I’m quite content with the way I look, thank you very much, but many of us can’t resist a spot of titivation. Indeed, the grooming products industry is a multi-billion one world-wide. But, as Marlene Dietrich helpfully pointed out, you can only go so far in forestalling the effects of anno domini. Not that it has stopped many trying and some pretty odd and questionable, and potentially dangerous, methods have been adopted through the ages to enhance our looks. A few months back I read a fascinating review of Angus Trumble’s A Brief History of the Smile – not good enough to prompt me to buy it, though – in which the author investigated why until comparatively modern times – the late eighteenth century – the subjects of portraits rarely smiled.
And the reason was the quality of their teeth. The linkage with the state of your molars and smiling goes back to at least the first century BCE as evidenced by Catullus’ delightful and, dare I say it, biting Carmen 39 which includes the following “Egnatius, because he has bright white teeth, always smiles”.Indeed, it was only around 1780 that William Addis invented the first mass-produced toothbrush and it was another century before the practice of regularly brushing your ‘Ampsteads was widely adopted.
Before then, if you felt the need to look after your molars, a recommended practice was to rinse them with urine. Back to Catullus – “whatever each man has urinated, with this he is accustomed in the morning to rub his teeth and gums until they are red” . This may not be as daft as it may seem as urine is rich in ammonia which can neutralise the acid that the bacteria responsible for tooth decay produces. I might discuss this with my hygienist next time I see her.
Another option, adopted in the mid 19th century and promulgated by Florence Hartley in her 1860 blockbuster, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Etiquette – a Victorian stocking filler, if there ever was one – was to use bread. According to la Hartley all you needed to do was to cut a thick slice of bread into squares, burn them until they were charcoal and then pound them into a paste. Once you had sifted the dregs through a fine muslin, you were ready to go. If you hadn’t time for all of that – or didn’t have a servant – you could always resort to twigs and salt to shine them up.
Our ancestors were less pernickety about using substances we now consider to be noxious. Take arsenic, for example. It was used extensively during the 19th century, not just as a pigment in wallpapers – so prevalent was death by inhaling arsenic fumes from wallpaper that it was known as the silent killer – but also in beauty products. This helpful recipe promulgated by the Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion of 1834 was designed to assist with the removal of unwanted hair. You were advised to take one ounce of gum of ivy and one drachm each of ants’ eggs, gum Arabic and orpiment, grind them up into a fine powder and then add vinegar to produce an ointment. The only problem was that orpiment was a form of arsenic. Indeed, the recipe warned those foolish enough to follow its instructions to be very careful not to inhale the dust of the orpiment whilst pounding.
Acne is another affliction which has dented many a young man’s (and woman’s) confidence over the ages. One form of treatment regularly adopted during the dog days of the 19th century involved taking arsenic tablets. Individually, the dosage was hardly enough to cause you any harm – a tablet might contain just one hundredth of a grain of arsenic sulphide – but the regimen required you to take a tablet every two hours. The cumulative effect may have been a very different story and a few pimples on your face may have been the least of your worries!