Makeup bags weren't always running over and drugstore aisles didn't always stock your favorite pink shade. From the judgmental eye of older society women to literal cosmetics bans, many women were forced to turn into kitchen beauticians and make their own crayons and creams. There were plenty of beauty DIYs women made in the past to get their makeup fixes, but some of them ran a little more creative (or desperate!) than others.
In the Victorian times it was seen as unlady-like to paint one's face, and your name would come up in gossip circles around tea if you got a little too bold with your rouge. In the 1920's makeup was just hitting department stores, and not everyone had the funds (or the chutzpah) to pick up a mascara brush, leading many to keep making their own. While in the '40s the World War led to country-wide rations, using the metal from lipstick tubes and curling irons to create tanks and bombs. All throughout history women had to make do and create their own beauty fixes — below are some of the more interesting beauty DIYs from the past.
1. "Painting" Your Skin With Fireplace Soot
During the Victorian times, the only place where red lipstick and rouge were to be found were under the hot, bright lights of a stage and in the velvet contents of an actress' clutch. It was also tucked away into proper ladies' powder rooms, but no one was willing to talk about that. It was the great lie of the 19th century, where "painting" was seen as something only loose women and stage actresses (one in the same) would dabble with. Wives and daughters of polite society would never touch the stuff...though behind the closed doors of their bedrooms, they whipped together pomades and creams like the best of them.
"A woman was either 'painted' or 'natural.' To be painted was more daring, as often cosmetics would be seen in the theater or on prostitutes," Alexis Karl, perfumer and lecturer at Pratt Institute who's done extensive research on Victorian cosmetics, shares in an email with Bustle.
The "natural" take included using home ingredients that turned the woman into a kitchen beautician, enhancing her appearance with things like red flower petals and fireplace soot without looking obviously done-up. From skin powders to mascara, she had a recipe for everything.
2. Whitening Your Face With Starch... Or Radium
During a time where foundation wasn't something you could openly ask for at the counter, women had to get a little creative when it came to primping their pallor. And they found the ingredients for their cover-up right there on the shelves of the kitchen pantry.
"There are many wonderful recipes for face powder found in beauty columns of the time. One of my personal favorites is Violet Powder: Orris root (which smells like violet pastilles) along with essential oil of lemon, bergamot and cloves, and a base of wheat starch. Sargent’s model, of the famed Madame X painting, was known to use lavender powder, which in fact cast a remarkable blue tint over her skin!" Karl shares.
So to make the powder you would have to buy the roots at the local market, add a teaspoon of lemon oil, mix a pinch of citrus and cloves, and sift it together through starch. It literally sounds like the makings of a cake!
But while some women would DIY actual face powder, most opted to pale or flush their face with the help of cleansers, not cosmetics. "Their skin care regimen included skin washes made of ammonia and rose water, and they would take radium baths for delicate, pearlescent skin," explains Karl.
But if taking a radio-active bath wasn't enough, Karl points out they also would sip arsenic in water to achieve a certain translucence that gave a deathly, consumptive pallor that was thought to be beautiful and fragile.
Not that they didn't understand that was harmful. "Women knew the dangers of arsenic, as it was used as a rat poison in many a Victorian home, yet women would sip it nonetheless in the name of beauty," Karl confirms. With no compacts for sale, a girl had to do what she had to do.
3. Darkening Your Eyes With Burnt Bread... Or Mercury
If your husband burnt his toast in the morning, you'd secretly jump for joy because you now had your makings for eyeliner. In order to accent their eyes, Puritan women used ingredients around the kitchen to darken and tint, and one of them was ruined bread. "The Ugly Girl Papers [a Harpers Bazaar column] mentions using the remains of burnt bread on one’s eyes as a delicate eyeliner, or walnut juice to darken eyelashes and eyebrows," Karl shares.
If you were too nervous to visibly tint your lashes, you might settle for growing them longer and thicker with rub-in tonics. But instead of using harmless ingredients like walnuts and ashes, women dabbed mercury onto their fingertips and rubbed. "Mercury was mixed with lard and then applied to thicken lashes, which was then rinsed with warm milk," Karl says. But as you can imagine, that could lead to some number of doctor's appointments.
4. Thickening Your Lashes With Petroleum Jelly
Everything from Tinsel Town to the right to vote influenced fashion in the 1920's, leading women to rebel in beauty salon chairs by chopping their hair and painting their lips. Makeup wasn't exactly encouraged by the mainstream just yet, but that didn't stop ladies from dabbing on their lipstick in between cocktails at restaurant tables.
