt like it was worth it, according to Alexis Karl, a Brooklyn-based artist, perfumer and researcher. For “Dangerous Beauty,” an upcoming lecture at New York’s Morbid Anatomy Museum — a Brooklyn exhibition space devoted to exploring “the intersections of death, beauty and that which falls between the cracks” — Karl has been delving into the archives of Victorian beauty manuals, advice columns and old issues of Harper’s Bazaar, with a focus on England, France and the United States.
In the Victorian era, Karl told Women in the World, aristocratic women were trying to achieve a set of beauty standards influenced by classical ideals. “They’re looking back at Hellenistic work — this archetype of beauty: the perfect marble statue, the perfection of form, the perfection of skin,” Karl said.
Another trend: the “dying of tuberculosis” look. Weakness and fragility were in, and “consumptives were thought to be very beautiful,” Karl said. That meant women were striving for “big, watery eyes,” an “extremely cinched waist” and “extremely pale, translucent skin.” White skin connoted “purity, innocence, health, beauty … and also class,” Karl said. “Women of money are going to have white skin — they’re not going to be working outside.”
Many of the cleansers and potions Victorian women brewed contained highly toxic ingredients, like radium powder, ammonia and a kind of opium that can be extracted from lettuce stalks. Face paint usually contained lead enamel, and painting on makeup meant risking not just exposure to deadly chemicals, but to social embarrassment as well. “If they were too expressive, their faces would crack like a china doll,” Karl said.
Women didn’t stop at merely applying toxins to their skin and eyes. In Bavaria, women bathed in an arsenic spring. “They were said to emerge looking like goddesses,” Karl said — “curly and white” (and poisoned). Sometimes, women even ingested toxins. Arsenic wafers were thought to improve the skin’s translucence.
Some of the beauty advice Karl uncovered was sound: go outside, get some exercise, get enough sleep. Some was harmless, if probably ineffectual — like brushing your teeth with the ashes of burnt bread and honey, rubbing red flannel on your cheeks to impart a blush, or dabbing lard on your lips for a gloss.
Some were harmless, ineffectual and also gross. After building up a reputation as a Spanish dancer and eventually as the courtesan of the King of Bavaria, an Irish woman named Lola Montez later made a career as a beauty guru. She dispensed beauty tips in her 1858 The arts of beauty; or, Secrets of a lady’s toilet, and after moving to the US, set out on the nineteenth-century lecture circuit with beauty lessons she’d picked up abroad. “Women in Paris were known to sleep in masks of raw beef, to prevent wrinkles,” Karl said.
According to Montez, “These women in Paris had the most beautiful skin, so it definitely worked.” The squeamish could substitute egg whites boiled in rosewater.
Victorian fragrances, interestingly, were much more innocuous. Victorian women favored natural, herbaceous scents; lavender, violet and cedar wood were all popular notes in their homemade tinctures and perfumes. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that perfumers began using the synthetic (paraben-containing) scents that are popular today. Without artificial preservatives, these fragrances were delicate, lasting only half an hour or so — but they were “definitely part of the beauty regime,” Karl said.
The Morbid Anatomy Museum, which opened just last year, has already built up a reputation for hosting fascinating and off-beat lectures amid its collection of death-themed artifacts and books. Their monthly “death café” salons bring in funeral directors and other death professionals to lead conversations on mortality. Recently, the museum has hosted talks on taxidermy, psychedelics and sword swallowing. The topic of Victorian beauty is a natural fit: Victorians celebrated “the idea of weakness” in women, Karl said — the frail woman, “the woman who does not move very much.”