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Month: April 2008

The Chemistry of Beauty


beautyIn pursuit of beauty, women of all ages and from all walks of life have created a demand for products in which to enhance what God gave them, to conceal what they wish He didn’t give them, and create what they wanted God to give them. As such, the beauty industry was created despite appeals for “natural” beauty and admonishments that ladies didn’t rouge or powder, nor did they wear anything heavier than lavender or rose-water. The fact that the modern beauty industry laid its foundations in the so-called “repressed” Victorian era tells otherwise.

The modern perfume industry came into being in Paris between the years 1889 and 1921, with the introduction of synthetic fragrances. Prior to this development, perfumers relied heavily upon natural scents, which could be difficult to obtain, such as with vanilla, ambergris, civet, or benzoin; or to extract its essences, such as with freesia, lilac, violet, or orchid. From the natural distillation of fragrances, the chemical developments of the 19th century culminated in a new perfume industry, based around the combination of natural and synthetic fragrances.

The first synthetic fragrance was the essence of Mirbane introduced by Collas in about 1850. Soon after, came the creation of artificial oil of wintergreen and of bitter almonds in 1868; the creation of coumarin, a chemical compound found naturally in lavender, clover, and tonka beans, that was designed to replicate the scent of freshly mowed hay, by Sir W. H. Perkin that same year; vanillin, which as the crystalline component, was first isolated from vanilla pods in 1858, but was obtained from the glycosides of pine tree sap in 1875, and temporarily caused an economic depression in the natural vanilla industry; and of ionone, almost identical with the natural irone, the odorous principle of violets, by Tiemann and P. Kruger in 1898. In 1888 the chemist Alfred Baur discovered the “artificial musks,” Musk Baur, and secondly, Musk Ketone in 1894, which was widely used until the 1990s because its production was easy and cheap.

From 1887 to 1915, Schimmel & Co, one of the major suppliers of essential oils at the turn of the century, made twice yearly reports on the fluctuations in the supply of natural ingredients as territories were colonized and recolonized and their resources exploited. Gradually, in reaction to the instability of access to natural resources, more and more perfumers turned to synthetic fragrances and Schimmel’s catalogues reflected this. 1895 saw the report of the first synthetic jasmine, and synthetic rose, neroli and ylang-ylang (despite its relative inexpensiveness) followed. Artificial rose oil, was especially touted for its ease of use. It would not “become cloudy in the cold, or separate into flakes. It could be relied upon to be always of exactly the same composition.”

Ironically, the synthetic fragrance became an oxymoron: they were cheap, but colorless in every way. The chemical make-up of an essence had been cracked, but in its creation, the complexity and nuance of a natural fragrance was lost. But that didn’t deter perfumers from both blending the synthetic with the natural jickyand capitalizing on the brusque, one-dimensional quality of the synthetic (Chanel No 5, created accidentally, is a good example of the latter).

One of the first perfumers to use a synthetic fragrance was Houbigant, whose Fougère Royale,or Royal Fern, was built around an “accord of oakmoss, geranium, bergamot … and synthetic coumarin” in 1882. However, this fragrance quickly vanished from the scene, and the House of Guerlain is frequently cited as creating the modern perfume industry with the creation of Jicky in 1889. A fougère, or fern fragrance, also based around coumarin, it included bois de rose, vanillin, lemon, bergamot, lavender, mint, verbena, and sweet marjoram, with civet as a fixative.

“When it first appeared, many women did not accept or understand it. The hint of animal scent was too brutal and unexpected for women in 1889. In fact, men were the first to appreciate it, and it wasn’t until 1912 that women’s magazines finally began to sing its praises. The perfume bottle is inspired by medicine jars but with a surprising ‘champagne bottle stopper’, symbolizing joy and celebration.”

The House of Guerlain quickly followed which such fragrances as Au bon Vieux Temps (1890), Belle Epoque (1892), Après L’Ondée (1906) and L’Heure Bleue (1912).

