This Cheek Rouge Was The NARS Orgasm Of The 18th Century

by Mimi Matthews

 Self-Portrait by Marie-Gabrielle Capet, 1783 (National Museum of Western Art)

Circassian Bloom — also marketed as “Bloom of Circassia” — is perhaps the most well-known brand of cheek rouge from the 18th and 19th centuries. Along with such luxurious-sounding beauty products as Peach Blossom Cream and Alabaster Liquid, it was featured regularly in Victorian era newspaper advertisements. It was also frequently mentioned in 18th- and 19th-century fiction, including short stories in magazines and popular comic verses. Perhaps the most quoted of these verses is by the English poet George Crabbe, who mentions Circassian Bloom in his 1785 poem, “The Newspaper.” It reads in part:

“Come, faded Belles, who would their Youth renew,
And learn the wonders of Olympian dew;
Restore the Roses that begin to faint,
Not think celestial washes, vulgar Paint:
Your former Features, Airs, and Arts assume,
Circassian Virtues, with Circassian Bloom.”

Circassian Bloom was first advertised during the 18th century. A typical advert, as seen in a 1772 edition of London’s Public Advertiser, begins by declaring that “Circassians are the most beautiful Women in the World.” To enhance their beauty, the advert states that Circassian ladies have long been accustomed to using a “liquid bloom” to bring color to their cheeks. An enterprising Englishman claims to have duplicated the secret of this liquid bloom via an extract from a Circassian vegetable. The resulting liquid was reportedly superior to any other rouge on the market. According to the advert:

“…it instantly gives a rose Hue to the Cheeks not to be distinguished from the lively and animated Bloom of rural Beauty; nor will it come off by Perspiration, or the Use of a Handkerchief. A Moment’s Trial will prove that it is not to be paralleled.”

bloomcircassiaBloom of Circassia Advertisement, Public Advertiser, April 15, 1772.

Circassian Bloom continued to be used well into the Victorian era. It could be applied lightly with a swan’s down puff for a hint of color or with a heavier hand for a bright rosy glow. In the 1884 short story “Two Days in a Lifetime,” the character of Mrs. Boyd describes her own method for applying Circassian Bloom:

“…she went up to the glass over the chimney-piece and taking a tiny box from her pocket, opened it, and with the swan’s down puff which she found therein, just dashed her cheeks with the faintest possible soupcon of Circassian Bloom, and then half rubbed it off with her handkerchief.”

portrait of a lady with hat by anton einsle 1801 18711Portrait of a Lady with Hat by Anton Einsle, (1801-1871)

Though many used cosmetics in the Victorian era, for women of good breeding, the practice was not generally considered respectable. Face paint of any kind was regarded as the province of actresses and prostitutes. Cheek rouge was considered especially vulgar, with some publications comparing the ruddy cheeks produced by Circassian Bloom to the ruddy cheeks produced by excessive drink. Nevertheless, the cosmetics industry was flourishing and, as an 1870 edition of Harper’s Bazaar states:

“The time has gone by when it was a matter of church discipline if a woman painted her face or wore powder. Nor is it any serious reflection on her moral character if she go abroad with her complexion made up in the forenoon, however it may call her taste in question. All who paint their faces and look forth at their windows are not visited with hard names, else the parlor of every house on the side-Streets of New York might have its Jezebel waiting the dinner-hour and the return of masculine admirers.”

Even if a lady avoided the vulgar temptation of Circassian Bloom, it did not necessarily follow that her complexion was rouge free. There were countless methods for staining the cheeks, including strawberry juice, crushed geranium leaves, and — as Harper’s reports — rubbing one’s cheeks with a “red flannel.” There were also many recipes for homemade rouge made from ingredients which were gentler on the skin than the lead, bismuth, and arsenic which featured heavily in the popular cosmetic preparations of the 19th century. Homemade rouge was preferable for other reasons as well. As Harper’s points out:

“There are more tints of complexion than there are rose…By making her own rouge a lady can graduate her pallet—her cheeks—at pleasure.”

The 1883 edition of Beeton’s Domestic Recipe Book provides several recipes for rouge in which the red hue is derived from carmine powder or tincture of cochineal (a dried insect which produced a brilliant red color).

beetonsBeeton’s Domestic Recipe Book, 1883

Alternatively, Harper’s recommends adding carmine or flakes of indigo to a base recipe of the popular complexion wash known as Milk of Roses. The recipe calls for mixing:

“…four ounces oil of almonds, forty drops Oil of tartar, and half a pint of rose-water with carmine to the proper shade…Different tinges may be given the rouge by adding a few flakes of indigo for the deep black-rose crimson, or mixing a little pale yellow with less carmine for the soft Greuze tints.”

Despite the availability of recipes for liquid and powder rouge or for commercial products like Circassian Bloom, cheek rouge would never be fully acceptable in the Victorian era. Instead, beauty books and magazines urged women to cultivate good health and the naturally rosy cheeks resulting from fresh air and exercise. For those women determined to assist nature, beauty experts recommended a light hand. As Harper’s wisely advises:

“…if she must resort to artificial beauty, let her be artistic about it, and not lay on paint as one would furniture polish rubbed in with rags.”

maria branicka by franz xaver winterhalter 18651Maria Branicka by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865

This post originally appeared on and has been reprinted with permission.

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