Blood letting and Burdock

Whose face is not worth sunburning . . .

Over two weeks of almost constant sunshine is not usual for May – what is expected after so much sunshine is the lobster impressions delivered by so many of the great British public who every year forget just how hot and intense the spring sunshine can be.

Today’s sunscreens work either by absorbing the damaging ultra-violet light and converting it into heat, or by reflecting this light and scattering it away from the body. Of course there is always the option of a wide brimmed hat, long sleeves and leaving the shorts in the cupboard. With today’s sun protection reliant on modern chemical understanding, I wondered for example how the 17th century occupants of Oak House might have coped with prolonged periods of sunshine in the 1600s.

It is actually not all that easy to find recipes for sun screen in the various herbals and commonplace books where I have discovered various plague ‘cures’ and ‘preventatives’ which I’ve written about recently, as well as such delights as a baldness cure made from bee ash (yes – that is ash made from ground up burnt bees), mouse droppings and rose water (well you’d want it to smell nice wouldn’t you!). The idea of a ‘healthy tan’ is a twentieth century invention, emerging from Coco Chanel’s famed comment in 1929, “a girl simply has to be tanned”. Before this a tanned face and arms (everything else was kept covered up as a matter of decency!) were associated with outdoor work. A nice pale face and skin was associated with the leisured middle and upper classes who didn’t have to toil in the fields. So if you had to go out in the sun, and you weren’t working, as well as a high necked dress, parasol and gloves…

Take Deer’s Marrow, put it in a sufficient quantity of water with Wheat-flour, and let them settle; then take some ounces of what subsides to the bottom and mix it well with a sufficient quantity of the whites of eggs. Plaister your face with the said Paiste when you go to bed at Night, and wash yourself the next morning with warm water. This method is excellent to prevent sunburn (Le Camus: The Art of preserving Beauty, 1775).

Oak House museum sunset

The paler the skin (contrasting if possible with rose coloured cheeks), was the aim, and all sorts of concoctions and devices were used, from ceruse (a lead-oxide and vinegar paste) as a face paint (it would also act as a rather effective sun-block!) which was usually removed with a mercury facewash, to anti-sun masks referenced by Shakespeare in his ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’:

But since she did neglect her looking-glass

And threw her sun-expressing mask away

The air hath starved the roses in her cheeks

And pinched the lily-tincture of her face . . .

Randle Holme, in his Acadamie of Armourie (1688) described one of these masks:

This is a thing that in former times gentlewomen used to put over their faces when they travel to keep them from sun burning. It covered only the brow nose and eyes, through the holes they saw their way; the rest of the face was covered with a chin-cloth. Of these masks they used them either square with a flat and even top, or else the top cut with an half round; they were generally made of black velvet. The second form of mask is the Visard Mask, which covers the whole face, having holes for the Eyes, a case for the nose, and a slit for the mouth, and to speak through; this kind of mask is taken off and put on in a moment of time being only held in the teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside over against the mouth.

Drawing by Wenceslaus Hollar : Hollar drew English women of different classes in the middle of the 1600s showcasing their clothes and fashions.

But if you did catch the sun, then home made remedies were the norm. These were very often the same of very similar to the cures used for all manner of skin disorders and burns and scalds. I suspect most outdoor workers were well tanned and kept reasonably covered up – this as well as the lack of interest perhaps amongst middle class apothecaries and doctors in treating the poorer classes results in only a limited number of cures compared with more widespread illnesses. If you were sunburned and could afford a visit to the surgeon, the usual response was as with any burn, alongside cooling salves made from mint, aloe vera or tormentil, mixed in butter, oil or egg white, a prolonged session of blood-letting! Burdock leaves in vinegar appear to have been used in colonial America but I’ve not come across any references to this use in England in the 17th century.

It looks like the best of the weather is gone for the moment so I don’t suppose anyone will have need of my ‘advice’. But hang on to it – I’m sure the sun will be back before the autumn!

ps don’t try this at home

Frank- Business Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage.

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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