A rival was found in François Coty, who completed the birth of the modern perfume age with his revolutionary packaging techniques. Obsessed with the idea of creating fragrances and presenting them in the perfect bottle, Coty moved to Grasse, the capital of perfumery, where he entered the school of fragrance run the House of Chiris, one of the largest producers of floral essences. Returning to Paris a year later, he met with rejection until, in 1904, after a flamboyant demonstration, Coty got an order for twelve bottles of his latest creation, La Rose Jacqueminot, from the Grands Magasins du Louvres, a major Parisian department store.

le-muguetIn 1908, he opened an elegant shop on the Place Vendôme, which was next door to René Lalique, the great art nouveau jeweler. Asked to design Coty’s perfume bottles, Lalique was able to mass produce them with iron molds. Selling perfume in uniquely designed bottles was revolutionary enough, but Coty dared to allow customers to sample the perfume before purchasing it! Designed by Lalique, small perfume bottles (testers), signs and labels were produced to encourage ladies to try a dab of Ambre Antique or Le Muguet.

As he did with many trends in the years leading up to the Great War, Paul Poiret was the first couturier to create perfumes under his fashion label. In 1911, he set up two companies, one for each of his daughters. For Martine, the youngest, he established Les Ateliers de Martine. For Rosine, the eldest, he established Parfums de Rosine. With packaging designed by Erté, Raul Duffy and Paul Iribe, his fragrance house was so successful, it was rumored Coty wished to buy him out. His perfumers, Emannuel Bouler, Maurice Shaller and Henri Alméras brought Rosine lasting fame with such fragrances as Borgia, Alladin, and Nuit de Chine, which ventured into new territory, combining Oriental ingredients with intense and heady florals.

Hand in hand with the modern perfume industry were cosmetics. Into this field, women featured heavily. Born into a socially prominent Chicago family, Harriet Hubbard Ayers spent a year in Paris after the 1871 fire, thereafter moving to New York to begin business selling a beauty cream called Recamier. Experiencing much success with this, she began to sell perfumes with names like Dear Heart, Mes Fleurs, and Golden Chance. From this, she emerged to become America’s first beauty columnist and the country’s best-paid, most popular female newspaper journalist.

helena-rubensteinOne of the most enduring names in the cosmetics industry is that of Helena Rubinstein. Born in Poland, Rubenstein emigrated to Australia where, with the help of her sister, she began to sell beauty treatments she claimed derived from the Carpathians. Leaving her sister Ceska to assume the Melbourne shop’s operation, Rubenstein moved to London with $100,000 in 1908 to began what was to become an international enterprise.

Her deadly rival, Elizabeth Arden, founded a North American-based beauty empire. Born Florence Nightingale Graham, Arden traveled to France in 1912 to learn the beauty and facial massage techniques used in the Paris beauty salons. Returning to the States with a collection of rouges and tinted powders she created, she introduced modern eye makeup to North America and the concept of the “makeover” in her salons. With her collaborator, Swanson, a chemist, they created a “fluffy” face cream called Venetian Cream Amoretta, and a corresponding lotion, named Arden Skin Tonic, which revolutionized cosmetics, bringing a scientific approach to formulations.

marcel-waveOther beauty inventions included the hair-color formula, developed by chemist Eugene Schueller (the founder of L’Oreal) in 1907, called Auréole; the Marcel wave, a process by which heated tongs were used to curl and wave hair, invented by Francois Marcel, a French hairdresser in 1872; and the Nestle Permanent Hair Wave, created by Charles Nestle in 1906, wherein an electric heat machine was attached to the hair pads protecting the head and curled the hair.

Edwardian ladies also used papier poudre, which came in books of colored paper and were pressed against the cheeks or nose to remove shine, burnt matchsticks to darken eyelashes, and geranium and poppy petals to stain the lips. For those who wished to turn back the hands of time, or at least halt them for a while, many ladies would paint their faces with enamel, thereby “preserving” their beauty beneath a layer of white paint–and it was rumored Queen Alexandra retained her youthful beauty long past the age of sixty with assistance by this process.

