You Won’t Believe What Victorian Women Used For Lipstick

by Mimi Matthews

A Winter’s Walk by James Tissot, 1878.

Attitudes toward cosmetics in the 19th century were notoriously negative.  Queen Victoria herself denounced make-up as being “impolite” and mid-century magazines like the Saturday Evening Review declared that cosmetics were “insincere” and “a form of lying.” (Pallingston, 13) Even more damning, to most Victorians, make-up was considered the province of only two classes of women: actresses and prostitutes.

Did this mean that no one but prostitutes and actresses colored their lips and cheeks?  Not at all.  In fact, most beauty books from the 19th century contained at least one recipe for red lip rouge or red salve which a lady could use to add a bit of subtle color to her complexion.  These were natural recipes, with the red coloring generally derived from either the cochineal insect or the alkanet root.  In his 1846 book An Easy Introduction to Chemistry, author George Sparkes describes the cochineal as follows:

“This is a dried insect, which, when powdered, yields a brilliant colour both to water and to alcohol.  It is the basis of carmine…” (132)

Conversely, alkanet root yielded no color to water, but as Sparkes explains, it tinged “wax and oils” a deep red. (132)  The waxy base for rouge and salve, in its plain form, was white and could be used to heal chapped or cracked lips.  When cochineal or alkanet root was added, the shades of red varied from scarlet and crimson to the “coralline” shade that Meg March famously uses to redden her lips in the following scene from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

“They crimped and curled her hair, they polished her neck and arms with some fragrant powder, touched her lips with coralline salve to make them redder, and Hortense would have added ‘a soupcon of rouge’, if Meg had not rebelled.” (Chapter Nine)

Red lip rouge and lip salve were fairly easy for a lady—or her maid—to make up at home.  The 1892 book Perfumes and their Preparation includes the following basic recipe for red lip salve made with alkanet root.

fancy perfumePerfumes and their Preparations, 1892.

As an alternative, an 1884 red lip salve recipe in The Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts calls for “balsam of Peru” and oil of cloves. (124)  While the below 1881 recipes for red lip rouge and red lip salve from Old Doctor Carlin’s Recipes (483) require such ingredients as rice flour and oil of lavender.  Note that the red lip salve is colored with alkanet root, while the lip rouge is colored with carmine derived from the cochineal insect.

fancy lipsOld Doctor Carlin’s Recipes, 1888.

Despite the prevalence of recipes for red lip rouge and red lip salve, cosmetics in the 19th century were never entirely respectable. Natural beauty remained the ideal for the better part of the Victorian era. By the end of the century, however, attitudes toward cosmetics were gradually beginning to change. This was largely as a result of actresses, like Sarah Bernhardt, who routinely wore makeup in public. As author Madeleine Marsh explains in her book Compacts and Cosmetics:

“In the ‘naughty nineties,’ a decade that kicked off with cancan girls revealing their all at the newly opened Moulin Rouge in Paris and in which theatre and music hall became more popular than ever before, performers were certainly influential in promoting a more open use of beauty products.” (37)

portrait of aline mason in blue raimundo de madrazo y garreta 1841 1920Portrait of Aline Mason in Blue by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, 1841-1920

By the early 20th century, cosmetics were well on their way to becoming a mainstream commodity The first tube lipstick was invented in 1915 and by the 20s, 30s, and 40s, a powdered face, blackened eyelashes, and crimson lips were not only acceptable, they were fashionable.

As for the Victorians, despite their reputation for abstaining from make-up, it was not at all uncommon—or indecent—for a lady to apply a light dusting of powder to her nose or a touch of salve to her lips. If done with a light enough hand, these simple cosmetics served to enhance a woman’s natural beauty, all while remaining invisible to the naked eye. Was this deception? Dishonesty? Or some form of 19th century feminine false advertising? As always, I will let you be the judge.

This post originally appeared on

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