Victorian Cosmetics: Red Lip Rouge and Lip Salve for 19th Century Ladies

A Winter's Walk by James Tissot, 1878.

A Winter’s Walk by James Tissot, 1878.

Attitudes toward cosmetics in the 19th century were notoriously negative.  Queen Victoria herself denounced make-up as being “impolite” and mid-century magazines like the Saturday Evening Review declared that cosmetics were “insincere” and “a form of lying.” (Pallingston, 13) Even more damning, to most Victorians, make-up was considered the province of only two classes of women: actresses and prostitutes.

Did this mean that no one but prostitutes and actresses colored their lips and cheeks?  Not at all.  In fact, most beauty books from the 19th century contained at least one recipe for red lip rouge or red salve which a lady could use to add a bit of subtle color to her complexion.  These were natural recipes, with the red coloring generally derived from either the cochineal insect or the alkanet root.  In his 1846 book An Easy Introduction to Chemistry, author George Sparkes describes the cochineal as follows:

“This is a dried insect, which, when powdered, yields a brilliant colour both to water and to alcohol.  It is the basis of carmine…” (132)

Conversely, alkanet root yielded no color to water, but as Sparkes explains, it tinged “wax and oils” a deep red. (132)  The waxy base for rouge and salve, in its plain form, was white and could be used to heal chapped or cracked lips.  When cochineal or alkanet root was added, the shades of red varied from scarlet and crimson to the “coralline” shade that Meg March famously uses to redden her lips in the following scene from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

“They crimped and curled her hair, they polished her neck and arms with some fragrant powder, touched her lips with coralline salve to make them redder, and Hortense would have added ‘a soupcon of rouge’, if Meg had not rebelled.” (Chapter Nine)

Red lip rouge and lip salve were fairly easy for a lady—or her maid—to make up at home.  The 1892 book Perfumes and their Preparation includes the following basic recipe for red lip salve made with alkanet root.

Perfumes and their Preparations, 1892.

As an alternative, an 1884 red lip salve recipe in The Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts calls for “balsam of Peru” and oil of cloves. (124)  While the below 1881 recipes for red lip rouge and red lip salve from Old Doctor Carlin’s Recipes (483) require such ingredients as rice flour and oil of lavender.  Note that the red lip salve is colored with alkanet root, while the lip rouge is colored with carmine derived from the cochineal insect.

Old Doctor Carlin’s Recipes, 1888.

Despite the prevalence of recipes for red lip rouge and red lip salve, cosmetics in the 19th century were never entirely respectable.  Natural beauty remained the ideal for the better part of the Victorian era.  By the end of the century, however, attitudes toward cosmetics were gradually beginning to change.  This was largely as a result of actresses, like Sarah Bernhardt, who routinely wore makeup in public.  As author Madeleine Marsh explains in her book Compacts and Cosmetics:

“In the ‘naughty nineties,’ a decade that kicked off with cancan girls revealing their all at the newly opened Moulin Rouge in Paris and in which theatre and music hall became more popular than ever before, performers were certainly influential in promoting a more open use of beauty products.” (37)

By the early 20th century, cosmetics were well on their way to becoming a mainstream commodity  The first tube lipstick was invented in 1915 and by the 20s, 30s, and 40s, a powdered face, blackened eyelashes, and crimson lips were not only acceptable, they were fashionable.

As for the Victorians, despite their reputation for abstaining from make-up, it was not at all uncommon—or indecent—for a lady to apply a light dusting of powder to her nose or a touch of salve to her lips.  If done with a light enough hand, these simple cosmetics served to enhance a woman’s natural beauty, all while remaining invisible to the naked eye.  Was this deception?  Dishonesty?  Or some form of 19th century feminine false advertising?  As always, I will let you be the judge.

Portrait of Aline Mason in Blue by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, 1841-1920.

**Author’s Note: This is the first in a three part series on the three best-selling color cosmetics of the Victorian era: lip salve, rouge, and face powder.  If you would like a refresher on other Victorian beauty topics, such as hair care, skin care, and perfume, I refer you to my Victorian Lady’s Guide series.  You can click through via the links below. 

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hair Care

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hairdressing

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Skin Care

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Perfume

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Alcott, Louisa May.  Little Women.  n.p.  1868.  Project Gutenberg. Web. 12 Apr 2016.

Askinson, George William.  Perfumes and Their Preparation.  London: N. W. Henley, 1892.

Carlin, William.  Old Doctor Carlin’s Recipes.  Boston: Locke Publishing, 1881.

Dick, William Brisbane. The Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1884.

