I always find the history of makeup to be truly fascinating – the weird ingredients, the changing looks, and the implications of changing cultures. Even more so, the way in which some items of makeup have really stuck around.
In the accepted aesthetics of beauty, there has long been an association between a pale, flawless complexion and red cheeks and lips. Pale, almost white skin was accepted as beautiful in Europe and in Asia for centuries, even millennia, as a sign of wealth and leisure. The bearers of these delicate complexions were wealthy enough, as the thinking went, to never need to burnish their lily-white skin with working outside in the sun and the wind. Rouge, therefore, has always been popular, not just for the fashion statement, but to make the wearer seem alive and awake.
It is immensely interesting that blush is still used for the same purpose today. It brightens the face, makes you look energised and young, and can sometimes be all you need to look like yourself.
The manufacture and sale of rouge (and perfume) was really the starting point of the gigantic behemoth that is the beauty industry today, once people started selling more complicated beautification formulas than people could make at home.
Even in times when the use of makeup has been generally discouraged as vulgar or unnecessary, an exception has been made for rouge:
“If ever paint were to be proscribed, we should plead for an exception in favour of rouge, which may be rendered extremely innocent, and be applied with such art as to give an expression to the countenance, which it would have without that auxiliary. White paint is never becoming; rouge, on the contrary, almost always looks well.”
The Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion, Allen & Ticknor 1834
Couldn’t have said it better myself. And don’t you love the word “countenance”?
Before the first half of the 19th Century, most people made their own rouge at home. In the 4th century BC, Ancient Greek women used crushed mulberries to stain their cheeks. In later times, people would make their rouge in slightly more complicated formulas, in large batches that would be stored in little pots, or cachous, some very ornate or personalised.
(side note: Sam, if you are looking for an Xmas present for me, they sell these at auction, hashtag justsaying)
Thousands of different recipes abounded, almost all in two different forms – dry, with all-powder ingredients, or more commonly in a paste, where powder ingredients were mixed with a medium such as Almond Oil to increase spreadability and help it adhere to the skin.
A powdered red pigment would therefore be mixed with a “filler” (they had them even then) such as talc or powdered chalk, mixed with the oil, then pressed into the little pot. This completely simple formula, without water or any organic ingredients which could rot, also had the benefit of a very long shelf life – samples have been found from the early 19th century which are still usable, if anyone should want to try.
The red pigments came from natural animal, vegetable or mineral sources:
– From animals, the most common was Carmine, from the crushed wing cases of cochineal beetles. Originally a Polish source of this bright red pigment supplied the (often adulterated) rouge needs of Europe, but this was eclipsed with the discovery of the Americas, as the beetles from Mexico and Central America were found to have a much stronger colour. This pigment is still used in cosmetics today, as red pigments are extremely hard to make synthetically, and Carmine is known to be completely safe on the skin, and is even edible.
– From botanical sources, a variety of plants were used, usually for a softer, pinker red. These included Safflower flowers (the most common), Alkanet roots, Madder root, Brazil wood, and Red sandalwood.
– Mineral sources are a bit trickier. The most common, and the brightest, pigments that were used were Lead Tetroxide (red lead or minium), or Mercuric Sulphide (cinnabar or vermillion). These are all highly toxic, and were known to be even in the early 19th century. People still used them, in some strange mixed-up-priorities game. A completely non-toxic mineral source for red, however, is Iron Oxide, which is the most used pigment in cosmetics today, and which I wrote all about here.
Starting at the beginning of the 19th century, people starting buying their rouge from manufactured sources. These versions were a little more sophisticated than the homemade ones, either in formula or in delivery method. Formulas were made smoother, with more variations of colour, or sold as crepons, thin crepe fabric strips dipped in the makeup, to be applied delicately to the cheeks.
A very popular product, and one of the first to be sold in a wide market, was Pear’s Liquid Blooms of Roses, which has some of the most stunning advertisement language ever seen on the face of the planet:
“… gives a most delightful tinge to the Female Countenance [that word again, high five], and to such a degree of perfection, that it may with propriety be said that Art was never so successfully employed in improving the Charms of Nature.”
La Belle Assemblé, Bell’s Monthly Compendium for Advertisements for May 1807
What a beaut of a copy writer. I would hire him.
As we all know, rouge, or blush, is still one of the best-selling cosmetic products out there. I definitely never go a day without wearing some, just a dab, to pull it all together and make me look 0.00001% less like a snob. The top picture here is the new Matte Multiple from Nars in Laos, a truly modern formula which can be used on the cheeks or lips, which I heartily recommend.
1. 1807 round silver cachou, found here
2. 1912 silver cachou of a woman’s head, found here