Vintage Beauty: What It Was Like for Beauty Addicts Back Then

Published in: Just For Fun, Makeup

Vintage beauty

Chanel, indoor plumbing, the Internet and allergy meds are just a handful of the many reasons I’m glad we live in these modern times, and here’s another: old school beauty was kinda rough!


Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, you couldn’t just walk into a Walgreens (well, Walgreens was around then but not like today) and buy a tube of gloss or a bottle of polish and call it a day. Many women made their own cosmetics at home, and some of the ingredients they used were downright naaaasty.

Pale skin was all the rage; to get the look, women would dust their visages with lead-based face powders (we now know how harmful lead can be). As if that wasn’t bad enough, they would darken their hair with shampoos made from iron rust, and for soft, supple smackers, they made lip salves from spermaceti, a waxy substance collected from the heads of sperm whales (classy).

The preferred look of most Western 19th century beauty addicts? — the seemingly natural, apparently naked face.

They didn’t wear eyeshadow (can you imagine?), and very few wore eyeliner, which, incidentally, they made by applying burned cork residue with an old school version of the Sonia Kashuk Bent Eyeliner Brush.

Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like we flock to glossy magazines, websites and YouTube channels, our lovely predecessors followed beauty trends with books and magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book (a popular monthly mag) and The Arts of Beauty: Or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet (LOL!), by Lola Montez.

If given the choice, would you prefer the beauty of bygone eras, or are you happier with the technology we have today?

Your friendly neighborhood beauty addict,


P.S. One great perk about being a beauty addict in this day and age: Internet makeup sales! MBB reader Janelle just alerted me to a good one through a new site Real Simple just launched called

They sell a mishmash of things you’d find at stores like and — personal care items, household goods and, yes, makeup and beauty products. From now through August 7, they’re offering 15% off first orders using code SOAPSIMPLE, along with free two-day shipping on orders over $49.

It looks like they sell a bunch of big beauty brands like DuWop, Maybelline, theBalm, Essie, Physician’s Formula and CoverGirl, among others… Happy shopping, fellow modern beauty addict!


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So far, 26 people have commented on this article. How cool is that?

  1. I always love reading about trends from the past and what is considered beautiful in different regions of the world. In Asia they want to be fair, in US everyone wants a tan….it’s always interesting to see the world’s vision of beauty.
    Kajal Couture recently posted … Im Moving!!

  2. Liz! says:

    Very interesting post Karen, thanks for appealing to my inner history nerd! Definitely makes me grateful for all those modern advancements like deodorant and such πŸ™‚

  3. Nina says:

    Thats so cool … I remember wondering what they used for makeup back then and seeing a docu where it was said that they used coloring from fruits/veggies for makeup. That docu also traced the story of hair dye from henna to commercial. Pretty interesting! πŸ™‚

  4. Rinnie says:

    I’m so glad that today’s make-up as such color and variety to it. But it also makes me wonder if there were a lot of sensitivities to the old-school make-up or were the women just more resilient and so didn’t have the reactions that we would have today. But women have always long suffered in the name of beauty. What about in old school egypt and asia where eyeliner and white make-up was all the rage? Do you know what those were based off of?

  5. Trinidad says:

    I’m so glad I live in this day and age!

  6. Shannon says:

    I read a book about makeup history – it was “Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations that Have Made Us Beautiful.” It was a really interesting read, and made me really glad that we have cosmetic testing requirements in place these days.

  7. Kim says:

    I absolutely prefer today, if just from a hygiene point of view. I don’t think I’d be excited to live in the time before toothpaste. Plus, today we still have the option of using natural ingredients… like snail slime. πŸ™‚

    • Karen says:

      I am THIS CLOSE to ordering a jug of that stuff.

      • Kim says:

        OMG, I can’t wait for that full review if you decide to get it. Watch, it’ll be the coolest product ever! πŸ™‚

        On the Pravana note, the Hubs has promised to do a test for you. His hair is thick too. It’s perfect for me, but my hair is on the fine side. I don’t know what my issue with the comments has been, but I’ve been trying to post this info for you since Friday. If you’re getting them and they’re just not showing up in my browser, apologies!