Soon magazines and books began printing detailed tutorials on how to put on a proper face, and one notable makeup tool that became popular was eyeliner. With the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, ancient Egypt became all the rage, including their kohl-rimmed eyes.
In order to copy it, women would create dark shadow out of soot and mixed coal dust with petroleum jelly for mascara, rimming and darkening their eyes with the concoctions. They were able to create dramatic and bruised eyes without ever having to buy a product.
5. Finding Your Beauty Aisle In Your Kitchen Pantry
Rationing in World War II forced everything inside department store floors and drugstore aisles to fit neatly into stamp books — from bread and sugar to gas and cooking pots, everything was limited to a certain amount of coupons you received from the government. But while some things were dwindling in stock, others were straight barred from being purchased. Enter the cosmetic blackout of the '40s that pushed women to get clever with their old-wives-tale remedies.
6. DIYing Mascara With Boot Polish
While cosmetic companies ran ad campaigns that encouraged beauty as a duty to help bolster the morale of not only the nation but the boys fighting over seas, many stores were left with empty shelves thanks to the strict rations.
But just because a tube of mascara couldn't be bought didn't mean a woman couldn't put on her usual face. She instead made her own.
"Women met the shortfall by embracing the same make do and mend attitude that they applied to their clothes. Beetroot juice serves for lipstick and boot polish for mascara," Madeleine Marsh, author of Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, explained in her book.
If you felt like putting shoe paste on your eyes wasn't the safest idea, another alternative revolved around Vaseline. Girls would mix petroleum jelly with coal dust or burnt cork, creating a dark tint for their lashes.
7. Touching Up Your Roots With Vegetable Dyes
While heating tools were rationed in order to use metal for weapons, and nylon for stockings was rerouted towards parachutes and uniforms, you could only assume that there weren't many boxes of hair dye available at the beauty aisle. In order to hide their roots and fuss over their grays, women found workarounds.
Vegetable hair dye was very popular to touch up roots, using grocery store items like chamomile, rhubarb, or red onions to create tints.
Also, the fact that turbans, snoods, and Victory Curls became popular during the war was no coincidence. All those styles had two things in common: They would keep your hair from getting caught in factory machines you were now handling, and they disguised greasy hair.
Shampoo and soap were part of the ration cuts, and because of it women had to go weeks at a time without refreshing their roots. As Vogue observed during the war, "Come in and have a bath rather than a drink, is the new social gesture." Hair washing became a real luxury. "Vogue recommended once 'every ten days for greasy heads, every three weeks for dry ones,'" Marsh reported. Not wanting to walk around with excessively oil strands, women whipped up new hair trends to help mask the reality.
8. Using Margarine As A Face Cream
While expensive department store creams and tonics dwindled in supply, women made their own recipes at home that would take care of some of their routine beauty needs. "Good Housekeeping magazine suggested rubbing the face with cucumber or a piece of apple as a DIY astringent," Marsh shared in her book. "And margarine and milk powder boiled in water made an austerity face cream." Apple pieces became toners and margarine was dabbed on like a night cream to keep your face smooth and soft.
9. Creating Stockings Out Of Gravy
Stepping outside without stockings felt a lot like stepping outside without a bra nowadays — it wouldn't be the end of the world, but there was a perceived modesty involved with tinted legs. When the war rations hit the nylon and silk industry, women had to get creative when it came to how to shade their legs.
And they peered into their pantries to see what could give their pins a subtle wash.
"For the majority of British girls, one option was painting the legs with tea or gravy browning, and getting a friend with an eye pencil and a very steady hand to draw a seam down the back," Marsh explained. While you might have had the look of stockings by dying your legs in the bathtub, it was probably a little awkward when dogs started to follow you down streets and trying to lick your shins.
But appearing to be not only going on with life but to be thriving and making do, sent an incredibly powerful message.
No matter where women were at in history — from the Puritans to the hard-working Rosie Riveters — ladies found a way to DIY their own cosmetics if they needed to. While you might be grateful you can just pick up a tube of mascara on a whim, it definitely makes you look at your kitchen cabinet contents a little differently.
Image: Konstantin Makovsky, Portrait of a Woman, 1870’s-80’s (1); Albert Henry Collings (1); Albert Lynch (1); Every Cloud Productions (1); Pond (1); Maybelline (1); Sears (1); Silktoma (1)