Monday 18 June 2012

Beauty Tips From An Old Penguin

Looking beautiful in the 1950s must have been a full-time job for a woman. Even at night there was no let-up. You were advised to sleep with an elasticated band tied ‘fairly tightly’ under your chin and knotted on top of the head (to prevent a double chin),  to don bed socks and cotton gloves (so the creams smeared on your feet and hands would not mark the bedlinen), and to brush your eyelashes with rum and castor oil before retiring. All this – and more – I have gleaned from a yellowing edition of The Penguin Book of Health and Beauty Recipes, by Olga Golbæk, with the most delightful illustrations by Jennifer Rope. Originally published in Denmark, this English translation was issued in 1957 as a Penguin Handbook (PH25), when it cost half a crown, or 2/6 - that’s 25p for those of you who are too young to know about ‘old’ money.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order, from ankles to wrinkles, and is best summed up by a quote from the preface, which states: Its purpose is to persuade women that they can look nice and keep fit by using homely recipes and remedies rather than the expensive products of the beauty-parlours. The author, described as a Danish beauty specialist and journalist, includes a lot of advice which still holds good today, but some of her ‘recipes’ sound quite dubious. There’s a lot of emphasis on ‘slimming’ lotions, potions, creams and baths, which would land a modern writer in a lot of trouble, because you can no longer make that kind of claim for a product, which is a jolly good thing really, especially when you look at some of Golbæk’s ingredients.

For example, there is Goulard’s Lotion which, according to the book, is lead lotion, so how safe would that be? And would ammonia in the bath really be good for your skin (let alone the surface of a plastic bath)? And I can’t say I’d fancy adding turpentine to the bath water either. And should anyone be using iodide of potassium, potassium bromide, potassium chloride, scilla maritima and ground lily roots in home-made cosmetics? Then there’s the most scary recipe for hair bleach, with an alarming warning about not keeping it in a corked bottle in case it explodes...
Tying an elasticated band around the head to prevent a double chin
There’s also a pretty worrying ‘apple-a-day diet’ which seems to .involve eating nothing but grated apple for an entire week, which is not to be recommended, because crash diets are not good for you. In the dim and distant past I once tried an egg and grapefruit diet, and another  time I attempted to only eat bananas for seven days: on both occasions I felt very ill indeed, and the weight I lost went back on within 24 hours as soon as I resumed normal eating. There was also a wine diet, about which the less said the better. Suffice to say I have never been fond of wine since then...

Anyway, enough of my dieting mishaps. Let’s get back to the book. I just love the hints and tips, although I doubt I shall follow any of them. Take the eyes for example, where the author tells us: “You should rinse your eyes twice daily, a practice which not only makes them more beautiful, but helps to preserve their vigour.” And what do you wash them with, I hear you ask. Golbæk offers various solutions, but I think the mix of camomile flowers, tea, rosewater and witch-hazel sounds nicest.
A facial compress is made from layers of gauze soaked in infusions.
There’s an amazing remedy for corns, where you to soak thin slices of onion and two slices of white bread in vinegar for 24 hours, then put the bread and the onions on the corns and wrap gauze round them. “By next day the pain will have gone and the corns be ready to be removed,” writes Golbæk, adding: “Sleep in socks to avoid soiling the sheets.” Would it were that easy! To help soften and sooth sore feet she recommends soaking them in a ‘soft porridge’ of oatmeal and lemon juice, then massaging them with camphor oil – just imagine how bad that would smell!

Many of the ‘recipes’ for bath, hair and skin treatments are centuries-old, and may well work – and you’d certainly have fun making them, especially those using fresh fruit and vegetables. Failing all else, you could probably eat some of them, as the author makes generous use of milk, cream, butter, eggs, porridge oats and bran.
Women were urged to wash their eyes twice a day, using
home-made lotions.
Surprisingly, some recommendations are for things that have once again become popular, like massage rollers for the back, and juicing fruit and vegetables. Instructions for exercises are very sound, and the tips on cleansing and moisturising skin are also sensible, but the whole thing seems to be taken to excess. There are exercises, routines and preparations for every part of the body: elbows must be scrubbed and soaked to keep them soft and white, ankles massaged with special creams to stop them thickening, and the bust splashed with cold water after a bath.

I cannot see how any woman ever found the time to follow this kind of beauty regimen, or why she would want to, especially if she had children or a job (and don’t tell me that women didn’t work in the 1950s, because many of them did). Perhaps they just followed certain things and ignored the rest, or perhaps it was only well-heeled, middle-class women, who took it seriously. At any rate, I feel sorry for all those men, who must have experienced a terrible shock when they saw their beautiful bride in night attire for the first time, with chin strap, bed socks, gloves – and smelling like mothballs!
Elbows had to be scrubbed and soaked once a week.


  1. I love the idea of a wine diet! This book sounds like fun. A girl at school used to put turpentine on her pimples. It had a very distinctive smell. I don't think it worked either!

    1. Sounds horrid! I think it was used in animal treatments, like horse liniment and stuff, in the 20s and 30s.