14 Vintage Beauty Tips We Tried So You Don't Have To
Grapefruit on elbows, gasoline on split ends — my friends and I did it all, and (barely) lived to tell the tale.
"The cultivation of beauty is an art, just as the singing of a song or the painting of a fine picture," beauty expert Susanne Cocroft advised in her 1915 book Beauty, A Duty: The Art of Keeping Young. And being beautiful, she wrote, "is largely a matter of knowing how."
Beauty experts around the turn of the century recommended some truly strange things, like frequent bathing of the eyeballs, or using gasoline shampoo to cleanse the scalp. But I've always wondered if maybe they weren't all complete nonsense — so I decided to recruit a few friends and try some out.
I gathered beauty and exercise tips from old magazines and newspapers like The LA Times and The Washington Post. I also tested out beauty books like the 1914 My Secrets of Beauty by Lina Cavalieri (above), a prima donna opera singer who was also known as the "most famous living beauty," and the 1858 Arts of Beauty by the notorious dancer Lola Montez. Newspapers called her "a tigress" and "the very comet of her sex."
And who could refuse the opportunity to become a tigress sex comet? I invited some friends over to discover these lost secrets of beauty. Here's what we tried:
1. Rub black grapes on your lips to give them color.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 1891 that “pale lips can be induced to show color by friction with black grapes.” They didn’t specify whether to cut the grape in half or just rub the whole thing. We tried both and decided the cut-in-half method was better, because it tasted good.
You probably could rub anything on your lips for two minutes to induce color, but I thought this worked particularly well. It was moisturizing and tasted like all natural Lip Smackers.
2. And plump up thin lips with vowel exercises.
A prominent vocal specialist writing in the St. Louis Dispatch warned American women in 1900 that "mere plumpiness is not beauty." Facial mobility was key. Undeveloped lips were both ugly and often a sign of a "selfish, narrow, mean, revengeful, and censorious" character.
Ugly, mean, revengeful, and selfish? Clearly, we needed to do these exercises: "Hold the lips open with the fingers, keeping the tongue and walls of the mouth and pharynx rigid, then try to utter the vowel sounds." Ten sets, at least ten times a day.
It was like that old Chipmunks song — "Oo ee oo ah ah ting tang walla walla bing bang!" I think our limps plumped out a tiny bit, and all the pressing and pursing did make them redder.
3. Beautify your elbows with grapefruit.
Lina Cavalieri wrote that “your arms are only as pretty as your elbows,” so we followed her recommendation to “rub them every night before retiring with a half grape fruit” and thereby rid them of “disfiguring redness.”
Repeat this daily, she said, but “do not be satisfied with this progress.” You can always do more: scrub with a pumice stone, use a bleaching soap or diluted peroxide, or, as Lina added, “an ingenious girl I know bound slices of lemon on her elbows every night before going to bed.”
This tip actually makes sense because of the citric acid in grapefruit; it smells a little different, but this was basically like bleaching our elbows with all-natural Mr. Clean or Cascade. But the grapefruit splattered everywhere, and then I wished I’d paid attention to the next part of Lina’s advice: “If you place the halves of the grape fruit on a table and rest your elbows in them you can read or chat or meditate.”
4. And use mutton fat to plump up bony elbows.
5. Do hand exercises to help develop feminine charm.
6. Try cocoa butter massages to cure a scrawny neck.
In 1913, a beauty expert named Winifred Raymond explained that “the continued popularity of the collarless blouse makes the possession of a good looking neck something very much to be desired.” In other words, a whole new part of the body to worry about!
All of a sudden, hundreds of different exercises, creams, and breathing regimens — from a diet of raw eggs and milk to daily scrubbing — promised to beautify the neck. Massage was the most popular cure for an "ugly" or thin neck. We followed Winifred’s neck massage instructions carefully:
1. Heat cocoa butter in a saucer over a cup of hot water.
2. Rub into neck with a gentle rotary motion.
3. Pay special attention to the area under your ears because it “indicates the scrawnyness that comes with age.”
The cocoa butter was greasy, but smelled great. We weren't sure why four minutes were necessary — it felt like a long time to work out your hands and choke yourself a bit. Today, two-minute commercial break increments would be better.
7. Steep your feet in a rosemary bath.
Lina wrote in 1914 that one way to "give ease to your feet after a long walk" was to bathe them in an infusion of rosemary leaves for 20 minutes in a foot-tub.
If your feet are inclined to excessive perspiration, Lina says you can add tannin, alum, and lycopodium (???). Luckily, my feet are not so inclined, so I didn't have to. Rosemary is like a weed around here in California, so I went down to my pool and harvested it on the sly.
We steeped for twenty minutes. It was hard to sit still for that long. But at least we steeped together! My friend Gail (above) had a nice time, too. She said, "If I had a valet to draw a bath for me, I would do it every day."
8. Use cooked cucumbers to thicken your eyebrows.
The 1902 advice was to bathe your eyebrows once a day with this recipe: slice a fresh ripe cucumber, add an ounce of cocoa butter, and heat in a porcelain-lined kettle. When it’s halfway cooled, add three drops of rose attar.
I have no idea why it smelled so bad. Cucumber smells good and cocoa butter smells good — but together? My apartment smelled like dank squash.
Experts today say cucumber slices can reduce puffiness through some some combination of antioxidants and the chill of the cold cucumber slices. My lukewarm, cooked cucumber only got us halfway there. Maybe if we had puffy eyebrows, the slices would have reduced swelling?
9. Pretend your ears don't exist.
10. Try horseradish lotion to subdue freckles.
Turns out that horseradish doesn't make your face pale, it just turns it red. And stings really badly!
11. Another freckle remedy: lemon juice, vinegar, rum, and rose-water.
12. Try eye gymnastics to make your eyes larger and brighter.
13. Give yourself a gasoline rinse for soft hair.
I admit, I had my misgivings about this one. In 1914, Lina Cavalieri reported that "Parisiennes have recently been washing their hair in gasoline." Why? "Gasoline makes the hair soft and silken of texture." She offered specific instructions: "I wash my hair in a bowl of the gasoline, pour out the first bowlful and wash it through another, then another, until the last bowlful is entirely clean." But "gasoline is most inflammable," she warned, so don't do it if there "is light or fire in the room."
This was obviously a dumb idea, but I did it anyway! First, I went to my local Valero to harvest some 87. I planned to add a few drops to a bowlful of water, but the fumes were way too strong for the bathroom. I ran out to the balcony and tried to just dip a braid into it. I barely got one dip into one braid and hit a wall. It fumed so bad, and I almost instantly felt the twin pains of a massive headache and the embarrassment of knowing that I only had myself to blame.
Maybe Lina's 1914 gasoline was different? I asked a friend who used to work for ExxonMobile. He didn't know about gasoline shampoo, but he did say that "gasoline is safer to drink today." Apparently, lead used to be a common additive to boost octane ratings until the 70s. So now I understand why gasoline is called "unleaded." I do not understand how anyone (even French women!) could possibly recommend putting gasoline in your hair.