For the next 4 days I’m going to try out lipsticks from history. From The 1300s to the 1940’s, I’ll be testing them all. On my lips…
I’ll admit to being something of a lipstick junkie, to the extent I have a small chest of drawers to hold all my lip products (yes it’s an addiction, but it’s not meth-so back off!) But it’s not just me that’s obsessed with lipstick; It’s a trend that’s endured throughout history.
Lipstick itself dates back to Queen Schub-ad or Puabi of Ur (if you can pronounce that then you get a gold star!) who was a Sumerian ruler from around 2500 B.C.
This first lipstick was more of a lip stain and was made from pretty much anything as long as it was highly pigmented and could be smeared on your lips. Popular ingredients included lead (this will be a recurring theme), fish scales, crushed rocks and dung.
Now I will do a lot of things for history, but putting lead and literal shit on my face is not one of them. So let’s call Egyptian lippy a write off and move onto the next stage in our tour of historic lippery:
The Middle Ages
Throughout the middle ages several European countries including France and Spain embraced rouge and lip paint; however England was having none of this – and of course by England, I mean the English church.
The church were not fans of make up on women, in fact women who wore makeup were considered ‘reincarnations of Satan’ which seems a tad strong.
But there were no actual laws banning makeup, which resulted in a very fine balancing act and the popular look of ‘makeup that wont piss of your priest’. So slightly tinted lips-ok. Full on red lips – your going straight to hell young lady.
One of the most popular methods to get those slightly tinted but not too tinted lips was crushing up flowers petals.
There’s something weirdly romantic about the idea of flowers as lip tint. It feels very Shakespearean, very feminine, very ‘oh don’t mind me just off to go skip through this meadow wearing a daisy crown’…
If you can’t tell, I was excited to try this out.
Making the flower lip stain was really easy, all I did was get some flowers (I got tulips, because for some reason none of the shops near me sold anything but them and because tulips..two lips…get it) and then ground them up and popped them onto my lips.
Now if you are wondering, where the fuck is the flower stain? You are not alone.
If I am being generous I’ll say that it maybe stained my lips a bit. But let’s be honest – its basically one shade up from the shade your lips should probably be if you’re not dying.
Which admittedly in the Middle Ages is a win.
Would I try this again? No. The colour payoff is not worth the taste of ground flowers on your lips (which is not nice FYI); get a tinted lip balm and leave this lipstick in the dark ages where it belongs.
I give this 0.5/5.
By the Elizabethan period English people were onboard the lipstick bandwagon; led by Elizabeth l who loved a bit of lippy.
Now when I say loved, I mean LOVED. Elizabeth pioneered the first known lip liner (made of red dye and plaster of paris) and was never without a slick of red lipstick.
She actually believed it to have healing powers and it is said that when she died she had lipstick an inch thick embedded onto her lips.
This is something I can get behind. As someone who lives for a matte lip, the idea of lip products burrowing into every lip crevice is neither new nor scary. If anything I was pretty pumped to try out Liz’s own lip recipe
Elizabeth I used cochineal, gum arabic, egg whites and vermillion for her statement lip.
For those not up on their deadly beauty ingredients, Vermillion is a red pigment obtained from mercury sulphide – basically its toxic as F and I won’t be putting it on my face.
To make up for this, I used a bit more cochineal than the original recipe would have used (cochineal is a powdered insect used in most red dyes; including food dye, yum!).
So I mixed up my cochineal, gum Arabic and egg whites until I got a bright red lip…mousse…thing.
With that weird mess prepared I moved onto the lip liner, becuase as any self respecting lipstick addict will tell you, liner is the key to a flawless red lip.
I mixed some red dye (a mix of cochineal and beetroot) with plaster of Paris and once it had turned into a liquid… I realised I didn’t know what to do next.
Yeeeah, I hadn’t really thought the lip liner through… but luckily the internet exists! Sadly I couldn’t find any tutorials on making plaster of paris lip pencils.
But fortunately I am a women of many skills, so I macgyvered a plaster of Paris mold using a straw and some tin foil.
Unfortunately after the lip liner had set I tried to remove it and it immediately broke into roughly 5000 pieces.
The finished product!
How did it apply?
I applied the lip liner first and it immediately tore the fuckity out my lips.
Don’t use plaster of Paris as a lip liner guys, just don’t. It didn’t even leave a colour, just pain.
After that ordeal I applied the lipstick/mousse.
Yeah….It looks like I’ve been punched in the mouth.
Also, no I didn’t have a fit whilst applying this, it just spreads out like that. It might be because of the egg white – which FYI tightens the bejesus out of the skin around your mouth! That’s why my lips are clamped shut in that picture-I couldn’t move them without cracking the skin of my lips (niiiiiice)
On the upside it’s a good red hue, I bet if you used vermillion it would be stunning and only slightly toxic!
Would you use this again?
Not if you paid me! If beauty is pain, this is straight up bullshit.
I give this -2/5 (yup we’re two in and already on negatives!)
Let’s move on…
After the clusterfuck that was Elizabethan lipstick I’ve moved across the pond to America for my next foray into historic lipstick.
America had a somewhat tempistoous relationship with lipstick during this period. In Pennsylvania it was actually legal to divorce your wife if she had worn lipstick during your courtship, was this was seen as conning a man into marriage.
