By Tim Lambert
Women have always tried to enhance their beauty. Even in Prehistoric times people wore necklaces or bracelets made of things like shells. They also wore pendants of bone or ivory. Prehistoric people many have painted or tattooed themselves. Certainly the 'ice man' who lived in Copper-age Italy about 3,300 BC was tattooed. Furthermore some iron age bodies found preserved peat had manicured nails showing the upper class in Northern Europe at that time were particular about their appearance.
Further South all the ancient civilizations used cosmetics. In Iraq in 2,000 BC perfumes were commonly used. So were pigments for the eyes and lips. They were made from various minerals and they were stored in shells.
The Egyptians are known for their cleanliness (they bathed frequently) and they used many cosmetics. They used black eyeliner and green pigment for their eyelids. They also used rouge for their cheeks. The Egyptians also used perfume.
The Greeks too used perfume and they used white lead to give themselves pale complexions. They also used rouge. Roman women also used cosmetics such as eye shadow. Greek and women were also known for their elaborate hairstyles. Women dyed their hair and sometimes used wigs. Roman women also used face packs using ingredients like crocodile dung (if they could afford it!).
Roman women also used razors, pumice stone, tweezers and depilatory creams to remove unwanted body hair. At that time there were no glass mirrors but women used mirrors made of polished metal. The Romans are also known for their cleanliness. They rubbed themselves with oil and scraped it off with a tool called a strigil.
In the Middle Ages there were bathhouses in many towns where people could pay to have a bath. Furthermore in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages people took sweat baths.
In the Middle Ages people used combs and tweezers. They also used toothpicks and mouthwashes.
Medieval women curled their hair with hot tongs. They also dyed their hair. They used vegetable dyes to redden their faces and color their nails. It was fashionable for women to pluck their eyebrows.
Life in the Middle Ages
In the 16th century most people cared about their appearance. People carried mirrors made of glass or steel. They also carried combs and used tweezers, ear scoops and bone manicure sets. In the Summer people sometimes had a bath in the local river. Sometimes they heated a cauldron of water and had a strip wash. Or they could have a 'dry wash' by rubbing themselves with clean linen.
In the later 16th century white lead was revived as a way of getting a pale complexion. (Poor women had to work outdoors so they were suntanned. Pale skin was a sign of wealth so it was desirable). Furthermore at that time blonde hair was also popular and many women died their hair. Women also used red ocher on their cheeks. They also wore face packs and they plucked their eyebrows. In the 17th century fashionable women stuck black patches onto their faces. Sometimes they were in the shape of stars or crescent moons.
In the 17th century people used toothpicks but in the latter part of the century toothbrushes were introduced. (Toothbrushes came from China. They were first mentioned in 1498). People also made scented soaps.
In the 18th century pale skin was still fashionable. So were dark eyebrows. Women also still used rouge abundantly. Perfume was also common. In the early 18th century a new scent was made in Cologne. Later in the century it became known as Eau de Cologne.
In the late 18th century a book called The Toilet of Flora (published in 1784) gave advice about preparing make up. (The word toilet is derived from the French word toilette, which means little cloth. In the 17th century it was a cloth cover for a dressing table, called a toilet table. If a woman was at her toilet it meant she was dressing and preparing her appearance. By the 19th century it was a euphemism for a certain room).
In the 18th century some women wore false eyebrows made of mouse fur. They were glued to the face.
The Industrial Revolution made the mass production of cosmetics possible although many people continued to make cosmetics at home. However in the 19th century some people disapproved of women wearing makeup and it was often sold under the counter. Meanwhile in the 19th century soap became cheaper and towards the end of the century the middle class began to have bathrooms.
In the 19th century women used lampblack as eyeshadow. They also used rouge and at the end of the 19th century painting the lips became common. Meanwhile zinc oxide replaced white lead for whitening the face.
Electrolysis hair removal was invented in 1875. (Laser hair removal was developed in the 1990s).
The brush boring machine was invented by Mason Pearson in 1885. That made the hairbrush cheaper. Pearson also invented a rubber cushion hairbrush in 1885.
In the 19th century toothpaste was sold in jars until 1892 when Washington Sheffield invented the collapsible toothpaste tube. Meanwhile in 1888 the first modern deodorant was invented. It was called Mum.
In the 20th century the old puritanical attitude to makeup was forgotten and it was sold openly. With rising living standards women could afford more and more cosmetics.
Karl Nessler invented the perm in 1906. Then in 1915 Maurice Levy invented lipstick push up sticks in tubes. The new lipstick became common in the 1920s. Modern mascara was invented in 1913 by a man named T L Williams.
The film director D.W. Griffith invented false eyelashes in 1916. Women have dyed their nails for centuries but modern nail varnish was invented in 1917. The French manicure was invented in 1975. Meanwhile modern lip gloss was invented in 1930 and went on sale in 1932.
For centuries it was fashionable for women to have pale skin but from the 1920s tans became popular. Eugene Schueller invented sun screen in 1936. Women first began to shave under their arms in the 1910s. The first modern razor for women was made in 1915. Disposable razors for women followed in 1975.
The first synthetic hair dye was invented in 1907. For centuries women used hot tongs to curl their hair but in the 1930s permanent waves became common. Hairspray was invented in 1948. Meanwhile in 1923 Leo Gerstenzang invented cotton swabs (cotton buds).
In the late 20th century plastic surgery became common. The first face-lift was performed in 1901. The first silicon breast implants were fitted by a surgeon in 1962. The first liposuction was performed in 1974.
A brief history of women's clothes
A brief history of women's underwear
A brief history of washing
A brief history of hats
A timeline of cosmetics and washing
Last revised 2019