  8. Katrina says:

    Oh I find ancient beauty rituals totally fascinating! I just watched Gone with the Wind the other day and was smiling at Scarlett pinching her cheeks hard to make them flush.

    As much as I love the old days (girl I’d put on red taffeta petticoat if I could) I’m rather attached to modern toiletries and cosmetics. Hopefully we wont find out in the future the things we’ve been using were really bad for us (like lead-based powder). Who knows, really!

  9. Nina says:

    That’s a cool post, thank you. And I definitely prefer today too, with all the technology we have, but I’m not that a vintage person anyway, I always liked living in this era πŸ™‚

  10. Kelly says:

    Yeah I think I’ll stick with technology, though I do love a petticoat πŸ™‚
    Kelly recently posted … MAC Dare To Wear Lipglass Swatches &amp Review

  11. Hillary says:

    Great article. I love reading about old remedies, cures and hygiene. I’d love if you could do a follow up on hair care- powdered wigs, homemade hair wash concoctions etc. There was a series on PBS some years ago called 1900 house and the poor moms frustration over hygiene during her visit to the Victorian era definitely made me appreciate the conveniences of today!
    Hillary recently posted … Lost one of my feathered friends –

  12. Julbra says:

    OMG Karen! Thank you for doing a post on this. I have been thinking about the days of yore and how they must have applied makeup…perhaps after reading this maybe ignorance is bliss, but it was still very interesting LOL! Although I love history and vintage stuff, I just can’t part with all of my modern creature comforts. Although sometimes I wish I could wear hoop skirts around a la Scarlett O’Hara and crazy hats, but alas I was born too late…
    Julbra recently posted … My Holy Grail Products-a Poll from Temptalia

  13. Ginger says:

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s still the same… yes, we have more products (Thank God!), we know more about skin and have new technology and information… but what about the recent snail goop? Spermhead goop, snail goop, snake venom cream… it’s all pretty much the same. Even in cosmetics the ingredient carmine is juice from boiled red beetles (which is in my favorite UD eyeliner) Some things haven’t changed much, true? πŸ˜‰

  14. Twetriz says:

    Ah, great topic. I love reading and looking pictures of old makeup trends. Thanks Karen!
    Twetriz recently posted … Weekend Findings

  15. Crystal says:

    Given the ingredients of these 19th c. cosmetics, I don’t think anyone really wanted to wear any more than they absolutely had to, right? In any case I do kind of like the fact that you had to be more natural so people pretty much had to like you “as is”. But then I love how TV and film have actresses in much more makeup even when the story is based in the 19th c. or earlier. Ever watch The Tudors? LOL, anyway, I like this article πŸ™‚

  16. Cheng says:

    I really like that silhouette! Are there others like it? πŸ™‚

  17. really cool post! Being super pale is still all the rage in Asia, where I am right now coincidentally. My relatives always comment on how tan I am (funnily enough, I’m not considered tan at all in SoCal), but as long as I protect my skin with plenty of SPF, there’s no need for me to resort to lead powders. I’m definitely grateful for all the beauty technology we have in modern times, I don’t think I could live in an age without eyeshadow!
    makeup morsels recently posted … Who Likes Henna

  18. Holly G says:

    Such a fun post!! Thanks, Karen!

  19. Ranyah says:

    Their makeups methods are way obsolete now but they still looked gorgeous then. Who knows, our makeup trends now would be laughed at when we finally move to the moon in a gazillion years or so. I love reading your blog Karen! How’s Tabs?
    Ranyah recently posted … etude house mini loot and myoh blues

  20. Emily says:

    I’d love if you’d do more posts like this!! I love history.

  21. shugal says:

    *sighs* American’s have so much access to many things! The site you mentioned was good…but alas..does NOT ship outside of USA and even if it did, it would probably cost too much. *sniffle sniffle* I am sooo glad I live in our era of makeup! EEP! I couldn’t imagine not having all the make up options we have today! Cleopatra had some nifty make up though! LOL

    Anyhoo Karen, I was wondering…if at any time you come across a Canadian make up site or a USA one that ships here…do let us know πŸ™‚

    Thank you!
    Love your blog!

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