Revisited Myth #5: Fire screens were put between a woman and the fireplace to prevent the heat from melting her wax makeup.


      Melting faces? Yikes! Sounds like a horror movie.  

     Actually, colonial American women wore little or no makeup. European visitors noticed this and commented on it when they came to America, since wearing makeup was common among upper-class ladies where they came from. If a woman had wanted to wear makeup, she would have had to make it herself. There was no product to purchase in a store. Recipes for skin care treatment can be found in household management books of the period, but these were intended to be applied and washed off.  None of these concoctions includes wax.  

     Here’s a typical recipe for a skin care treatment (not makeup). It came from a book called Delight for Ladies by Sir Hugh Platt, published in 1644. No wax among the ingredients, but it sure sounds edible!

Paste of dried Almonds to cleanse the Skin. Beat any quantity you please, of Sweet and Bitter Almonds in a marble mortar, and while beating, pour on them a little Vinegar in a small stream to prevent their turning oily; then add 2 drachms of storax in fine powder, 2 drachms of white Honey, and 2 Yolks of Eggs boiled hard; mix the whole into a paste.

     Nor did American women in Victorian times wear makeup, unless we’re talking about actresses or prostitutes (considered virtually indistinguishable by most people of that era). They may have used creams or treatments to give their skin a pale look or to fade freckles and so forth, but no makeup. Makeup really doesn’t take off until the Roaring Twenties, when actresses and liberated flappers bobbed their hair and wore shockingly red lipstick and thick kohl on their eyes and lots of rouge. Even respectable women might brush on some discrete rouge and lipstick. But no wax. Max Factor developed makeup for silent movie stars, and was the first to make his concoctions available for the general public as well.

      So what was the point of fire screens? Were they just decorative? When historians look through inventories (lists of household possessions made after a person’s death for legal purposes) they turn up very few fire screens in early American homes. An expensive accessory, these were often decorated with needlework and placed near the fire for use by men and women to shield them from direct heat. But no one’s face was in danger of melting.

P.S. Here’s a version of this myth that was forwarded to me in one of those e-mail collections that supposedly tells you the truth about old customs and phrases. Of course, every word of this is myth (except perhaps for the first sentence!)

“Personal hygiene left much room for improvement. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread bee’s wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman’s face she was told, ‘mind your own bee’s wax.’ Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term ‘crack a smile’. In addition, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt . .. . Therefore, the expression ‘losing face.’”

3 Responses to Revisited Myth #5: Fire screens were put between a woman and the fireplace to prevent the heat from melting her wax makeup.

  1. I’d never heard that one. I had always been told fire screens were to protect the complexion from heat, and I can vouch for some necessity since I avoid campfires and cooking thereon as they don’t do my face any good at alll

  2. Shannon West says:

    Regarding the last paragraph, I am once again amazed at the constant desire to take every phrase or idiom and come up with the ‘true story’ behind it. Oftentimes, a phrase is just a phrase that someone had fun making up. Beeswax is a fun alliteration of business, that’s all.

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