Kozlowski, Karen.  Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick.  San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998.

Marsh, Madeleine.  Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day.  Barnsley: Remember When, 2009.

Pallingston, Jessica.  Lipstick: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Sparkes, George.  An Easy Introduction to Chemistry.  London: Wittaker & Co., 1846.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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33 thoughts on “Victorian Cosmetics: Red Lip Rouge and Lip Salve for 19th Century Ladies

  1. Jenny Haddon says:

    What on earth is spermaceti ointment? Anything to do with whales?

    I remember that in Georgette Heyer’s “Sylvester” Phoebe tells Tom that wonderful Keighley, Sylvester’s groom, thinks that regular application of spermaceti ointment will keep the healing wound on a horse’s foreleg pliant and hence avoid scarring. Knowing Heyer’s meticulous research, I’m sure she found that in some some Regency source.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Spermaceti is found in the head cavity of whales. I believe it is oily and waxy in texture. It was used as a base for various creams, lotions, & potions. I can easily imagine it as an ointment for a horse’s leg. I love Heyer’s attention to detail! As an aside, I believe that almost all of the beauty products in my Victorian series are equally applicable to the Regency. The basic recipes don’t seem to have changed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah says:

    So interesting! What I want to know is who on earth discovered that the waxy contents of a whale’s brain would be just the thing to make the perfect lip salve – the mind boggles!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah Waldock says:

    I’d use almond oil and beeswax myself, combined in a bain marie, but I find it hard to imagine Victorian ladies harvesting alkanet. The leaves are horribly hairy to the point of being prickly – I’m allergic to them, and the ruddy plants grow wild in my garden, escaped from nearby wasteland – and digging the roots up is hard, manual labour. They can go down nearly two feet. I hate the stuff, and extracting the dyestuff is no sinecure either.
    How times have turned! I know a number of people who are told that it is mandatory to be made up to come to work, and I have to say, I’d challenge that under the sexual equality act as discrimination, and would only come to work in warpaint if the men also wore the works as well. Which as this is for the benefit of male bosses, they wouldn’t, of course. It’s moved from being a little bit of help to the feminine charm to becoming an objectivisation of women into which women are brainwashed into participating. In its way,in my personal opinion, the feeling many women have that they ‘have’ to put on makeup can be as restrictive as the Muslim feeling that they ‘have’ to wear the hijab, or Haradi women that they ‘have’ to cover their hair. Nowadays, I rebel by never wearing makeup because I have the self-confidence to feel that I have value as a person without mucking with nature. People can take me as I am! I do use lip salve though but I hate to think what alkanet might do to my lips if included in it…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I agree, Sarah 🙂 Much of it is creative marketing, too. Packaging is so nice and cosmetic companies promise all sorts of miraculous things. I’m afraid I’ve been their willing victim many, many times. I love a high end lipstick or a really nice mascara!

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I used to be a bit of a Goth, so I have been guilty of buying eyeliner, wacky lipstick and so on… but when my sister-in-law, who is 9 years older than I am, told me that she was told that wearing makeup to work was a condition of employment I threw all my makeup away. That was more than 10 years ago, and it was a remarkably liberating experience. Gave me more space in the bathroom too.
        Since, I’ve heard of other people told they ‘must’ wear makeup to work – even over 60s! which I must say adds insult to injury, as it’s forcing them to be mutton dressed as lamb. I consider that now I’m over fifty wearing makeup would be a ridiculous thing in any case and looks like desperation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I definitely don’t support employers who force their female employees to wear make-up! Just in terms of history, though, isn’t it fascinating how far cosmetics have come since the days when no respectable woman would admit to wearing them?

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Absolutely!
        it’s also fascinating that we have lipstick as a separate entity now, whereas in the Regency it was the same pot as the rouge, unless in a lip salve when it was lip-rouge. I am glad we’ve moved on from white lead though. It may not have been as toxic as has often been stated [it only caused damage and poisoning, other than drying the skin out too much, if there were already lesions]
        I am also glad we don’t have hair powder. Believe me, if I ever do 18th century re-enactment, it’ll be a wig, and already white. And nice, non-toxic children’s face paint for the white.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Vickie says:

    And just think that even today many women still have their favorite lipstick in their purse if nothing else – it has become such a staple of life for many women – Mimi, you make everything interesting with your thorough research – thank you so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mimi Matthews says:

    Thanks for your comment. Regrettably, I’ve stopped allowing people to post links to other posts in the comments. I was just getting too many of them from first time commenters. Regarding the law, the quote I’ve used is from a print source, not a meme. It’s actually referenced in multiple print sources, however, considering the books were on make-up and not legislative history, I interpreted the quote as more of an entertaining interpretation than an actual hard and fast law against lipstick.

