Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hannah Glasse on pearls

You may have noticed that I have mentioned Hanna Glasse and her book The Art of Cooking. It was first published in 1747 and became hugely popular with several re-prints. What is interesting for this blog is that she didn’t just talk about food, but also included several cosmetic ones. What is even more interesting is that she was a middle class woman who wrote a practical book- a book much more likely to be read by a cook than a lady. So in all probability her recipes were for the kind of cosmetics that could be used even for women who didn’t belong to the upper crust of society.

"Die Magd in der Küche" by Justus Juncker, 1767

Mrs. Glasse mentions pearl powder three times in her book, two that are decidedly cosmetic and one that seems a bit more ambiguous, namely with the tantalizing name of Sugar of Pearl:

To make sugar of pearl.
TAKE damask rose water half a pint, one pound of fine sugar, half an ounce of prepared pearl beat to powder, eight leaves of beaten gold; boil them together according to art;  add the pearl and gold leaves when just done, then cast them on a marble,

If you boil water and sugar you get candy, so I wonder if this isn’t some kind of rose-scented hard candy, but why then add pearl and gold? Perhaps is meant to be crushed again and used to decorate desserts. The other two recipes are quite straightforward and also quite simple.

Nun's Cream.
ONE ounce of pearl-powder, twenty drops of oil of Rhodium, and two ounces of fine pomatum; mix all well together.
I suspect that this name had more naughty overtones than what we modern people might think- a nun could be used to describe a prostitute. The result ought o be a cream with a pearlescent sheen to it, perhaps not so dissimilar to the Spanish white I tried to make earlier, The Oil of Rhodium (Rosewood oil) is probably just there for scent, but the pearl powder may not be real pearls. As I mentioned in my post on pearls , real pearl powder was a very expensive cosmetics and the cheaper alternative of Bismuth could use the same name. And as Mrs. Glasse was an ordinary woman, it is very likely that she meant Bismuth. The last recipe suggests that was well;
Hannah Glasse

MIX pearl-powder with honey and lavender-water ; and then the pearl-powder will never be discoloured.

I don’t know if real pearls can turn suggest, but I do know that Bismuth can, if exposed to sulphur. Am I too far-fetched if I think that the last recipe can be a way to hopefully prevent that?

I do need to try out the Nun’s Cream though! I love old recipes when they actually mention the proportions of the ingredients!

Pictures sources:


  1. This is really interesting - as I would assume we are talking about 'real' pearls? Or is the word pearls reference to another seed or other mineral that has pearly outcome? I guess my modern experience is that pearls are too expensive to ground up for cosmetics - which could be totally erroneous since oysters were a chief food stuff for cities near the water? Not sure. Let us know how the nun's creme comes out. Cheers.

    1. "Real" pearls yes, but the small and irregular ones that isn't fit to use in jewelry. I talked about a little more extensively here:


      But even so it was an expensive form of cosmetics, so Hannah Glasse's recipes might very well be for Bismuth instead. :)

  2. I've made pearl water from an 1830s recipe before, it was made from just castile soap -- when shaved down and boiled in water and alcohol it makes a pearlescent color, which is probably why it gets the name. I don't know that castile soap would be the "pearl powder" here though.

    1. Doesn't it itch when you use it? I have seen recipes like that and always wondered. :) But I haven't seen any from the 18th century, so I think Bismuth is the most likely culprit here.


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