Being beautiful in Victorian England was not healthy, especially for those wishing to obtain a “natural” look: washing the face with ammonia, opium masks overnight, mercury eye treatment, arsenic skin whiteners… others, following the “painted” look, were not better off: using lead paint destroyed their skin and had various other side effects on their health.
All to fullfill the ideal look of the consumptive with watery eyes, pale and traslucent skin. Shortly, the closer the skin resembled that of a corpse, the better it was. One could achieve that look by a “natural” way, or by painting yourself. While the latter included for the average lady several quite “unnatural treatments”, the “painted” lady coated their faces and arms with white paints and enamels. Unfortunately, these paints were made from lead, which is highly corrosive. That means, you need to use more paint every time, since it destroyed your skin underneath. One might then paint veins on the enamel e.g. with indigo dye veins.
Advertisment for Dr. Ammett’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers
Beauty columns such as in Harper’s Bazaar (“the ugly Girl Papers: Or, Hints for the Toilet“) were widespread and promised, as today, with just a few dress and makeup adjustements a trasformation from average to charming.
To look almost dead, arsenic was quite helpfull (it’s all about the dose!): nibbling on Arsenic Complexion Wafers was considered as “perfectly harmless” and used widely. Of course the toxity of arsenic was known (it was commonly used by murderesses of the era), but, since it was so effective in skin lightening, its usage continued for decades. Also, it was said to remove pimples, clear the face of freckles and tan and will make you a charm of person and simply adorable. Needless to say, that you also had to use arsenic soap and shampoo.
Lola Montez describes in her “The Arts of Beauty” women in Bohemia taking baths in arsenic springs, and drinking the water, “which gave their skins a transparent whiteness“. But, as she continues, there are also side effects: “for when once they habituate themselves to the practice, they are obliged to keep it up for the rest of their days, or death would speedily follow“. One might think of the japanese self-mummified monks (known as sokushinbutsu), followers of shugendō, an ancient form of Buddhism, who died in the ultimate act of self-denial. Apart their diet, a local spring containing high levels of arsenic may have helped the monks in the mummification process.
Warning about food adulteration (1858, John Leech; Photo).
…à propos conservation/preservation: I might focus on arsenic in taxidermy (and also for human preservation, such as in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland) later on.
Arsenic was simply everywhere in Victorian England: apart cosmetics, and medicines, it was in the food, on the walls, and in textiles. The German scientist Frederik Accum was fed up with the manipulation of the food industry in London and published his A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons. In the book, he noted for instance the contamination of wine with arsenic. So also the glass of wine you were nipping off at your ball in Victorian England was probably full of arsenic.
The Arsenic Waltz or The New Dance of Death (1862 issue of Punch; Photo: Wellcome Library, London/Courtesy Bloomsbury)
Effect of arsenic used in artificial flowermaking on workers’ hands (1859; Photo: Wellcome Library, London/Courtesy Bloomsbury)
Hopefully you were not wearing any green dress? Green ball gowns were usually tinted with arsenic. I don’t want to imagine the health condition of the persons making these dresses, but contemporary chromolithograph showing the effect of arsenic used in artificial flowermaking on workers’ hands may give an impression.