As we are all washing our hands more frequently these days, and if you’re like me–singing a song to remember how long 20 seconds is when you wash, then you are likely consuming a lot more hand lotion in addition to your soap to combat dry fingers and scaly palms.
That got me thinking about what Shakespeare might have used to keep his hands smooth and free from cracks and dry skin, so I went looking into Elizabethan cosmetics, creams, and potions to find out:
Did Shakespeare use Hand Lotion? Here’s what I found out.
Using lotion dates back to ancient times. Skin care, and makeup, seem to be staples of human existence with examples of these innovations being present in almost every major civilization known to posterity. Early civilizations used beeswax, olive oil, castor oil, and rose water. These were brought into Europe by the Romans. Along with the Biblical precedence of using oil specifically as a balm or anointing oil, these approaches to lotion and skin cream seem to have had a strong history, which may explain why many of these ingredients were also popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
One of Shakespeare's sonnets utilizes some Elizabethan metaphors for ideal beauty
“My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more fair then her lips fair
If snow be white, why then, her breast is dun,
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks…”
Pale skin was a sign of nobility, wealth, and (for women) delicacy, and was sought after by many. In a time when skin problems and the pox were commonplace, sunscreen unheard of, and skin creams and ointments out of reach for all but the well-off, smooth, unblemished and pale skin was a rarity.
Taking care of your skin involved a host of interesting ingredients for Renaissance England, and while whitening your skin to look pale with specific whitening products was a staple for women in Elizabethan England, I am not focused in this episode on makeup so much as maintenance for dry skin. It’s notable that I am not able to find any references specifically to men using any kind of cream or lotion for their hands or face, but I’m sure it’s unlikely they would have gone without any of these items all together. I’m just not sure if there was any delineation between men and women in terms of which kinds of products were used for moisturizer. So here’s some of hte ingredients I found were used for moisturizing one’s hands (you can let me know in the comments if these ought to be grouped by gender).
Shakespeare History Activity Kits
Learn something new about William Shakespeare and his life in turn of the 16th century England with a history activity kit. Each kit includes a full set of step by step instructions, supply list, video tutorial, bonus artwork, and history guide to show you where that topic appears in Shakespeare's plays and research information into the Elizabethan history related to it. Choose your favorite topic to cook, create, and play your way through the life of William Shakespeare.
Make Your Own Quill Ink
Carbon & Iron Gall Ink
Antony and Cleopatra (and others!)
How to Make Marchphane
16th C Banquet Dessert
Romeo and Juliet
How to Make Tudor Soap
16th C Tudor Soap Balls (Non-Toxic)
To Make Oyntment of Roses
Take oyle of Roses four ounces, white wax one ounce, melt them together
over seething water, then chafe them together with Rose-water and a
little white vinegar.
Rose oil must have remained a great choice because there’s another recipe from just after Shakespeare in 1655, where Rose oil where Aletheia Talbot Howard, Countess of Arundel is credited with making an “oil of roses” out of red rose leaves and olive oil.
The recipe lists specifically that this method of infusing oil with herbs in a glass jar can be used to make a variety of oil with herbs, so it’s likely that olive oil was the real moisturizer in the Countess of Arundel’s version of lotion, and the herbs were just added benefit.
One specific lotion recipe presented by Danielle Nunn-Weinberg for her blog on Renaissance make up cites a recipe that was printed in a 16th century conversation manual. This blogger uses such extant recipes to inform their recreation of period costumes and period makeups (though, as she states they avoid the ingredients now known to be toxic). That recipe for lotion was supposedly quite common and included all of these ingredients:
The lotion is made up of Malmsey wine, white vinegar, honey, lily flowers, fresh beans, verdigreese, right silver, rock salt, sandiver, rock alum and sugar alum; every element distilled in a limbeck.
It was said to be very expensive but “it is in truth a very good lotion” so then, like today, you get what you pay for when it comes to cosmetics.
Thrоughоut thе High Middlе Agеs, many skin carе trеatmеnts cоmbinеd mеdicinal hеrbs with supеrstitiоus practicеs. If you’ve ever seen the tv show Outlander where Claire, the healer, goes into an apothecary shop to order herbs for legitimate medicinal purposes, she emerges from the shop under suspicion of witchcraft due to the various herbs and spices she bought. That fine line between medicine and superstition which is displayed in the show is not too far from the realities of life in Elizabethan England. Many women throughout the high Middle Ages aswell as through to the Renaissance would purchase herbs and oils in an apothecary shop to create their own lotions at home, often considered “potions”. The herbs were often crushed up, made into a paste, and soaked or combined with ingredients like milk, vinegar, or wine, to be able to make the herbs spreadable. Theywould then be slathered over the face or body, to treat the skin. Then, like today, there were favorite recipes and even some which claimed to be capable of producing magical results like getting rid of deformities, or embuing you with magical powers yourself if you used a magic stone like amethyst.
Popular ingredients known specifically for being good at moisturizing the skin int he 16th century included Frankincense and myrrh, anise and walnut bark.
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Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician known as the father of modern medicine, swore by the moisturizing powers of honey.
An archaeological team in London unearthed a canister from the 2nd century which still contained lotion from the period, preserved inside the canister. They tested the lotion and found it was a mixture of animal fat and a sulphurous substance. Animal fat as well as donkey’s milk were considered popular moisturizers of the Elizabethan period.
The Bible talks about lotions made from spices and olive oil. One Byzantine passage recommends a facial mask made of myrrh, egg yolks, aloe, and hot rose oil.
Olive oil was a popular moisturizer described by Homer as what Hera used before she seduced Zeus. It was considered a very good ointment for anti-aging, and some Greeks even suggested combining bread and milk then spreading that on your face in some kind of crumb mask was very good to prevent wrinkles. Hippocrates suggested wearing honey to bed was good for your face.
It seems hilarious to consider these lotion ingredients today, but many of these same ingredients, especially honey, olive oil, and rose oil, remain popular ingredients for moisturizers even in the 21st century. Perhaps the life of William Shakespeare isn’t that far removed from you after all.
If you are interested to explore this topic further, be sure to check out the show notes for today’s episode. I link to books and articles on this topic as well as cite the sources we used to put together this week’s episode. If you’re a student or researcher interested in a point in the right direction when yo uwant to learn more, the show notes are there to help with that. Find them at cassidycash.com/lotion
Be sure to subscribe to the channel for even more Shakespeare history every Saturday. I’m Cassidy Cash and I’ll see you next week!
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