Saturday, July 06, 2013

Making Cyprian powder

Carl von Linné by Alexander Roslin, 1775
You can clearly see that hair powder is dusting the shoulders of
his coat. I don't know if he used Cyprus powder himself, but he does
mention, well complain, over his students using it.
I have finally got around finishing the Cyprian powderThe version I did is a 17th century recipe, but it is actually quite close to the 18th century ones I have found.

To make grey Cyprus Powder
Take the moss which grows on the branches of the bolm or scarlet oak tree (in Latin ilex coccigera, querens) and wash it several times in common water, till the smell of the moss is quite gone: then steep in equal quantities of rose water, and orange-flower water, and put it to drain in some high place, where the sun does not come, often stirring it; when ‘tis very dry, reduce it to a very fine powder, and with every pound weight of the powder mingle a dram of good muck, and half the quantity of civet.
N.B: It must be steep’d three or four times in the rose water and orange-flower water, and be dry’d each time. / Collection of Voyages and Travels by Awnsham Churchill,, p. 717
217. Cyprus Powder.
Fill a linen bag with Oak Moss, steep it in water, which change frequently, and afterwards dry the Moss in the sun. Beat it to powder, and sprinkle it with Rosewater; then dry it again, sift it through a fine sieve, and mix with it a small quantity of any of the preceding powders*.(* Rose, Violet, Jonquil, Orange-flower, Jasmine or Ambrette Powders.)
218. Another Cyprus Powder more fragrant.
Wash Oak Moss several times in pure water and dry it thoroughly; then sprinkle over it Orange Flower and Rose-water, and spread it thin upon a hurdle to dry. Afterwards place under it a chafing-dish, in which burn some Storax and Benjamin. Repeat this operation till the Moss becomes well perfumed; then beat it to fine powder, and to every pound add a quarter of an ounce of Musk, and as much Civet. / The Toilet of Flora, 1779, p. 182-183

The same ingredients are used over and over apart from the Oak moss. Rose water in all, but orange-flower water, musk, civet, ambergris, Storax and Benzoin (Benjamin) are used in some combination in all but one. The proportions vary as well.

Updated recipe
A problem with this recipe is that it contains musk, civet and ambergris for which substitutes must be found. I have liquid substitutes that are very good, but this is a dry recipe. I bought artificial vegetal substitutes instead, which all smell something akin to the original, but nowhere near as pungent. The Civet was the best of the three. The musk contains musk seed, valerian, cumin, copal, labdanum, and sweet hay extract. The civet, musk seed, oak moss, naioli and cedarwood and the ambergris amber resin, benzoin, cypress, patchouli, vetiver and tonka beans.

Oak moss 80 gram

I washed it in Rose water, let it dry and then let it steep in more Rose water. As there are no quantities I used a small bottle which contains about 3 dl for each. After it was completely dry I ground it into a powder and mixed it with the other ingredients. I made both versions.

Version 1
Oak moss 40 gram
Musk 3 gram
Ambergris 1,5 gram
Civet 1 gram
Yellow Sanders 6 gram

Version 2
Oak moss 40 gram
Benzoin 6 gram
Black Storax 6 gram
Musk 1 gram
Ambergris 1 gram
Civet 1 gram
I ground the remaining ingredients, those which needed it and mixed it with the Oak moss. My biggest problem was that I found it impossible to grind the oak moss as finely as it should be. After much hard work it looks like this, much too coarse to use as hair powder:

The Cyprian or Cyprus powder where mixed with hair powder. I haven’t found any 18th century recipes were the ration is fixed, but a 19th century books says it should be 50/50. As the Cyprus powder is grey, I think it is fair to say that the resulting hair powder will have a greyish tinge. I plan to mix my scented powder with starch, letting it rest until the starch has absorbed the scent and then sieve away the coarse particles. Those I can make into a scent bag while still enjoying the hair powder.

My thoughts
Both my versions smell lovely. It’s hard to describe it, but the oak moss is certainly prominent. Version 2 has a more vanilla resinous feel to it, which isn’t surprising. I think my vegetal substitutes are a bit too weak and if I use them again I will probably up the proportions. Another idea is to scent starch with my liquid versions, letting it dry and then mix it with the oak moss. As proportions vary so much between recipes I don't think I will stray too far away if I do. Apart from the hard work grinding it I will definitely try it again as it smells so nice! I want to try it with orange-flower water as well, too.


  1. Maybe you need to actively dry the moss a bit more? Summer has a higher air humidity than winter. I get the same problem with dried mushrooms in summer, they are much harder to pulverise.

    1. Might, though it has been drying since late April. I will have to try it in the autumn again. :)

  2. Neat! Even if the oak moss is quite too flaky for hair powder, it's very pretty to look at in the dish...

    Very best,


    1. It's quite pretty before you grind it too. :)

  3. Interesting use of natural products. Could you put the moss in an unlit natural gas powered oven? There is a certain amount of heat in an gas oven since the pilot is lit all the time. Unless you have one of those energy efficient ones that are not lit but you ignite when you turn the oven on. Anyway, just a thought. Your house must smell amazing. I was just imagining the rose and orange water et al wafting through the house. Wow! :)

    1. I have an electrical oven, though I suppsoe I could try to dry it on a very low setting. I did smell very nice when I was making it, especially when the oak moss wa soaked in rose water- it smelled like roses in a forrest where it had just rained. :)


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