Yet Americas first First Lady loved lipstick. Martha Washington even had her own unique recipe for the lippy she wore everyday. So naturally I had to check it out.
Martha’s recipe consisted of: lard, almond oil, raisins, sugar, balsam, Alkanet root and spermaceti.
Spermaceti is a waxy substance found inside a sperm whales head, so for obvious reasons (e.g the law and ethics) I won’t be including this.
So, sans whale head goo, let’s make this lipstick!
I first had to prep the alkanet root, which is a root which naturally produces both red and purple pigments. To get the red dye I had to steep the root in vodka and water for a week. That my friends is dedication.
After this I mixed in all the other ingredients and then, as Martha would have done, ground the shit out of it.
The finished product
It looked super gross, and it smelled a lot like really wet and musky bark. But at least it had a colour and didn’t contain plaster of paris or egg whites, so my lips were hopefully safe!
Colour wise there isn’t a huge payoff, but there is a clear red tint in there. Admittedly not much, but this does work as a red tint for people scared of red lips. Which makes sense. For a statement lip in a climate where half your country hates makeup, I think this is about as bold as Martha could go.
The main issue was the grease.
Now shocker…lard is greasy, but lard mixed with oil and baslm is a whole other level of greasy. The grease did make my lips shiny (win) but it also made them incredibly heavy and about 10 mins in some of the lipstick glooped onto my shirt. That’s just not what you want.
Would you use this again?
Well first, let me share a fun fact: You may have noticed that my skin in the above image is not filtered, whilst the other images are – that is because I tried this historic lipstick out first and the lard and oil immediately broke me out to a point where I couldn’t show my skin to the internet. So to answer the question, no, no I would not use this again.
I give this 1/5
At the start of World War Two British women were urged to keep up appearances and ensure they maintained a glamorous look at all times.
Hitler was not a fan of makeup (or anything fun) so the allies saw brightly made up women as ‘good for the morale of the nation’.
This of course meant lashings of lipstick.
Makeup brands happily played into this, releasing fun compacts in the shape of military paraphernalia and and lipstick packaged in patriotic shades.
But then rationing hit cosmetics like it did everything else. Yet the expectation for women to retain high make up standards remained. Now one tube of lippy needed to last!
So women came up with ingenious ways to get colourd lips when they were between tubes of the good stuff. One such method was rubbing beetroot directly onto the lips for a wartime friendly lip stain.
Now, I was quietly confident about this. After doing a quick Pinterest search, I found tons of women who all swore by beetroot lip stains and had the cherry lips to prove it.
Admittedly these women all also used other ingredients (e.g. coconut oil) and as this isn’t strictly 1940’s, I’d just be rocking raw beetroot- but still Pinterest wouldn’t lie to me…..right?
It turns out that Pinterest is a filthy liar.
Ok, fine. I might be being a tad harsh. It’s been a tough few days.
Did it stain my lips? Yes. But not in the way I was expecting it too. I was expecting a cherry pop pout and what I got was a pinky hue, which was nice… but lets be honest; thus colour is not worth the many many minutes of beetroot based effort I put in.
The stain does last all day, which for a Land Girl on the go is ideal; no touch ups required. And the end product doesn’t look out of place with lip stains you can buy today, win!
However– it is pretty drying (not egg white drying, but still) so like the women of the 40’s you do want to keep some Vaseline on you for moisture and shine.
Would I use this again?
It takes a while to get the colour pay off that picture shows and after about a minute of rubbing a raw beetroot onto your lips you do start to question your life choices. Not to the level of ‘why I am rubbing lard and gum arabic onto my lips’…but an existential crisis none the less.
I give this 3/5 Personally, a mini breakdown everyday is a price too high for slightly stained lips. But if you are crazy mentally strong or on rations this does the job.
So thats the historic lipstick testing done, what did I learn?
- Elizabethan lipstick doesn’t beat MAC.
- Plaster of Paris is evil incarnate
- Egg white is the devils own creation
- Petals do fuck all
- Lard does actually give you spots
- It turns out progress happens for a reason and historic make up sucks.
This was really interesting, where can I find out more? I’d suggest checking out this paper on the history of lipsticks in Western Seats of Power, it’s also a Harvard paper, so you can read it and feel all fancy and intellectual.
4 thoughts on “Trying Lipsticks through history”
Great post! Thank you for your noble dedication to scientific experiment ☺ it made for a fascinating read.
Have glanced at the link you gave, this paper looks interesting, look forward to reading it all when I have time.
Your post made me laugh but is also thought-provoking, I had no idea there was a ‘belief’ in ‘magical power’ of lipstick for healing or for attraction which helped sellers promote it – this makes church reaction seem not quite so full-on misogynistic as I’d thought, more a blend of fear of women and fear of sorcery… and of course men wore lipstick too which complicates things further…
I think I’ll be mulling over your post for some time. Thank you!
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Ah, the things one must do in the name of science and beauty…
After your trials and tribulations, I think I will just stick with L’Oreal, Maybelline, and the like and leave the plaster of Paris, eggs whites, and lard to the ladies of history. ☺
Here’s wishing your lips a full recovery!
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This was such an interesting read! I admire you comitmemt to finding all and actually trying all of the historic ingredients. I’m quite the lipstick addict myself, and have always been fascinated by the history of lipstick, so I found this fascinating.
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