18th Century vs. Modern Makeup

Everything 18th Century | A Column by Fiona Reichers

Marie Antoinette, famed for her impeccable appearance

You’ve probably noticed those funny looking colonists in your history books– ladies in tall powdered wigs, deathly pale, with skinny arched eyebrows and a daintily placed beauty mark above their extremely red lips. But have you ever wondered what 18th century people used as makeup to create these dramatic looks? Makeup back then was very different from modern day makeup. Although they produce results that are similar in appearance and texture, the ingredients are drastically different.

Popular modern options include eyeshadow, lipstick, blush, concealer, and foundation, but here’s what colonists from the 18th century used as their makeup. Powder, rouge (which is similar to modern day blush), lipstick, and burnt cloves or mouse fur were wildly popular products. But wait until you hear what they were made of!

Most face powder was made out of white lead. Lead? Lead is extremely poisonous for humans. Colonists had blisters on their face from the powder, so they kept on adding more to their face to cover up the blemishes. Then, they would die. You're lucky your setting powder isn’t made of lead.

Body and hair powder was made of wheat, potato and rice starch. Hair powder was similar to dry shampoo. Colonists would add it to their hair to keep bugs away from them and to hide the fact that their hair was really smelly and gross. Hair powder was scented with essential oils from natural items, like lavender and rose. All classes wore hair and body powder, but the upper class added a lot to their face and hair just to show that they were wealthy and powerful.

Rouge was made of red fruits like strawberries, vegetable juices and crushed ochre. Some rouges were made of mercury sulfide, arsenic, and red carmine, which again are poisonous for humans and killed many who wore it. The consistency of the rouge could be hard and powdery, like the blush we have today, or it could be liquid.

Lipstick was made of wax (we still use that today), animal marrow and gold leaf to create more natural color. 18th century appearances didn’t focus on lips, rather on how pale you were. Sometimes the colonists would add their rouge to their lips to give it a pop of color.

Burnt cloves and mouse fur were used for eyebrows. Now, you might be thinking: What? Mouse fur? That’s disgusting! Well, in the 18th century, dark, arched eyebrows were all the craze, and mouse fur is obviously hairy, so it counted as eyebrows. To get those perfect dark, arched eyebrows, the colonists used the burnt cloves and brushed it against their eyebrows, similar to what you do with an eyebrow pencil. Sometimes, they would even shave their eyebrows and glue mouse fur to the area where the original eyebrows were!

To complete the look, many colonists would add beauty patches to their face. Beauty patches were made of dark fabric, mostly silk and again mouse fur. These were not limited to the more well known dots you can see in many portraits of 18th century people. They could be shaped into moons, stars, hearts, or anything they desired. Usually upper class people wore beauty patches because silk was expensive for lower classes. The placings of beauty patches on the face had many meanings. For example, a beauty patch by the edge of the lip meant the wearer was kissable, while a patch by the eye meant that they were passionate.

Drawing by Viviane Kim

Makeup was also a status symbol, as it was expensive and only the upper class could afford it, and they made sure to show off their wealth by caking tons of it on. Later in the 18th century, the middle and lower class began to wear makeup, but very little—indicating their place in society. Interestingly, both men and women wore makeup.

So there you have it! 18th century makeup and modern day makeup are definitely super different. Obviously, today's makeup is much safer than it used to be, and thankfully we've stopped using it as a class symbol. That and we've also stopped shaving our eyebrows...or have we?


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18th & 19th century hair powders

The Story Behind Blush

English Rose: Putting Your Best Face Forward

18th Century French Beauty Patches

Fiona L. Reichers

Fiona, a sophomore, loves to write, paint, and sew 18th century gowns. A history buff and art fanatic, she plans to make a whole wardrobe by graduation, and likes conveying her personality with words.

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