18th-century Faces and Fire Screens

If you have ever visited a country house, castle, or other historic building that displays fire screens, it is likely that you have read or heard that they were necessary for a very odd reason.

Fire Screen in the Georgian House Drawing Room, Edinburgh

In the eighteenth century, you see, both men and women ‘wore heavy wax makeup and the screens were there to prevent their elaborately painted faces from melting as they sat by the fire’. Furthermore, you might be told that the ‘phrase “to lose face” comes from this’.

Image showing Nazi face melting from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
Oh no! If only he’d had a fire screen!

Well, no and no. A fire screen is just that: a screen that goes between people and fires. Fires can be uncomfortable things when they’re roaring away. The screens help to regulate and direct the heat. They can also protect from smuts, sparks, and smoke. When the fireplace is not in use, the fire screen can be used to hide the empty grate. It was a practical item and had nothing to do with eighteenth century cosmetics use.

The phrase ‘to lose face’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is Chinese in origin with an English interpretation dating from 1834: ‘To lose face denotes to fall into discredit’ (J. R. Morrison, Chinese Commerc. Guide).

It’s a catchy story, I suppose, and one that shows how people at the past were different/amusing/silly/ignorant or something. Surely all that wax melting would be painful, burn skin, and damage clothing! But is there any truth to it? What were Georgian cosmetics like?

In many ways, not very different from now. If you check the ingredients on your modern lipstick, say, you will see wax is still the main ingredient. Same with lip balms and salves. I’ve worn cosmetics for decades and have never worried about sitting next to a fire or candle. No melting has ever happened.

The question has bothered me for a long time so I was delighted to see a new book last month which I bought immediately. I whole-heartedly recommend The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty: 40 Projects for Period-Accurate Hairstyles, Makeup and Accessories by Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox with Cheyney McKnight (Salem, MA: Page Street Publishing, 2019, ISBN: 9781624147869). I have read it cover to cover and it is full of excellent information about hair and skin care during the Georgian era. (Follow them on Twitter @AmericanDuchess to find their podcasts, tutorials, and gorgeous history-inspired shoes.)

The authors have not only researched recipes from primary sources, they have made and used them. From hair pomade and powder to rouge and lip salve, they have recreated the recipes that Georgian women used in their toilettes. And along the way they bust some myths.

I was so inspired that I decided to try what is probably the easiest and most accessible recipe: ‘Red Lip Salve’.

Ready to make ‘Red Lip Salve’: cocoa butter, sweet almond oil, alkanet root, muslin cloth, glass jars, stove

The authors explain that they’ve replaced mutton tallow with historically accurate cocoa butter for vegan-friendliness. (And, let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to get hold of!) My ingredients all came from G Baldwin & Co, www.baldwins.co.uk; @BaldwinsUK)

The process was simple and took minutes. First melt the oil and cocoa butter together – a bit like melting butter and chocolate when baking brownies.

Sweet almond oil weighing
Measuring the sweet almond oil on digital scale
Melting cocoa butter
Melting cocoa butter in sweet almond oil
Add alkanet root for the red tint (I’d never heard of it until making this recipe.)
Jar topped with muslin
Jars ready
Image showing finished salve being drained into jar through a muslin cloth.
Pouring the salve into the jar
Jars filled with salve with equipment used to make it.
Nearly done: the alkanet roots are a bit like used tea leaves

The resulting lip salve is a lot more liquid than modern lipsticks and balms. It has a lovely, conditioning feel and a very light tint. It absorbs very quickly and is definitely more about moisturising than tinting. I might add some more cocoa butter to thicken it up a bit but for now I’m pleased with the result. Most importantly, I don’t feel at all worried about the prospect of sitting near a fire with it on.

3 comments Add yours
  1. THANK YOU for pointing out this all-too-often told historical myth. There is NO contemporary evidence at all of faces melting due to heat. The reason for the fire screen is exactly as you mentioned, along with showing off wealth (the more money you had, the more elaborate the screen). Now, if I could only stop the myth about beds being shorter “back then” because people were shorter back then (No and no). — A frustrated historian

      1. Thank you for this very interesting article. I volunteer for the National Trust and the number of times I listen to my colleges telling visitors about a particular bed being shorter because they occupant believed that sleeping partially upright would prevent them succumbing to untold mystery illnesses is unbelievable. The bed is early 19th century half tester with a high head and foot board full of pillows. Viewed from the base, the worst possible angle, so of course it is going to look shorter. Drives me absolutely nuts.

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