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    • Sarah Waldock says:

      One wonders if the books you quoted got it from an 18th century newspaper source which was supposedly reporting the law and was actually an ironically intended spurious report? this was not an uncommon form of humour at the time, and permitted a lot of social commentary.
      Belief in witchcraft amongst the ordinary people was still commonplace, and one may read a number of reports of frauds perpetrated by those claiming to be witches or cunning men, or able to contact the spirits of the departed [I have not come across terms like spiritualist or medium so I presume these were not used]. However, the prosecutions when undertaken were for fraud and theft, not witchcraft.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        It’s certainly possible! Though I have encountered print sources which seem to have got their info from internet memes as well. This notably happened when I was researching an article on Napoleon and Josephine’s Pug. More than one book said that Napoleon was a famous dachshund lover, even that his many deceased dachshunds were sealed in the base of his tomb!

        Like

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Unfortunately there’s a lot of crap out there with the truth, and it’s not just on the internet. When my mother-in-law was doing her Masters in archaeology, she was looking into the phenomenon of Roman parade grounds in Britain, and unearthed the fact that all the published material came from a senior professor, whose evidence was quoting a dissertation of one of his own students whose own evidence was …. the postulate of the said professor that there ‘must have been’ parade grounds. My MIL knew she had made it as an academic when she got academic hate mail for debunking this. However the internet makes it easier to disseminate tripe, which is why I use Wiki as a starting point only. I’ve caught it out in inaccuracies too often. Unfortunately, Hansard isn’t online before 1803, so checking the bills isn’t feasible.
        AH! a little gem inside some other stuff; the mention that witchcraft ceased to be an offence in 1735. There you have it from the British Government records quoted 1963 when some idiot called Kerans wanted legislation reintroduced. This was refuted as quite unnecessary. I can’t believe there were still calls to ban witchcraft into the 1980s. What were some of these members ON for goodness sake?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I second you on Wikipedia, Sarah. I always tell people to use it as they would a law school hornbook–it can sometimes direct you to the right haystack, but don’t ever rely on it to tell you where the needle is!

        Like

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I admit most of my issues with Wiki are over Medieval Japan where people changed their names more frequently than some people change their underwear,but some issues involve whole generational mistakes… and it’s not the only area where Wiki is dodgy.
        I use Wiki to find the haystack and its references as lodestones to point at the needle. And I always check corroborative evidence. For my own blogposts, I usually rely on the good old fashioned dead tree and squid juice format of data retrieval.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Noirfifre says:

    When I began reading about makeup, I learnt about the role of it was to enhance beauty. I guess it came from the Victorian mind frame. In addition, the aim for natural beauty explains the extent of remedies and beauty regime.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dorothy says:

    When you do your planned articles on Victorian cosmetics don’t forget Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield! She is a wonderful source! (She appears twice. Be sure you notice both!)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Mimi Matthews says:

    I agree to an extent. However, I believe the burden of proof depends on the audience. For example, when writing a blog post (which is something I do for free in my spare time), I generally only go two print sources deep for any given quote–though I have many more sources for the article as a whole. This is 99.9% more than most other blogs on the internet. If a reader goes to the cited sources and still disagrees, I can’t control that very much. Similarly, if they simply disagree with cited history, I can do nothing about that either. Conversely, for an actual print published history book, the burden is going to be higher. Which is why for articles, in whatever field, we often cite to those books.

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  9. Mimi Matthews says:

    Absolutely! History is interesting that way in that, for better or worse, even print sources can occasionally have facts based on a historical version of the telephone game. Even a few words can change the meaning of something entirely. I do appreciate the discussion in the comments section of my posts – and I have even occasionally amended articles with an author’s note before based on compelling evidence!

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  10. authorangelabell says:

    As one who often dons a red lip, I found this article especially fascinating! I can’t fathom creating my own makeup at home.

    I also find it amusing how a red lip was once thought so “scandalous”and “improper”, but now it’s considered a rather elegant and classic look! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      And once the red lip took off, it really was here to stay. I think of the fabulous red lipstick worn by movie stars in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. A pale lip did come into fashion in the 60s, of course, but in general, red lips have never gone out of style.

      Like

  11. HJaneMay says:

    This was so interesting! I have just discovered blogging, and am very glad to immediately find one like yours. I will definitely be following! Its obvious you put a lot of effort into this. Thank you for the informative article. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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