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The Liquid Pearl

Updated on July 22, 2013
Face enameling on Broadway, 1869
Face enameling on Broadway, 1869 | Source

If you were a Victorian lady, you were not out to get a tan in the summer - or indeed at any time. No, you wanted to have a pale complexion, not because it was healthier to stay out of the sun, but because it made you look "interesting" and ethereal and delicate. If you were the bolder sort, you might want to get your face enameled. Not amazing for the pores, but you certainly did look pale and - quite interesting.

Face enamel was a dangerous cosmetic, the main ingredients of which were either arsenic or white lead - so you were either putting poison or house paint on your skin. George Ellington writes in 1869 in The Women of New York that a chiropodist on Broadway was offering face and bust enamling in his "studio." After de-fuzzing the selected areas of hair "with liniment, plaster, medicated soap scissors or tweezers" (no waxing in the Victorian era, of course), the face and chest were "coated with a fine enamel...An ordinary coating will last for a day or two, but to render the operation of permanent value, the process must be repeated once or twice a week." And the price of this horrible procedure? The temporary enamel (lasting 1-2 days) cost about $15; if you wanted to keep your face and bust white for six months, it was going to cost you between $400 and $600 - which was more than most people's yearly salaries.

Ellington goes on to say that if you wanted to save that yearly salary and proceed with some DIY painting, there were plenty of enamels or "French pastes" that you could put on your face at home. For example, Champlain's Liquid Pearl and Laird's Bloom of Youth, another so-called "liquid pearl," were face-whitening pastes based on chalk - slightly safer than that white lead or arsenic. In 1883, the Michigan Pharmaceutical Association, of all places, gave the recipes for Liquid Pearl - both the Champlain and Laird versions - in their Proceedings (p, 256). And they both sound really quite alarming:

"Champlain's Liquid Pearl. - Oxychloride of bismuth ("pearl white") and drop chalk, in highly perfumed water."

"Laird's Bloom of Youth, or Liquid Pearl. - Oxide of zinc (zinc white) and carbonate of calcium (as some grade of chalk) in perfumed water."

So basically powdered chalk in perfumed water, with a little extra zinc or bismuth thrown in.

Ad for Champlin's Liquid Pearl
Ad for Champlin's Liquid Pearl | Source
Elizabeth Crocker Bowers (Mrs. D.P. Bowers), a cautious consumer.
Elizabeth Crocker Bowers (Mrs. D.P. Bowers), a cautious consumer. | Source

Endorsed By Actresses

Ellington noted that "theater and opera folk" liked face enamel - and they also liked Liquid Pearl. In the 1888 ad on your right, several famous actresses of the day are quoted endorsing Liquid Pearl.

The singer Adelina Patti, probably the most famous of the ladies in the ad, ordered "five dozen" bottles. Fanny Januschek (a Czech actress best known for her portrayal of Lady Dedlock in Chesney Wold , a play based on Dickens' Bleak House ) liked it, saying "I find it far superior to the one I generally bring over from Paris" - praising both the cosmetic and drawing attention to the fact that she jaunts over to Paris and buys fancy creams there.

My favorite endorsement is that of the glum looking Mrs. D.P. Bowers. Born Elizabeth Crocker, she was known for playing roles such as Hamlet's mother and the blonde criminal Lady Audley in Lady Audley's Secret (a fabulous sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which I ought to write a hub about).

Dear Mrs. Bowers is rather low-key - not the ordinary gushing quote about how she must have cases and cases of Liquid Pearl shipped to her at once, No, Elizabeth Bowers is being cautious - just in case the stuff makes her break out or otherwise messes up her complexion. She says she finds Liquid Pearl "eminently satisfactory...and apparently free from injurious effects."

This was probably very wise.


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    • kaynelson profile image

      kaynelson 6 years ago

      omg that is scary knowing that victorian women went through that just for beauty!very infoming.

    • homesteadbound profile image

      Cindy Murdoch 6 years ago from Texas

      Very interesting. I have never heard of it!

    • Lidian profile image

      Lidian 6 years ago

      Rochelle - It really is scary!

      Diane - I was wondering when waxing was invented...maybe I will write a Hub about that :)

    • Diane Lockridge profile image

      Diane Lockridge 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Wonder why they hadn't thought of, or didn't consider waxing. Interesting hub!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 6 years ago from California Gold Country

      This is even scarier than the patent medicines of the time. Very interesting stuff. Just promise us it will make us beautiful, and we buy it.