A dangerous trend during this period however, was the use of belladonna drops in the eyes. For some reason, it was determined that dilated pupils were attractive to the opposite sex. Interestingly enough, to be beautiful in the Edwardian era was to be brunette–blondes were decidedly out of favor–and cosmetics were created specifically for the brunette, rosy-cheeked woman in mind.

Discreet beauty salons, such as the House of Cyclax, or the more sinister salon run by Madame Rachel (who, despite her infamy, lives on in the eponymous mixture of face power she created for brunettes), lined Bond Street, or near it, where veiled ladies could enter side doors to obtain their face powders and creams, enamels, lip tinctures, and rouges.

But Selfridge’s threw open the doors when it debuted a make-up counter with its opening in 1910, where women could openly purchase cosmetics and even try them on at the counter! This shocked the older generations who stared in disbelief when young women–perhaps even acquaintances–blithely walked up to the counter and professed knowledge of the different cosmetics they wouldn’t have dreamed of admitting they knew. But times were a-changing. By the 1920s, no longer was lily white-skin a sign of breeding: a healthy glowing suntan now professed the wealth and leisure that allowed one to vacation at the beach, and rouging ones knees and powdering ones face, in public naturally, became a common occurrence. The pursuit of beauty was legitimized.

Further Reading:
Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume by Mandy Aftel
1900s Lady by Kate Caffrey
War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead
Art of Perfume: Discovering and Collecting Perfume Bottles by Christie Mayer Lefkowith
Masterpieces of the Perfume Industry by Christie Mayer Lefkowith
Perfume: Joy, Scandal, Sin – A Cultural History of Fragrance from 1750 to the Present by Richard Stamelman



mrs-beetonThose meals! Those endless, extravagant meals in which they all indulged all the year round!…First two soups, one hot and one cold were served simultaneously; then two kinds of fish followed, again one hot and one cold. Then came an entrée, then a meat dish, followed by a sorbet. This was followed by game — grouse or partridge, pheasant, duck, woodcock or snipe. In the summer, when there was no game, there were quails from Egypt, fattened in Europe, and ortolans from France ‘which cost a fortune’. An elaborate sweet followed, succeeded by a hot savory with which was drunk the port so comforting to English palates. The dinner ended with a succulent array of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, raspberries, pears and grapes, all grouped in generous pyramids among the flowers that adorned the table.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the well-to-do sat down to dinners of alarming richness. The modern vegetarian movement was a reaction to this, and was derived from the Age of Enlightenment, which emphasized the questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals, and the recognition of the need for major reformation of the human condition. One the earliest vegetarians of the nineteenth century was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who converted to the meat-less diet in 1812. Fervent in his renunciation of meat consumption, he also added a political dimension to the cause, citing meat production–which then was the reserve of the privileged–as a reason for food shortages among society’s most needy.beeton_1923_vegetables

Joseph Brotherton, MP and social reformer, was principal in the formation of a traditional organization of vegetarians. With his wife, who published the first vegetarian cookbook in 1812, they formed the Vegetarian Society in 1847 at a conference in Ramsgate. By 1853, the Society boasted of 889 members, all motivated by their beliefs in a “simple life and ‘pure’ food, humanitarian ideals and strict moral principles.”

The London Food Reform Society was formed in 1877, with baker Dr. T.R. Allinson one of its founding members. The two societies merged in 1885, with the LFRS becoming the London branch of The Vegetarian Society until 1888, when there was a breakaway and the formation of The London Vegetarian Society, with its own publication — The Vegetarian. In 1889 the Vegetarian Federal Union was established with the aim of bringing together all vegetarian societies, local, national and overseas. 1897 saw the second International Congress in London. The International Vegetarian Union succeeded the Vegetarian Federal Union in 1908, and a Congress was held in Nice. Since then, Congresses have taken place in many parts of the world.

