featuring guest authors; crafting tips and projects; recipes from food editor and sleuthing sidekick Cloris McWerther; and decorating, travel, fashion, health, beauty, and finance tips from the rest of the American Woman editors.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Maia Chance writes historical mysteries that are rife with absurd predicaments and romantic adventure. She’s the author of the Fairy Tale Fatal and The Discreet Retrieval Agency series. Her first mystery, Snow White Red-Handed, will be released in November. Learn more about Maia and her books at her website. 

The Craftiest of Them All

“Never wash your hair with anything you'd hesitate to eat or drink.”—Miss Piggy

I am so excited to be guest-posting here, and one of the reasons is the craft element of Lois’s wonderful books and blog.

Ophelia Flax, the heroine in my first mystery release, Snow White Red-Handed, is a Victorian-era variety actress who knows her way around a theatrical case. And since the story revolves around the fairy tale Snow White, beauty is a constant motif. In researching this book, I got to indulge my fascination with bygone beauty practices, and I’d like to share some you can make—craftily, if you will—today. (Yes, your kitchen will look traumatized. But in a FUN way.)

Most lip salves from the nineteenth century included spermaceti, which comes from a sperm whale’s head (yep: Moby Dick lip balm). But I did find one recipe that you could make at home, if your Chap-Stick gets lost. This is from Florence Hartley’s 1872 The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette:

“A dessert spoonful of salad oil in a saucer, hold it over a candle, and drop melted wax over it till the oil is thinly covered, when they are incorporated, pour it into boxes.”

Mm-kay. Seems like it could work. Just remember to let the flaming wax/oil cool before anointing yourself.

We STILL haven’t cured the Common Pimple. Sigh.

In 1899’s The Woman Beautiful: A Practical Treatise, Ella Adelia Fletcher warns that “a too-vivid imagination, the reading of unhealthful books, anything that encourages unnatural flushing or excitement, —all these things may cause pimples.”

Just to clarify, pimples are NOT caused by the mercury, hydrochloric acid, and Borax that are included in Fletcher’s pimple ointment recipes; pimples are caused by unwholesome books. Guess I’m due for a breakout.

Lola Montez, a famous courtesan and actress, wrote The Arts of Beauty in 1858. It’s probably my very favorite nineteenth century beauty manual. It even has hints for gentlemen, including advising them to smack their lips while eating! Montez includes this complexion-wash receipt you can try at home:

“…the most remarkable wash for the face which I have ever known, and which is said to have been known to the beauties of the court of Charles II. . . . take a small piece of the gum benzoin and boil it in spirits of wine till it becomes a rich tincture. . . . it will render the skin clear and brilliant. It is also an excellent remedy for spots, freckles, pimples, and eruptions.”

Now, before you say this can’t be whipped up at home: you CAN buy chunks of gum benzoin on Etsy! It’s a fragrant resin from trees. Benzoin reportedly makes your lips nice and rosy, too.

Mrs. Ellet’s recipe for whitening the nails includes “diluted sulphuric acid” and “tincture of myrrh”, ingredients that may alarm and/or mystify beauty-seekers nowadays. (The New Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy by Mrs. E.F. Ellet, 1872.)

But what about that passage in Madame Bovary, in which Emma spends “fourteen francs in one month on lemons with which to bleach her fingernails”? Do-able, right?

Not advisable: Mrs. Ellet, provides this concoction for strengthening and thickening the hair: “Skim the fat from the top of calves’ feet while boiling; mix with a teaspoon of rum, shake together. Apply night and morning.”

All together now: Ewwwwwwww.

Advisable: According to Victoria Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History (2006), it has long been thought that rosemary is beneficial for the scalp and for hair growth. Here’s what to do:

Bring 5 sprigs of fresh rosemary in 4 cups of water to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. When it’s cool, remove the sprigs and use it as your final hair rinse.


What’s fascinating is that the creepy chemicals and toxins we complain about in our beauty potions nowadays are nothing new. The American or European lady on the mid-to-late nineteenth century had a prettiness arsenal that was just as noxious, and in the case of mercury, arsenic, and lead, arguably worse. The major difference was that women mixed up their own concoctions with ingredients purchased at an apothecary’s shop and borrowed from the kitchen pantry.

So much for that tired old cliché about women’s beauty being all about cunning and deception. It’s craftiness, people.

Snow White Red-Handed, a Fairy Tale Fatal Mystery
Miss Ophelia Flax is a Victorian actress who knows all about making quick changes and even quicker exits. But to solve a fairy-tale crime in the haunted Black Forest, she’ll need more than a bit of charm…

1867: After being fired from her latest variety hall engagement, Ophelia acts her way into a lady’s maid position for a crass American millionaire. But when her new job whisks her off to a foreboding castle straight out of a Grimm tale, she begins to wonder if her fast-talking ways might have been too hasty. The vast grounds contain the suspected remains of Snow White’s cottage, along with a disturbing dwarf skeleton. And when her millionaire boss turns up dead—poisoned by an apple—the fantastic setting turns into a once upon a crime scene.

To keep from rising to the top of the suspect list, Ophelia fights through a bramble of elegant lies, sinister folklore, and priceless treasure, with only a dashing but mysterious scholar as her ally. And as the clock ticks towards midnight, she’ll have to break a cunning killer’s spell before her own time runs out…

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JoAnne Myers said...

A very interesting and informative article. I enjoyed it very much. good luck with your writings.

Pam De Voe said...

What a funny and intriguing post! Thanks for the tips, Maia!

Angela Adams said...

Miss Peggy gives wise advice (smile!).

Melissa Keir said...

Loved the post. Some of those I don't think I'll be trying anytime soon. :) Love the book though!

Sheila York said...

Spent the night without calf's foot fat on my hair. Decided instead to see if just the rum, applied internally, would help. I can only begin to imagine what American bedrooms smelled like with that concoction applied day and night. Is that in the books on birth control as well?

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Delightful post! I think I'll stick to Clinique, though.

maia chance said...

Thanks for the comments, all! Sheila, you're right, rum applied internally is a CHOICE beauty treatment ;)

Marja said...

Fun post! Can you imagine women doing and using all of those things? LOL The book sounds unique and like something I'll have to try. Some authors have such different ideas. Thanks for sharing!