New Year’s Resolution - Self Improvement (18th Century Style)

New Year’s Resolution - Self Improvement (18th Century Style)

Please don’t try any of this, its frankly dangerous

New Year and many of us look to create a new self. But lets face it, most of us never make it past the end of January, and that’s if we’re lucky. I’m still planning on taking up running, having made it my New Year’s resolution, New Year 2014 that is (oops!).

Historically, cookbooks had more in them than just recipes; they also contained advice for the mistress of the house on how to ensure its well-ordered running, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management being the most famous example. Many gave recipes for children and invalids, recipes which often seem to be just watered down and flavourless soups. Many Georgian and earlier cookbooks also contained recipes for general housekeeping products such as silver cleaning paste or, in one instance, and I can’t for the life of me work out what it would have been needed for around the house, gunpowder.

These books even included appendices with recipes for medicine and beauty remedies, with lotions and pastes for both men and women. One such book is The Comleat City and Country Cook [sic] by Charles Carter published in 1732 with an appendix entitled The Collection of a Noble Lady Deceased which it describes as containing ‘Near Two Hundred of the most approv’d Recipts in Physick and Surgery for the Cure of the most common Diseases incident to Families’. Among these are remedies that could help achieve that ‘new you’.


When it comes to one’s complexion, the departed noble woman had much to suggest by way of improvement. Cures for spots and pimples are frequently given. One suggested remedy calls for strawberry leaves, cinquefoil (potentilla), mallows and plantane [sic] to be distilled in an alembic (after all no good house is without one, nor without a botanical garden from which to obtain the required plants) together with, and it is quite specific here, cow’s milk. You then soak a linen cloth in the mixture and wash your face as often as you like with it. The mixture will last for up to a year in a glass container. The ‘only’ downside is that the best time, apparently, to make this is May, so maybe her second remedy would be better if one didn’t want to wait. In this case salt is mixed with rock alum, live brimstone (sulphur) and spermaceti (wax from the spermaceti cavity of a sperm whale). To this is added lily water, spring water and brandy. One was then supposed to wash one’s face with this mixture each night for a week or two to be spot free. All I can say is good luck with obtaining the ingredients if you want to try it today.

If neither of these two, clearly foolproof, remedies worked, Georgians could try the more extreme cure, though given the possible side effect of poisoning and/or death, I would suggest its avoidance. It calls for white mercury powder to be cooked and combined with egg whites, lemon juice, milk, almonds and damask rose water. The remedy would then be left for 3 weeks before being used as a face wash.


The now long deceased noblewoman also provided just as many, if not more, suggestions as to how to remove your freckles. Clearly this is a market that Olay and others are missing. One method she suggests to rid yourself of these demon complexion destroyers is to gather dew in May off the corn and add it to oil of tartar (which is the 18th century term for concentrated potassium carbonate solution) and then wash your face with it. Now for those intending to use this cure and not worried about the danger of the oil of tartar but more concerned about the availability of May dew, let alone dew on corn, she suggests two possible substitutes: bean flower water or elderflower water.

Teeth Whitening

It appears that it’s not such a modern phenomenon to worry about the colour and health of one’s teeth. For those in the 18th century looking to whiten their teeth, one rub suggested is made from boiling rock alum with honey and ginger and then, when cold, mixing in Sanguis Draconis (that’s Dragon’s Blood and no I don’t think this anonymous dead noblewoman had lost it completely and was suggesting that dragons were roaming the land 300 years ago, rather I’m guessing she meant the resin secreted by the fruits of Calamus Draco which are indigenous to Sumatra). Alternatively, one could just mix powder of myrrh with cream of tartar and rub one’s teeth with it a few times a week.

But what do I do about the worms in me teeth, I hear you say. Well if you want to whiten your teeth and also suffer from worms in them, then never fear! All you need do is put salt under your tongue in the morning and rub your teeth with the dissolved salt. While for those with the added issue of gum disease, there was a cure but I’m not going into that, save to say how someone discovers the medicinal properties of the waters of a blacksmiths forge, I have no clue.


But what was the point of the Georgians going to all this trouble, and judging by the ingredients used, causing themselves so much harm, if they were just going to age and lose their hair. So, to prevent ageing, one was instructed to mix the flowers of flower de luce, beans, elder and mallows with white wine, honey, egg whites and the pulp of a melon. Then, after letting them infuse and macerate for two days, distil them in a Balneo Mariae (or water bath). At this point the instructions in the book cease, but one would imagine that they would apply the results to the face. Or maybe you drink it?


Hair wise, the Georgians sleepy follicles could be revitalized and made to spew forth the thick luscious hair of a twenty year old, by mixing boar’s grease with the ash of southernwood and the ash of bees with oil of sweet almonds, the juice of white lily root and musk. Now, to ensure that this ointment works, they had to shave the area of the head where the hair was wanted the night before a full moon and then apply it. If such superstitions as to the powers of the full moon seemed silly to them (though I don’t know how this could be), instead they might try mixing the ash of hyssop roots with highly corrosive lye and washing their head with the resulting mixture. A slightly less dangerous, though no doubt pungent, hair wash could be made from mixing oil with the ash of goat’s dung.


One could even turn to the book’s home remedies to cure one’s haemorrhoids. Frankly, having read through all that is suggested as home remedies by this Georgian noblewoman, they seem to range from the wildly ineffectual to the hugely dangerous, so it’s not at all surprising that it wasn’t until advances in science and medicine in the 1800s that people’s health and life expectancy started to improve.