Myth # 60: Women ate arsenic to lighten their complexions.

Unlike today when everyone wants a tan, women in previous centuries thought pale was prettier. Pale skin was a status symbol, since it showed that the woman did not have to labor outside in the fields like a peasant. But there is no evidence that women ate arsenic to lighten their skin. In fact, according to 18th-century apothecary specialist Robin Kipps, arsenic actually darkens the skin, so anyone trying this would have abandoned the effort quickly.

But some women did something  just as bad. Since the early 1500s, some upper class European women (think Queen Elizabeth I) used a skin lightener called ceruse. Made with white lead, ceruse was also used in making paint. This probably caused damage, perhaps even death, if the woman applied it to her face often enough. It was still available in France in the middle 1700s, but there is no evidence that American women ever used it. 

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9 Responses to Myth # 60: Women ate arsenic to lighten their complexions.

  1. Sharon says:

    I love getting information from you. You are a true gift. I still need to ask for training in your group. Guess I am still a little afraid to ask. Please keep me on the list. God Bless

    • marymiley says:

      Training? Don’t be shy–just jump on in! Do you have any information to contribute on any of these myths? I’ve gotten good stuff from readers, especially with issues like ballast, hoe cakes, mortgage buttons, corsets, and others.

  2. Undine says:

    I’m not sure how popular arsenic was in America, but in Europe, people ate arsenic as a “tonic,” and women applied it topically as a skin beautifier at least until the end of the 19th century. At the trial of Florence Maybrick, who was accused of poisoning her husband during the late Victorian Era, it turned out that both she and her husband were using the stuff the way we would use aspirin or Oil of Olay. It’s still a matter of debate whether she deliberately killed her spouse, or he accidentally did himself in. Just reading about it is enough to make one a bit queasy.

  3. marymiley says:

    I googled Maybrick and read about the case. You’re right, it is creepy.

  4. Deborah Brower says:

    There was another famous case in Scotland. In 1857 Madeline Hamilton Smith was tried for the murder of her lover with arsenic. Madeline claimed she was using it to whiten her skin. The whole trial is on google books “A Complete Report of the Trial of Madeline Smith” They made a movie about it in the 1950s. It’s very good worth looking for.

  5. Undine says:

    Oh, how could I forget about the amazing Miss Smith? Although, unlike in the Maybrick case, the main mystery in the case is how she got acquitted, IMO.

  6. marymiley says:

    Ooooh, these sound like wonderful plot ideas for fictional mysteries, which I keep trying to get published . . . to no avail, I might add, but what the heck. The movie title is MADELEINE (1950) and David Lean of Dr. Zhivago fame was it’s director. I’ve ordered it from Netflix and will report back once I’ve seen it.

    “This well-crafted courtroom drama — based on a true story and told via flashback — chronicles the events leading to the 1857 murder trial of Scottish aristocrat Madeleine Smith (Ann Todd), who’s charged with killing her French paramour, Emile L’Angelier (Ivan Desny). When Madeleine tries to end their relationship after becoming engaged to a genteel Englishman (Norman Wooland), Emile vows to blackmail her — and she responds by poisoning him.”

  7. Anne Nydam says:

    Mary, I’ve never commented before, but I enjoy your posts! Thanks!
    I wanted to let you know that I linked to this blog for the “Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award.” Here’s my post: http://nydamprintsblackandwhite.blogspot.com/
    All the best! – Anne

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