An unusual antique listed on Gumtree gives unique insight into the gruelling beauty routines that women maintained in the 1800s…

The Victorian vanity was essential for the upper-class woman, who often traversed the country in search of an eligible husband. While beauty and appearances were crucial, the use of make-up was frowned upon and thus surrounded with a cloud of secrecy, as can be seen by the many hidden compartments and unmarked jars.

“Upstanding Victorian women could not wear obvious make-up but they definitely used it,” says Gumtree Marketing Manager Estelle Nagel. “This kit contains a few items that you won’t find in the average modern handbag, like hooks and corkscrews that would have been needed to open sealed medicine and perfume bottles. The high quality of the items and the box itself does suggest that she belonged to the upper- or upper-middle classes.”

Scissors were used to cut eyelashes, as the myth at the time was that it would make them grow back thicker

The box is fitted with ten sterling silver topped cutglass jars that would have likely contained a mixture of homemade and purchased lotions, which would have been made of almond oil, white wax and oil.

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The ideal of beauty was extreme paleness with dark lashes. Women powdered their faces with coloured starch, milk of magnesia, rice powder or chalk – which would often turn grey when exposed to the gas, candle and coal fumes that permeated their homes at the time.

Facial hair was darkened with charcoal, elderberry juice, Indian ink and burnt clove paste while beetroot acted as a natural blush or lip colour. The vanity might also have concealed a plethora of unpleasant weight-loss drugs, including cocaine, strychnine and tapeworm larvae.

“The make-up that would have been for sale in pharmacies and department stores were kept hidden and requested via mail order, but they often contained poisonous ingredients like lead, mercury and belladonna. Making your own sugar scrubs and face washes would have been a weekly chore.”

Baths were linked to health issues!

According to Therese Onei’s book Unmentionable, women would have been particularly focused on scents as baths were linked to health problems (including insanity!) and limited to once- or twice-monthly affairs. Hair was washed with ammonia or onion juice. Freckles were burnt off with carbolic acid and wrinkles treated by sleeping with slabs of raw beef over your eyes. Needless to say, perfume was a must-have item.

Fortunes of the gentry were starting to fade in the 1800. Women travelled with their jewellery to put their wealth on display – even if they didn’t have any money in the bank – in hopes of making a more attractive match.

Vintage case has a hidden compartment

The case features a lockable pull-out drawer at the front for brooches, rings and necklaces.

To the side there is a hidden compartment that opens with a pin in the top of the inside of the box. “Whether she used this to hide secret love letters or just an illicit lip balm, it certainly adds to the romance of the item and we hope that it finds a home soon.”

The box is for sale for R19 950 on Gumtree.

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