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

February 15, 2014


      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. Occasionally wax appears in these as a thickener. 

     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 not 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.


Thanks to Katie Cannon of the DAR Museum for her research on makeup that she shared, below. She found several recipes that women could make that used wax as a thickener. Such as: 

To make the Oyntment of Roses. (The Widowes Treasure, 1588) TAKE Oyle of Roses foure ounces, white Waxe one ounce, melte them together ouer séething Water, then chase them together with Rosewater and a little white Vineger.

Abdeker: or, the art of preserving beauty, 1756. It’s a beauty guide in the form of a story. In it, one character says: “… I brought her a Pomatum composed of the Oil of Ben, Bismuth, and Wax; to which I gave since the Name of Paint. As soon as she had spread this over her Face, she became as white as Snow.” (Abdeker, p. 55) And then later, referring to this part of the story, he gives this receipt: “Take four Ounces of the Oil of Ben, an Ounce of Virgin Wax, and two Drams and a half of Magistery of Bismuth. The Oil of Ben is preferable to the Oil of sweet Almonds, and also to that of the four Cold Seeds, because it does not over-heat so much as those Oils, and keeps a long time before it changes.” (Abdeker, p. 63)

Katie writes that Magistery of bismuth is a white powder, used as an alternative to lead. The proportions will make a pretty stiff paste, but not so much that you’d be worried about it melting off by the heat of a fire! (Your sweat might create a problem, but it’s not the fire’s direct heat that would be doing the damage.)

And, here’s one for red coloring: “Rose Lip Salve. Put eight ounces of the best olive oil into a widemouthed bottle, add two ounces of the small parts of alkanet-root. Stop up the bottle, and set it in the sun; shake it often, until it be of a beautiful crimson. Now strain the oil off very clear from the roots, and add to it, in a glazed pipkin, three ounces of very fine white wax, and the same quantity of fresh clean mutton suet… Melt this by a slow fire, and perfume it when taken off, with forty drops of oil of rhodium, or of lavender.” (Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, 1829)

Katie writes “I still totally agree about firescreens, that’s not what they were for at all. Plus that whole thing about American women not wearing much makeup. And a lot of cosmetics at the time were meant to be used and then washed off. But there are some cosmetics receipts with wax in them that were meant to be applied and then stay on as a colorant, so I wouldn’t say they never used wax. As far as I can tell, they used wax the same way we do: as a thickener, to make everything from softer balms to thicker pastes. Of course, we have plenty of wax in our makeup now, but nobody worries about going to an autumn bonfire and having their face melt off!” 

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.’”  

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