What did they do before this modern age of beauty knowledge? What wacky treatments did they swear by? I endeavored to find out. Why? Because putting myself through a week of experiments would be nothing but fun...right? Right?!
Each day, I tried out a new series of vintage beauty methods.
Were they safe? Thankfully, yes. For example, my list did not include the once-popular radium (a radioactive metal people went crazy for in the '20s). I stuck to the natural everyday treatments to see if they were just as eye roll inducing as some of the crazy things we do to ourselves today.
I "phoned a friend" to cover my bases (aka I called Grandma Jane), and she had two words: COLD. CREAM.
The recipe was (thankfully) easy: Combine shortening and almond oil over low heat, whisk as it cools, add a few drops of preferred essential oil, set it in the refrigerator for an hour, and — BAM! — instant cold cream.
This marked my first moment of hesitation. How was my face going to react to having shortening rubbed on it twice a day? A question I just couldn't wait to have answered.
My beauty bag for the week:
That was me on day one below, au naturale, looking pretty excited about the week ahead, right?
So, I woke up, walked to the kitchen, scooped a dime-sized amount of "cold cream" in my hand, took a deep breath, and lathered it all over my face and neck.
Initial reaction: I'm rubbing fat on my face. This. Is. Gross.
The texture wasn't horrible, but it definitely wasn't a smooth lotion that was going to easily absorb into my skin. Oh, yeah, momma was gonna be greasy all day.
Operation: Out Damn Spot.
A lot of the tricks I found were about getting rid of and hiding unwanted spots. Which led me to believe that this freckled gem (aka my face) wouldn't have been the treasure it is today.
So there I was scrubbing my face with a turnip and coating it in rice powder. What did I think would happen? Honestly, who knew?
What did happen? My greasy, cold-cream face kept soaking up the rice powder and kept me looking exactly the same. My freckles lived to fight another day!!!
OK, here's when things got real: I love my hair. I have caring for it down to a science. The thought of putting something out of the ordinary into it honestly unnerved (see: terrified) me. I'm a co-washing, dry-shampoo lover who cleans her locks maybe, maybe twice a week.
So, as I stood in the shower, ready to try the baking powder shampoo, I suddenly doubted everything. (Wait! Did I buy baking powder or baking soda? I already tore the label off! What if I have it wrong? Ahhh! How do I tell the difference?!) Before I went into full meltdown mode though, I just leaned back, closed my eyes, and poured it over my head.
Oh no. Oh...no no no.
Wanting to stay true to my weeklong experience, I fought every urge to lather up shampoo and wash out this paste...because that's what it was — a disgusting, sticky, shouldn't-be-in-my-hair paste.
My saving grace was olive oil. Used as both a hair conditioner and a skin moisturizer, I began dumping it all over myself. I (very narrowly) avoided dropping the massive and incredibly slippery bottle on my toes, grabbed my towel, and got out.
One last step before bed: more (yes, more) cold cream.
Usually, when one goes to bed with wet hair, he or she wakes up with dry hair. My hair, however, was somehow accomplishing a wet look while also being completely dry. We both know who the culprit was (ahem, olive oil) but, instead of fighting my hair, I threw it half up and moved on.
In the 1930s, before hair spray was super popular, they used egg whites. So, I cracked an egg, dipped my fingers in it, and spread it over my flyaways to secure my "look." (Needless to say, I skipped breakfast that morning.)
"Hey, my eyes are down here?!"
Back in the forties, people used charcoal mixed with petroleum jelly as their go-to eyeliner and mascara. They were also big fans of darkening their eyebrows, hence the strong brow above. I'm not skilled at even using a basic eyeliner pencil, so this took me some time.
Somehow, I was able to pull off this look? Only a few co-workers commented, but even then it was like, "Look at you, eyebrows!" When I called one friend out for being quiet, she simply said, "I just thought it was a new choice."
To top off my charcoal experience, I added it to my toothpaste to help whiten my chompers. Gross looking, but (surprisingly) not gross tasting.