By the 1880s vegetarian restaurants were popular in London, offering cheap and nutritious meals in respectable settings, and vegetarian cookbooks abounded. Found in every quarter of the town, the names were cheerful, such as the Apple Tree, within the City precincts, The Orange Grove in St Martin’s Lane, The Porridge Bowl in Holborn, The Rose, Finsbury Way, The Waverley in the Borough, and not far from Oxford Street, the Wheatleaf. Porridge was one of the mainstays of the vegetarian regime and the choices afforded included maize-mash and wheaten porridge; but the piece de resistance was, naturally, the Scotch oatmeal. Other recipes available included: vegetable goose, stuffing minus the bird; lentil cutlet with tomato sauce; steak-pie in a vegetable form; rump-steak from pot herbs; and macaroni, in various forms, was always in favor. With desserts, there were few things which could not be made on vegetarian principles–though suet was not allowed, plum pudding could be made without it–plum porridge, made of boiled wheat, sweetened and spiced, and with raisins. By the standards set by the Vegetarian Society, all food was cooked with all vegetable salts retained, and with no salt, soda or other substances added.

In periodicals of the time, two different accounts of a visit to a vegetarian restaurant were shared:

Passing up a flight of stairs we entered a large, cheerful-looking room, tastefully and quietly decorated, and lit by incandescent electric lamps…vegetable soup; lentil cutlets with tomato sauce–shaped like regular cutlets of meat, and were beautifully browned. Mashed potatoes with the cutlets; finished with a pot of tea. Cost 12 pence (24 American cents) and a penny for the napkin.


Soups: Vegetable, mock turtle, lentil
Porridges: with sugar and syrup, oatmeal, wheaten, maize-mush, Anglo-Scotch
Savories: lentil cutlet and tomato sauce, haricots, potatoes and sauce, savory omelet, rice and tomatoes, macaroni and tomatoes, vegetable roast beef a la Francaise
Extra vegetables: cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, parsnips, mashed potatoes, haricots, tomatoes, macaroni, rice
Sweet puddings: tapioca custard, cabinet pudding, lemon cheesecake, bread-and-butter pudding, macaroni and fruit
Pastries: plum, damson, apple, pear and apricot tarts
Stewed fruits: figs, dates, plums, French plums, damsons, apricots, apples, pineapple, pears; with cream, an option
Sundries: tea, chocolate, cocoa, coffee, minerals, soda-and-milk

At Furnivall Street, just off Holborn, a short flight of steps leads one into the spotless front hall of the Food Reform Restaurant. In the office to the right the smiling cashier offers you a small pamphlet of Dietetic Hints or a package of sample menus. At attention are trim waitresses in blue gowns, white caps and aprons.

Plain course dinner for one shilling: Choice of soup or porridge…3 pence; a savory…5 pence; a sweet…3 pence; cheddar cheese or fruit; coffee or lemonade.

Savory is a compound of nuts or vegetables with a sauce, or of two or three vegetables cooked together such as Rice Milanaise, Baked Potatoes, Turnip Tops, or Haricot Fritters, Tomato Sauce and Baked Potatoes.

Fresh vegetables in season, cooked, a specialty: choice of cauliflower, grilled tomatoes, spring cabbage, potatoes in four different ways for 2 pence; boiled parsnips, and a selection of three for 5 pence.

Great attraction of the house is its sixpenny teas. A cup costs 2 pence, a pot 6 pence. A roll is 1 pence and butter is also pence. This restaurant is liberal: offers watercress, scones, preserves, buttered tea cake, ripe fruit.

From the following, more luxurious Vegetarian luncheon, one may suspect that it was not only the carnivores who made an annual retreat to Marienbad or the cheaper Brighton: Purée de Céleri à la crème; Omlettes aux tomates; œufs durs au gratin; Risotto milanaise; Asperges; Sauce hollandaise; Salade de légumes; Crème caramel renversée; Pommes à la royale; Fromage.

