10 Questionable Grooming Products from the 19th Century

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The process of making oneself presentable in the 19th century wasn't always pretty. Here are some of the more questionable ingredients people turned to in an effort to look (and smell) better.


It wasn’t until 1780 that a man named William Addis invented the first mass-produced toothbrush, and it took a century before the tool really caught on in the United States. Before then, toothbrushing practices varied alarmingly: Pierre Fauchaud, known as the father of modern dentistry, was a proponent of the theory that rising with one's own urine can cure a toothache. (His theories would strongly influence dentistry for the next hundred years.) He wasn't completely nuts—pee is rich in ammonia, which is a base, and can thus neutralize the acid that tooth-decaying bacteria produce. (In the 19th century, some working class families unable to afford soap used it to clean dirty clothes.) The urine-drinkers were a minority, though. Many 19th century Americans got rid of their morning breath by using twigs and table salt


If you can't afford fancy tooth powder ingredients such as borax and charcoal, there's always leftover carbs. Writing in 1860's The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness, Florence Hartley recommends whipping up "A Cheap But Good Tooth-Powder." To make your own, "Cut a slice of bread as thick as may be, into squares, and burn in the fire until it becomes charcoal, after which pound in a mortar, and sift through a fine muslin; it is then ready for use."


Clean teeth might not have been a priority 150 years ago, but maintaining a fancy mustache was of the utmost importance. No one slid in a retainer before going to bed, but countless Victorian men strapped wood frames to their faces at night in order to keep their mustaches in shape. (For military men, 'staches weren't just a passing fad: From 1860 to 1916, the British Army actually required its soldiers to sport upper lip fuzz.)


Today, we generally accept that beauty involves at least a little bit of pain. But back in the 1800s, it involved poison, too. Arsenic tablets were commonly used to treat acne in 1890s America. Fortunately, the recommended dosage wasn't generally potent enough to do actual harm; one 1901 tome suggests ingesting a pill of one hundredth of a grain of arsenic sulfide—which on its own is less toxic than other forms of arsenic—every two hours. (That only amounts to approximately .004 grams of arsenic sulfide per day. No big deal, right?)


The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion, published in 1834, features a section on homemade depilatories with recipes listed in order of their potency. For those who hadn't had luck with some light acid on a hair pencil, the manual offers up this option:

"Take Gum of ivy, one ounce, Ants' eggs Gum arabic Orpiment (of each one drachm) Reduce these into a fine powder, and make it up into a liniment, with a sufficient quantity of vinegar. In pounding the materials, great precaution must be taken that the dust of the orpiment, which is a preparation of arsenic, be not inhaled."

Still seeing fuzz? The author has you covered with even stronger recipes involving orpiment and quicklime. Yikes.


The Toilette also offers up plenty of suggestions for eliminating the dreaded scalp "scurf," and for promoting overall hair health.

"The substances in most general use at the present day, and whose virtues are most highly extolled for the restoration and improvement of the hair, are, bear's grease, beef marrow, olive oil, oil of almonds both sweet and bitter: oil of nuts, of camomile, and of laurel; goose grease, fox grease, fresh butter, and burnt butter, bees burnt, and pounded in oil of roses; with various other pomades and high-sounding preparations."

Readers were cautioned against one dangerous, newfangled trend in the care and maintenance of hair:

"The practice, which of late years appears to have gained ground, of washing the head with water, either warm or cold, requires considerable judgment, as from it not unfrequently [sic] result head-ache, ear-ache, tooth-ache, and complaints of the eyes."


The widespread desire among Victorian women for almost translucent skin led to the development of a product for which there is no modern equivalent: The freckle remover. Homemade freckle-remover recipes were common in 19th-century beauty books; one treatment, from 1891, suggested that the freckle-afflicted "scrape horseradish into a cup of cold sour milk; let it stand twelve hours; strain, and apply two or three times a day." For those truly desperate to rid themselves of freckles, some experts suggested hydrochloric acid and (on rare occasions) mercury compounds.


To make their eyes appear bigger and brighter, some Victorian women dilated their pupils by applying drops of belladonna—better known as deadly nightshade. Not surprisingly, there were some downsides to the regimen. Namely, blindness. 


Spermaceti, a waxy substance found in the cranial cavity of the sperm whale, was a 19th century beauty industry mainstay. The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness devotes a chapter to "receipts" for hair- and skincare products with several recipes involving this substance. Spermaceti is an essential ingredient in Hartley's homemade cold creams and lip salves, in particular. For her "Superior Lip-Salve," Hartley suggests mixing "White wax, two and a half ounces; spermaceti, three quarters of an ounce; oil of almonds, four ounces. Mix well together, and apply a little to the lips at night."


The cosmetics of the day contained a number of ingredients that were just plain terrible for you (see: arsenic, belladonna). Lead was one of them. One of Hartley's variations on her "Milk of Roses" wash called for "half an ounce of sugar of lead." But, cautions Hartley, "This is a dangerous form to leave about where there are children, and should never be applied where there are any abrasions, or chaps on the surface." Duly noted.