Respectable ladies did not “paint,” or wear visible cosmetics, in the 1890s, and anyone who wished to be taken as such would most carefully obey those rules. A lady who practices a potentially unladylike profession, like my fictional character opera singer Ella Shane, known for her male “trouser roles,” would be especially cautious offstage. This did not, however, require a lady to appear at a disadvantage.
Thankfully, there were many subtle means available to women who needed a bit of assistance producing the desired pale creamy skin, rosy mouth, and dark lashes. There were also many less subtle, and less healthy, means.
A lady’s most coveted physical trait, aside from her glorious thick hair, was a smooth and pale complexion, and considerable effort went into maintaining it. Ella (born Ellen O’Shaugnessy) inherited her Irish father’s translucent skin, giving her a distinct advantage—if she can keep it. In the age before sunscreen, she protects her pallor with wide straw hats, parasols, and gloves the instant the sun appears. For less vigilant females, lemon juice or vinegar would hopefully lighten freckles.
Complexion was quite the obsession for ladies of the time, and soaps, skin creams, and rice or pearl powders were diligently employed to create the desired smooth skin. While actresses and professional beauties endorsed all manner of things, our respectable artist Ella sees no need for any public discussion. Her beauty needs are ably met by Miss Hermione Chalfont, the daughter of her Washington Square pharmacist.
Among Miss Chalfont’s offerings: a good cold cream for cleansing, mostly composed of beeswax and rosewater, simple almond oil to protect the skin, and her famous rose petal lip salve. The rose petals, naturally, supply a pleasant scent, and since Miss Chalfont is careful to choose the reddest ones (with perhaps some other mild coloring agent), a soft pink tint as well. Ella wears it, in larger or smaller quantities, at almost all times to protect her lips. If she might, on occasion, dab a bit on her cheeks to give a becoming flush, that is entirely her business.
Visible eye makeup was firmly banned for respectable ladies, and primitive besides. Various forms of eyeliner, mostly a solid fat and a colorant of some kind, usually black, have existed since at least Ancient Egypt, but no good woman would appear with such things smudged about the windows to her noble soul. A lady who was not blessed with naturally dark brows and lashes would be forced to resort to some form of soot. The easiest, and safest way, as long as one had a steady hand, was to burn down a match or stick, let it cool, and very, very carefully dab the charcoal in the desired spot. One could also scrape the soot from inside a lamp and put it to use, with or without mixing it with some kind of base.
With all of that in mind, it’s no wonder that Ella has been known to wipe off most, but not all, of her stage eyeliner when attending a reception after a show—enjoying the benefit of the look without the risk or the potential sanction. The audience has to be able to see her eyes, after all.
For most ladies, such mild means were quite sufficient. But some were sadly drawn to extremes in the hope of making themselves look more lovely and fragile, from eating small quantities of arsenic to encourage pallor, to dropping belladonna in the eyes for a lovely wide gaze. Not to mention drinking all manner of tonics loaded with potentially dangerous substances in order to produce beauty and fragility.
With a dusting of pearl powder and a touch of rose petal salve, where it would do the most good, a lady is quite lovely and appropriate … and anything more is her secret!
Miss Chalfont was kind enough to share her recipe:
Rose Petal Lip Salve
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons dried rose petals, plus more for assembly
3 tablespoons beeswax
Few drops rose oil for scent
Few drops mild coloring agent of choice (don’t tell anyone!)
Warm olive oil, add rose petals, and allow to steep overnight or longer. Strain olive oil and discard spent petals. Warm beeswax and add olive oil and other ingredients. Place a rose petal or two in jars or tins, and then pour in salve. Allow to set and use as desired.
About the Author
Kathleen Marple Kalb lives with her family in Cheshire, Connecticut. She’s currently a weekend morning anchor at New York’s 1010WINS Radio, capping a career she began as a teenage deejay in rural Western Pennsylvania. She’s currently working on the next Ella Shane historical mystery. Visit Kathleen at KathleenMarpKalb.com or on the social platform below.
About A Fatal Finale
New York City, 1899. When it comes to show business, Gilded Age opera singer Ella Shane wears the pants. The unconventional diva breaks the mould by assuming “trouser roles”—male characters played by women—and captivating audiences far and wide with her traveling theatre company. But Ella’s flair for the dramatic takes a terrifying turn when an overacting Juliet to her Romeo drinks real poison during the final act of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi.
Weeks after the woman’s death is ruled a tragic accident, a mysterious English duke arrives in Greenwich Village on a mission. He’s certain someone is getting away with murder, and the refined aristocrat won’t travel back across the Atlantic until Ella helps him expose the truth.
As Ella finds herself caught between her craft and a growing infatuation with her dashing new acquaintance, she’s determined to decode the dark secrets surrounding her co-star’s fatal finale—before the lights go dark and the culprit appears for an encore.