Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On hair powder, white, grey and flaxen

The recipes
White Powder

Take four pounds of Starch, half a pound of Florentine Orrice-root, six
Cuttle-fish Bones; Ox Bones and Sheeps Bones calcined to whiteness, of each half a handful; beat the whole together, and sift the Powder through a very fine sieve.

Grey Powder

To the Residuum of the preceding add a little Starch and Wood-ashes in fine powder; rub them together in a mortar some time, and then lift through a fine hair sieve.


Take the Marc or Residuum of the White Powder, mix with it a little Starch, Yellow Ochre, and Wood-ashes or Baker's Coals to colour it. Beat the whole well in a mortar, then sift it through a hair sieve. Beat the coarser parts over again, and sift a second time; repeating these operations till all the composition has palled through the sieve.

Flaxen coloured Powder

Add to the White Powder a very little Yellow Ochre. The White Powder may be tinged of any colour, by adding; ingredients of the colour you fancy. (The Toilet of Flora, p. 186-188)

Breaking down the recipes
Starch Carbohydrate, a white powder without scent or taste that you find in such basic foodstuff as potatoes, corn and wheat. In the 18th century wheat starch was most common, though by the end of it, corn starch was used more and more. Today corn starch is the main ingredients in dry shampoos.

Florentine Orrice root Though smelling like violets, Orris root is in fact the root from the flower Iris. Florentine indicates Iris Florentina which is supposedly the best quality. Used as fixatives in perfumes and potpourri’s and also as flavour- it taste like raspberry. Safe in other words.

Bones Calcinated* to become white and functions as white pigment. Basically Calcium in other words.

Wood ash Ashes, as in what is left after a fire. Here used as grey pigment.

Baker’s coal I’m stumped here. I can imagine that it means just coal, which if you ground it up would pigment the powder a darker grey than with ashes. What do you think?

Yellow ochre or Gold ochre, hydrated iron oxide. Non-toxic and commonly found as painter’s pigment.

My thoughts
Making your own hair powder seems like a rather straightforward business, at least these. The Orris root provides scent and the bones, ash and ochre, pigment. None of the ingredients are harmful and if you forego the bones and find some Calcium carbonate instead, the quite easy to make. There are more complicated recipes for scented hair powders that would be fun to try out eventually, but I think I will start with this.

I love the effect of hair powder and I’m fascinated by the different colours it could have. Though white and grey powder was by far most common, other colours were used. Above is a recipe for flaxen powder, but Abdeker, Or the Art of Preserving Beauty lists hair powders in a number of colours: apart from white and grey; brown, fair, flesh-colour’d, rose-colour’d, cherry-colour’d and black. I think fair may be the same as flaxen and brown and black is pretty straightforward. Rose and cherry ought to be pink and red, but what is flesh? Pinkish? Blond? And Charles James Fox was known to use both blue and green-tinted powder. I thing to consider, if you want to tint powder, is to make sure that you don’t use pigments that are harmful.

To change the subject somewhat: Do you have any questions concerning 18th century beauty? I plan to make a FAQ so it would be great if you have some questions you would like to have answered. When I lecture the most common questions are; Didn’t they use eye makeup?, Is it true that they never washed themselves? And How could they stand all the smelliness?. Perhaps you have a few more? If so, bring them on, please!

*Calcination (also referred to as calcining) is a thermal treatment process in presence of air applied to ores and other solid materials to bring about a thermal decomposition, phase transition, or removal of a volatile fraction. The calcination process normally takes place at temperatures below the melting point of the product materials. Calcination is to be distinguished from roasting, in which more complex gas–solid reactions take place between the furnace atmosphere and the solids. (From Wikipedia)

(Picture source: http://www.historicalportraits.com/InternalMain.asp)


  1. When do these recipes date from? I remember reading something about that in England, it became illegal around the 1730s to sell hair powder made from anything other than vegetable starch as a base. (Which was weird, because I found Talc to make the best hair powder.)

    I also remember reading a story (by the Marquis de Sade of all people) about a very stingy, miserly couple who had their maid create hair powder by scraping plaster from the wall of a disused room in their attic.

    1. They are from - I see that I have forgotten to say that and shall edit the post. So 1779. It's interesting that you find Talc the best, because I find that a nuisance to get even. :) (Also, my scalp hates it...) I think starch is much better, so it's probably a matter of taste. So far all the hair powder recipes I have found have been starch based.

    2. Sigh. I seem to have butter finger today. The recipes are from The Toilet of Flora.


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