Saturday, September 15, 2012

Marechalle Powder, brown hair powder

Portrait of a Lady with a Statuette of Cupid, by Francis Cotes (1726-1770).

Cropping up from time to time in 18th century literature is something called Marechalle powder, which seems to be a brown hair powder. Like the fair Aurelia adorns herself in Aurelia: or, The contest: an heroi-comic poem in four cantos:

”Thrice low he bends, then, drawing near the fair,
He shakes a downy puff with graceful air,
Long, blue-stain'd irons from his rough attire
He draws, and gives them to the glowing fire:

While this white pontiff's hands aloft are spread,
In solemn pomp to elevate the head,
Two spotless virgins of the servient band,
Close by the shrine in awful silence stand;

One, puffs and Marechalle powder lifts on high,
And gives soft ointment to the deity;
One ready stands thin, forked wires to bend,
Stain'd o'er with black, and sharp at either end,

And bears those instruments of special note,
Form'd of clear horn, or of the tortoise' coat,
Smooth, speckled teeth their polish'd points disclose,
Some wide extend, some meet in closer rows.

Her golden tresses, wreath'd in stubborn pride.
Now form three hollow tubes on either side;
Low down her back a monstrous bag descends,
Where scented grease with scented powder blends;

Thick and more thick the clouds of fragrance roll,
And brown and yellow dust o'ershades the whole;
At length, the labour of successive hours,
In form complete the finish'd wonder tow'rs." /Samuel Hoole, 1783

As brown hair powder is mentioned elsewhere, and as I’m a bit obsessed with coloured hair-powder, I have long wanted to find a recipe for it, and today I got my wish. I was readingThe Art of Cookery and, lo and behold, the recipe was there!

The recipe
Marechalle Powder.—Sixteen Shillings per Pound.
ONE ounce of cloves, one ounce of mace, one ounce of cinnamon, beat them very well to a fine powder; add to them four pounds of hair-powder, and half a pound of Spanish burnt amber beaten very fine, a quarter of an ounce of oil of lavender, half an ounce of oil of thyme, a quarter of an ounce of essence of amber, five drops of oil of laurel, a quarter of an ounce of oil of sassafras; mix them all well together. Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, p. 403

Breaking down the Recipe
Cloves Aromatic dried flowers buds. Used as a spice in cooking and baking. Ground clove is very dark brown.

Mace Mace comes from the Nutmeg tree. Nutmeg is the seed; mace is the seeds covering and is reddish brown.

Cinnamon The inner bark from trees of the genus Cinnamomum. Popular spice and reddish brown in colour.

Hair powder Made out of starch. It is unclear if the recipe means finished hair powder or plain starch.

Burnt amber Well, here is a nice little mystery. Is this really burnt amber or is it just 18th century free spelling and really burnt umber? Though, as a friend of mine put it, 18th century people were probably crazy enough to burn amber for makeup- and it has been used as incense, I’m more inclined to think this is actually burnt umber. The colour is reddish brown, which fits in with the other ingredients.

I also found “burnt amber” referenced in the chapter for wall paint in The compleat housewife from 1739 and it seems wholly unlikely that you painted your home with burnt amber. Burn umber, on the other hand, is a clay pigment quite common in paint.

Lavender oil Scent made from Lavender flowers. The scent is considered calming and relaxing. A modern use is to help tension headaches, which may not be too big a leap to imagine that people in the 18th century may have suffered from. At least when the hairstyles got really big.

Thyme oil Scent made from Thyme. Considered anti-septic.

Essence of amber Tricky, this could meat ambergris or it could mean a resin. As Glasse mentions ambergris elsewhere in her book I think it’s quite likely that this is a resin scent. Liquidambar, Storax or Styrax would probably work well scent-wise.

Laurel oil Aromatic leaves used in cooking.

Sassafras oil Spice from the Sassafras tree. Used to give root beer it’s taste, for example. Sassafras extract is available today, but without Safrol, which isn’t considered healthy for you. Sassafras oil is presumably used in the fragrance industry today.

My thoughts
First thought: You must go around and smell like gingerbread with this in your hair!

Second thought: I must try it out! But I will have to wait three weeks until the bathroom plumbing is finished back home.

This clearly provides a brown hair powder; the question is how dark it will turn out. I plan to use corn starch, not my finished hair powder which has white pigment added. Considering the amount of burn umber it might be pretty dark. There is also quite a bit of oil added. I don’t think it will be enough to make the powder into a past, but it may become a bit greasy. Will that make the powder stick better? Sassafras oil seems tricky, if not impossible; to get hold of, but perhaps I could add the same amount of almond oil. Apart from the mace and the burnt umber I have everything at home, so as soon as I can move back I will do some experimenting!


  1. I was recently reading about using colored artist's chalk to color dark hair (just wet the hair and the chalk first.) It's mostly used to produce temporary punk effects but actually could be kind of suitable for 18th century 'dos. The color is that matte look like powdered hair for sure.

    1. I imagine that would work well! I wonder how easy it would be to colour a whole hairdo that way... :)


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