Listed in Mrs. Mill’s Reform Cookery Book were the addresses of vegetarian and health food stores, where the Edwardian vegetarian could shop for Hovis health bread or flour, vegetable meats, Muesli, or other vegetable- or nut-based products. In London, the selection of stores included The Food Reform Restaurant, J.F. Croal, and Mapleton’s Nut Food Company. Vegetarian stores were available in cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester–such as the Pitman Stores in Birmingham and Chapman’s Health Foods Depot in Liverpool. Even Scottish vegetarians were able to shop wisely and healthily in such stores as Edinburgh’s Heath Foods Depot, and Glasgow’s The Health Food Supply.

It seems a bit funny that a movement we consider to be “modern” had its roots in the “repressed” Victorian days, but the more I research, the more I see that our society has a much deeper tie to our past than we realize.

Further Reading:
Of Victorians and Vegetarians by James Gregory
The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times by Tristram Stuart
Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders

The American Heiress


mary-endicottBetween the years 1870 and 1914, hundreds of American heiresses flooded the shores of Britain and Continental Europe. To this day, their influence (and lineage) can be traced through many noble European households, and even some royal ones (Princess Diana was descended from New York heiress Frances Work, and the mediatized House of Croÿ is lead by the grandson of an American heiress).

Despite protestations to the contrary, Americans have always been fascinated by titles, whether royal or noble, and prior to the massive influx of American girls in the late Victorian era, there was a little wave of Anglo-American matches in the colonial and Federal eras (1780s-1830s). In 1798, a daughter of the governor of Pennsylvania married the Marquess de Casa Irujo, the Spanish minister to the United States, and John Jay, the first US Chief Justice, had two granddaughters who married successively, the 6th Viscount Exmouth. Three Caton granddaughters, descendants of a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, married the 7th Duke of Leeds, the 8th Baron Stafford, and the 1st Marquess Wellesley, brother of the Iron Duke, respectively, and the first royal-American match was made between Betsey Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte, future King of Westphalia.

Jennie JeromeThe spark that lit the flame of Anglo-European matches after a forty year hiatus was the 1874 marriage of Jennie Jerome of Brooklyn, New York and Lord Randolph Churchill, second son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Jennie and Randolph never thought their impulsive love-match would trigger the ambitions of social-climbing American millionaires born of the post-Civil War, but the subsequent marriage of her friends Consuelo Yznaga to the dissipated Viscount Mandeville (future Duke of Manchester) in 1876, and Minnie Stevens to Colonel Arthur Paget in 1878 sealed the fate of the nouveau riche American heiress.

Cut from exclusive American social circles, newly rich mamas made a mad dash for London, where, under the influence of the Prince of Wales, society craved the spirit and independence (and money) of the American girl. Of course all did not run smoothly in the early years of the rush, as evidenced by the Duchess of Marlborough and her circle who, according to Jennie, “looked upon [the American girl] as a strange and abnormal creature, with habits and manners something between a Red Indian and a Gaiety Girl. Anything of an outlandish nature might be expected of her.”

anita-rhinelander-stewartIn 1895, nine American heiresses married titled British men, including a duke, an earl and three barons. But soon there emerged a flaw in the plan: the system of primogeniture only gave the eldest son a title and put him in line to inherit a greater one.

For Catholic American girls, and those who were too impatient to wait for a father-in-law to die, the hunt on the Continent yielded better results: one could become a Princess; that must certainly be higher than a Duchess! And so, the princely and noble titles of Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy and Spain were also blessed by Providence with restored coffers and manor houses. Russia was not for the faint of heart. If one wished to brave the bracing weather and the even colder Romanov court, princely titles abounded (and some even related to the Romanovs–though if one aimed too high, as in the case of Harriet Blackford, who wished to marry Grand Duke Nicholas, the Imperial Family was apt to deal harshly with both parties).

mary-curzon Though many European-American alliances ended dreadfully, a few American women proved their mettle by assisting their husband’s ambitions. Mary Leiter, who married George Nathaniel Curzon in 1895, eventually became Vicereine of India–the highest social and political position in the British Empire behind the Queen. Despite being relegated to the shadows of history, Mary Endicott, wife of Joseph Chamberlain, was her husband’s partner and equal during his long and controversial political career.

