As The Merrion launches its new and beautiful Spa and Health Club, we look back in time to see what beauty treatments the original Georgian residents of the Merrion’s buildings might have used, to enhance their own natural assets.
They say that beauty is timeless, but we’ve come a very long way from the treatments of old. Back in Georgian times, a white complexion was valued far above the sun tan that implied you actually had to work out of doors. To achieve this, wealthy women would use combinations of vinegar, lead and horse manure, which had been in vogue since Elizabethan times.
Veins were highlighted with a delicate blue, and lips were reddened with carmine, but it was the lead that caused the most damage. Georgian women’s less well-off sisters were actually better off, as they resorted to a dusting of wheat flour on their faces.
Beauty spots were highly prized, and little velvet, or silk patches would be stuck on to the cheek for added allure. They also did the job of hiding blemishes, such as smallpox scars. A cheaper option was a scrap of mouse-skin, which was also used to add definition to eyebrows that may have fallen out due to all that lead. While we may quibble with some of the excesses of today’s fashionable values, one can only be grateful for the advances of cosmetic science.
Published in 1758, The Compleat Housewife was there to help with an outbreak of pimples, suggesting you “take a quarter of a pound of bitter almonds, blanch, stamp them, and put them into half a pint of spring water; stir it together, strain it out; then put it to half a pint of the best brandy, and a pennorth of the flour of brimstone [sulphur]; shake it well when you use it. Dab it on with a fine rag.”
The Toilet of Flora, which came out in 1779, just a short decade after the first residents moved into the buildings that today make up the Merrion Hotel, is a gentler beauty companion. To deal with wrinkles, the writers suggest you “take the juice of white lily roots and fine honey, of each two ounces; melted white wax, an ounce; incorporate the whole together, and make a pomatum. It should be applied every night, and not be wiped off till the next morning.” How you’re to wash your pillow cases afterwards, they don’t relate.
Another solution for wrinkles was to sprinkle myrrh on a red hot iron, and steam your face in the vapours. Do this three times, and then finally pour a “mouthful of white wine” on to the iron for a final steaming. “Continue this method every night and morning as long as you find occasion”. Afterwards, I’m sure you’re allowed to drink the remainder of the wine. The book also suggests that an infusion of lupines is the best remedy if you accidentally get a sun tan; or alternatively a facepack made of strawberries. Whether they work or not, both seem a better option than slathering yourself in lead.
Today’s spa beauty treatments are obviously more effective, and better for you too, but they also include the added ingredients of pampering, and luxurious relaxation. Some things don’t change however: “The same share of Grace and Attractions is not possessed by all,” notes the introduction to The Toilet of Flora. Continuing, “but while the Improvement of the Persons is the indispensible Duty of those who have been little favoured by Nature, it should not be neglected even by the few who have received the largest Proportion of her Gifts. The same Art which will communicate to the former the Power of pleasing, will enable the latter to extend the Empire of their beauty.”
And while you might take issue with the idea of “indispensible Duty”, who honestly wouldn’t mind extending their Empire, just a little bit further – in the nicest, and most pamperingly possible way?