A Short History of Cosmetics
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A Short History of Cosmetics

Avon cosmetics was started by a door to door bookseller.

In today’s society cosmetics are all around us. Ladies have access to a multitude of different applications to beautify their faces and perfume their bodies, and men are fast catching up--with aftershaves, deodorants and even make-up in some cases. However, none of this is new because human beings have been decorating their faces and bodies for thousands of years.

7500BC Sunscreen used in Egypt

According to various hieroglyphs and carvings, Egyptian shepherds and hunters who roamed the Nile Valley in 7500BC, protected their skin from the heat of the sun by crushing castor beans and rubbing the oil in as a sunscreen. They had no idea of the long term health implications of sunburn but were obviously sufficiently bothered by it to take this precaution.

3500BC Eye make-up applied in Egypt.

Women from Egypt and Mesopotamia used henna dye to paint their hands and feet. They also painted their eyes with an eye shadow called kohl which was prepared from lead ore, malachite and antimony. The belief was that painting the eyes would give protection by driving away danger but in actual fact this concoction was poisonous and may well have caused problems with the eyes, or even death after long term use. Kohl was also painted along the outlines of the eyes just like eyeliner is used today.

1370BC Queen Nefertiti uses nail varnish.

Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, started a trend that was to last thousands of years, by painting her fingernails and toenails with a kind of red lacquer. In those days only royalty was allowed to wear red, and painting the nails was a very extraordinary idea indeed.

750BC Greek women use hair dye.

The first documented evidence of women using hair dye comes from the Greeks of 750BC. Women dyed their hair black and, oblivious to the danger of lead poisoning, rubbed white lead powder into their skins to make them pure white. This lead based powder was the forerunner of today’s face powders and foundations.

150BC Romans use yellow eye shadow.

The Romans preferred to use gold-colored eye shadow which was made from saffron and painted onto the area around the sides and under their eyes. Then they used powdered wood ash to color their eyelids black. This gold color was quite significant at the time because they saw themselves as the rulers of the Mediterranean.

50BC Cleopatra wears green eye shadow and lipstick.

Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt and as such permitted to wear red face make-up, which she used as rouge on her cheeks and painted onto her lips. She followed the Roman trend of painting her upper eyelids black but she added green to the lower lids.

10AD Ovid wrote a beauty handbook.

The Roman poet, Ovid, wrote the world’s first book on cosmetics. He advised that a face-pack made from barley flour, egg and mashed up narcissus bulbs would promote healthy, smooth-looking skin.

65AD Unisex make-up

Nero, who was then the Roman Emperor, got together with his wife, Poppaea, and they used lead and chalk to whiten their skin, decorated their eyes with kohl and rouged their cheeks to look beautiful for each other.

200 Galen invents cold cream.

Greek physician Galen made a concoction of water, olive oil and beeswax, which was designed to soothe and cool the skin. It worked by rubbing it in until the water evaporated, so cooling the skin down. Today’s modern cold cream recipes are more or less the same as this.

1580AD Queen dyes her hair red.

Queen Elizabeth I dyed her hair red, plucked her eyebrows and whitened her skin. She was the first ever English Queen to see herself as she really looked, in a mirror. She cannot have liked the changes that came with age because she banned all mirrors from the court as she grew older. Anyone who has seen the movie, ‘Elizabeth I’ will have noticed how white her skin was.

1660 Got a pimple? Stick a star on it.

During the Restoration in England, it became fashionable for women to paint their faces and then apply little star, moon and sun shaped black patches. It is said that the Duchess of Newcastle set the trend when she used the method to cover up the numerous blotches on her face.

1700 Ladies' and gents' powder rooms.

Both men and women of the fashionable set in eighteenth century Britain, had powder rooms created exclusively for them. The powder room was once exactly that, and they powdered their hair, wigs and faces in these specially provided areas. Women wore gloves in bed and placed oiled cloths on the forehead to prevent wrinkles.

1840 Peaches and cream look.

At the beginning of the more austere Victorian era, make-up went out of fashion and it was considered to be something that respectable women never wore. It was okay for dancers, showgirls and entertainers but ‘real ladies’ preferred that pure, clean, peaches and cream look.

1886 Avon comes into being.

David McConnell was trying to sell anthologies of Shakespeare’s works by knocking on doors in US.  He decided to give away a free gift of a bottle of perfume to get people interested. His customers turned out to prefer the perfume to the books. He started manufacturing cosmetics and used housewives to sell them for him. Just over 50 years later he renamed the company to Avon after the name of the river which ran through the center of Stratford-on-Avon, in England, where the poet was born.

1916 Nail polish and lipstick make an appearance in the shops.

It wasn’t until 1916 that liquid nail polish in various colors was first introduced into the US. This was so successful that it was quickly followed by mass produced lipstick in several colors.

1920 The movies change cosmetics forever.

In the 1920’s, the age of the movies was launched in Hollywood and prominent actresses became very influential. The studio make-up created beautiful faces that most girls wanted to copy. Sales of cosmetic soared and the ranges of products increased. Arched eyebrows, cupid lips and bright colors were fashionable.

Since the 1920’s the range and quality of these cosmetic products for men and women has steadily grown. New ideas and innovations are being marketed all the time and we still paint our faces in a similar style to that created by the Egyptians more than 5500 years ago.





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Comments (1)

What an interesting article, Jan. For something I did a while ago I came across the factoid that Cleopatra used a form of soda ash in her bath water called Natron. Our equivalent today would be baking soda. When my kids were small, I used to put bicarb of soda in their bath water at the first sign of nappy rash. Old Queen C. was right on the money there. :)