Civil War-era women spent little time on hair and makeup

Photo by Jason Plotkin

Photo by Jason Plotkin

Life as a woman during the Civil War era certainly wasn’t easy.

Although women of today are practically barraged with beauty choices, few would consider trading their routines for the regimens of yesteryear.

Cindy Brown, collections manager for the York County Heritage Trust, said women would bathe weekly, generally on a Saturday night to prepare for church the next morning.

“Most people had a tub and they’d heat water over a fire to warm it for bathing, using homemade soap made with harsh lye,” she said.

Creams and lotions were then needed to diminish the damage lye had on the skin, she added.

“A pitcher and bowl were used for washing the body during the rest of the week,” said Brown.

Because antiperspirants weren’t yet invented, women wore underarm pads. “This kept them from ruining their clothing,” said Brown, who added that perfume was also plentiful to help mask body odor.

“Floral perfumes like lavender, rose, orange and gardenia were popular,” she said.

Makeup was minimal

Makeup was used much less 150 years ago.

“It was generally frowned upon because the women who wore makeup for the most part were prostitutes,” said Brown.

They would make eyeliner by burning cork, mixing it with water and applying it with a brush. They also would make rouge with rust and iron and apply it to their cheeks, Brown added.

Some of the wealthier women of the era dabbled with rouge a bit as well.

“If they were going to a ball or something, they would put a little color on the cheeks — just on the apples,” she said. “It wasn’t applied like today — more like clown cheeks.”

Brown said one of the most popular cosmetics of the era was face powder.

“The ideal was to have lily-white skin. If you wore anything, you wore face powder that evened out your skin tone, or bleached it to make it whiter,” she said.

Whitening agents such as Borax and cream of tartar were mixed with oils to create face powder.

“You wanted the palest skin so nobody thought you worked outside or got your hands dirty,” Brown said.

Setting the standard

During the Civil War, women wore their hair parted in the middle and pulled back.

Older women wore a higher bun and the younger women wore a lower one, Brown said.

One of the big influences of the day was “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” a magazine published in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1878. Known as the “Queen of Monthlies,” it had 150,000 subscribers by 1860, despite its expense.

“At $3 a year, it was quite costly, but it set the standard for the fashion of the day,” Brown said.

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