Bedtime equaled more cold cream with the addition of petroleum jelly to my under eyes to fight dark circles. Sweet dreams, grease ball.
Knowing that my evening plans included another hair treatment, I threw my hair up in a crown braid and let it rest from the elements. Again, it looks wet in the picture below, though it's not. It's coated in oil that my hair is just refusing to absorb. Great.
When I read that they used candle and beeswax in place of hair gel, it seemed to make perfect sense — but then, when you're standing there with a match, a brick of beeswax, and a candle, it all seems so impossible. The wax melts and then hardens again before you even get close to your hair. I missed something, so I gave up.
How often does a girl buy herself a big bouquet of roses with the sole purpose of ripping them apart?
I imagine roses served two purposes back then: to give your cheeks a nice rosy tint and also to help ease your daily frustrations. Let me put it this way: Rose petals do not squeeze easily. Or maybe some do? Mine didn't.
It took a pure moment of frustration until suddenly my fingers were covered in red juice. *cringe* I then daintily applied it to my cheeks and lips and went on my way.
A co-worker asked if my cheeks smelled like roses. They did not.
(Before we go any further, I shower, OK? I just avoid washing my hair. Now that I feel better about your judgment of my hygiene, we can continue...)
Now, beer. The last thing I expected to be on my list; it's meant to leave hair shiny. I poured myself a glass, drank a little bit while I waited for it to go flat tbh, and then hopped (get it?!) in the shower. My hair didn't smell like beer, nor did it feel nice. I missed that amazing hair smell you get from your favorite product.
To round out the night, I tied my hair in rags, put on some facial tape to reduce wrinkles, and climbed into bed.
I had cold-cream nightmares.
Here are some definitions:
Ragging: When you wrap your hair around pieces of fabric, tie it in a knot, and let it dry overnight with the hope that it will result in mad curls.
Facial tape: Apply to your forehead wrinkles with the hope that it will strengthen the forehead muscles, resulting in fewer wrinkles over time.
Ragging + facial tape: Good-bye, peaceful sleep.
Another thing I know about my hair (I swear we aren't dating, OK) is that it curls super easily. So, while ragging kept me from a good night's sleep, it was fun to have bouncing curls all day without the heat damage. Ahh, the price of beauty!
In other news...
I used to be insecure about having big pores. (Man, that sounds dumb when you say it back to yourself...)
Anyway, a famous old-glamour Hollywood celeb would splash her face with ice-cold water 20 times every morning and then place a wet, cold rag on her face and rub an ice cube over the rag. (I. KNOW.) This was all done in the name of shrinking her pores and tightening her skin.
So...I tried it. It's a polar bear plunge for your face. Great for a muggy New York morning, but not sure it's a sensical part of one's daily routine.
My kitchen and bathroom are starting to get confused.
When I got home that night, I showered. This shower included a lemon/water/sugar scrub, a vinegar hair cleanse, and an almond oil towel wrap conditioning treatment.
Have I mentioned that I'm still putting homemade cold cream on my face every morning and night? Cool, cool — just checking.
Let's end the week strong.
I treated this fifth day as an opportunity to time travel. I thought, If I were a true vintage lady, what are all the things I'd do in the morning to get ready?
• slept with my hair in rags
• splashed ice-cold water on my face 20 times (can pores be too big? asking for a friend)
• rubbed cold cream on my face and neck
• powdered my full face with flour
• added some rouge made from raw and dried beets to my cheeks and lips
• applied charcoal eyeliner and mascara
• separated each eyelash with a sewing needle (biggest eye roll yet)
• darkened my eyebrows
• pinned up my curls on either side
• smoothed away frizz with a little egg white
• tanned my legs with tea bags (note: does not actually work)
• ran charcoal up my calves for the illusion of stockings
And, last but not least, turned on some oldies and danced around to celebrate.
• The beauty struggle is real, and it's been alive and well for a very long time.
• I'm lying to myself every time I say, "Hair is just hair, who cares?! It'll grow back."
• There are many things one can do with the leftover shortening I have.