A rare antique on Gumtree gives insight into Victorian beauty routines
This antique vanity case is on sale for R20k on Gumtree
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 upper-class women, 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 ladies 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 the owner 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 10 sterling silver-topped cut-glass 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. The ideal of beauty was extreme paleness, with dark lashes. Women would powder 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 was used as a natural blush or lip colour.
Your 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.”
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 1800s. 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. 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 it finds a home soon."
This article was paid for by Gumtree SA