The Bloom of Ninon De L’Enclos
In a society where we are too ready to judge a book by its cover the pressure is on the fairer sex to maintain or even improve their appearance by the application of cosmetics. Lamentable a commentary on society as this may be, it was ever thus and the sale of cosmetics was always a tidy earner. And where there is money, there is room for the opportunist.
The first character in our story is the French authoress and courtesan, Anne de l’Enclos (1620 – 1705) who was given the nickname Ninon by her father. A noted wit and beauty Ninon only used one cosmetic which “gave her the hue, the countenance, the vivacity and fire of youth, even at an advanced age”. The recipe for this concoction came into the hands of one Mademoiselle Pigout who introduced it into Blighty in 1781. It took off like wildfire, so much so that “its pre-eminent powers have now in the great and polite circles banished the use of every other composition that is set forth for the same or similar purposes”.
Its powers were truly astonishing. It would “cure effectually wrinkles arising from dissipation or old age, worms in the skin and pimples”. Its powers of invigorating the blood vessels in the skin produced a transparent and blooming effect to the softened tissues. And it was pleasing to the nose. At 4s 6d a bottle it was a tad expensive but, according to an advert from 1784 you might only need two or three bottles. After cleansing the skin with oatmeal or Almond Washball and then drying it thoroughly, you were invited to pour a little of the fluid into a bowl, after shaking it well. Rub in well to the arms and face and, hey presto, it will “evince the pre-eminence of its virtues, beyond the possibility of a doubt”.
So successful was the Bloom that it attracted competitors who punted an inferior product called the Veritable Bloom of the immortal Ninon de l’Enclos. Alarmed by these encroachments on to her profitable turf, Mme Pigout appointed “respectable agents in London to vend” her potion and to defend her patch.
So what was in it and was it any good? Well, according to the Monthly Gazette of Health in 1819 it consisted of white lead, almond emulsion and essence of lavender. White lead had been commonly used in cosmetics from time immemorial, usually mixed with vinegar to form what was known as ceruse. The problem with the regular application of ceruse was that women quickly became “withered and grey-headed, because this doth so mightily dry up the natural moisture of their flesh”.
The Monthly Gazette was even more withering in its condemnation, citing the Bloom as “of all the compositions that have been offered to the public, this is the most dangerous. The repeated application of lead to the skin of the face, instead of animating the countenance, would assuredly, by paralysing the nerves, render it animate. Such are the baneful effects of lead on the constitution, that the most serious consequences have followed even the partial use of a weak preparation”. It reckoned that the “cosmetic” cost a penny to produce, rendering a healthy profit to the manufacturer and purveyors.
Despite this damning report, it still appeared in the House of Commons’ list of taxable medicines in 1830. Whether Ninon, who after all lived to the ripe old age of 84, actually used the stuff, never mind being solely reliant upon it, we can perhaps take with a grain of salt.