Another American heiress who held all the cards was Anita Rhinelander Stewart. In 1909 she met Prince Miguel de Braganza, whose father was referred to as the Pretender to the Portuguese throne, and three months later, they were engaged. At first it was announced that the marriage would be morganatic, but Anita refused to accept anything less than the title of princess. And she got it: Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, who extended hospitality to the exiled Braganzas, created the tenacious American the Duchess Vizeu & Princess de Braganza in her own right.

Alice HeineBefore Grace Kelly, there was another American Princess of Monaco: Alice Heine of New Orleans and widow of the Duc de Richelieu. Alice married His Serene Highness, Prince Albert I of Monaco in 1889. To their marriage she brought a strong business acumen and worked hard to change the reputation of the principality from that of a gambling den to a place of culture. It was Alice who established the Opera house and installed a director who brought the world’s greatest operas to Monaco. Alice and Albert’s relationship cooled soon after their marriage, and she took a series a lovers, the most notorious being Isidore de Lara. Fed up with his wife, Albert made their break public when he slapped Alice in the face at the Opera when she stopped to whisper to her lover.

She packed her bags in 1902 and left Monaco forever.

Besides Lady Randolph Churchill, the best-known American heiress is the Duchess of Marlborough, née Consuelo Vanderbilt. This derives partly from the delightful memoirs she published in the 1950s, and partly by the fact that she was one of the wealthiest heiresses of her time, with a dowry of approximatelyvanderbilt1895 $2.5 million ($75 million in 2008 dollars), and wed, in 1895, one of England’s premiere dukes. In her memoirs, she recounts the vigorous training and tutoring enforced by her mother Alva, and the secret fiancee she was forced to release when her mother set her sights on Consuelo marrying a titled European.

Though no one knew it then, Alva Vanderbilt feigned mortal illness to convince her daughter to accept the proposal of the 9th Duke of Marlborough, and the poor girl wept the entire way to her wedding. Their marriage was obviously unhappy, with the duke informing Consuelo he’d given up the woman he loved to marry her on their honeymoon, and by the birth of their second son (she coined the phrase “the heir and the spare”), their marriage was on the rocks. When they petitioned for divorce in 1906, the scandal rocked English society and King Edward made his disapproval known.

From familial pressure, and the possible revelation of Consuelo’s aborted elopement with the also married Viscount Castlereagh, they settled for a legal separation. Both now banished from court circles, Consuelo turned her pain into helping the needy and raising her sons. They eventually divorced in 1921, whereupon Consuelo married Jacques Balsan, and Sunny, another American, Gladys Deacon.

anna gouldAmerican women continued to marry European noblemen after the Great War, but the men were different, and so were the women. The devastation of the war created hundreds of nationless aristocrats, and also hundreds of fake aristocrats, who were eager to take part in the frantic pace of the 1920s and 1930s.

But to take part, they needed money, and as aristocrats they were unaccustomed to work and most likely had no qualifications for work. These aristocrats became out and out fortune hunters, and as before, the American heiress (many of this new generation, free from parental control, were more susceptible to blandishments given by a shiny coronet) stepped in to fund the playboy lifestyle. America is built on democracy, but the lure of a title will forever play into the daydream of the fairy tale. (left, Anna Gould, Comtesse de Castellane and Duchesse de Sagan)

Further Reading:
Crowning Glory by Richard Jay Hutto
The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchillby Mrs. George Cornwallis-West
Heiresses and Coronets by Elizabeth Eliot
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
To Marry an English Lord or, How Anglomania Really Got Started by Gail MacColl & Carol McD. Wallace
The Million Dollar Studs by Alice-Leone Moats
In a Gilded Cage. From Heiress to Duchess by Marian Fowler
American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill by Anne Sebba
The Dollar Princesses: Sagas of Upward Nobility by Ruth Brandon
Gilded Prostitution: Status, Money, and Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914 by Maureen E. Montgomery