We know that prostitution is nothing new. Brothels are one industry that have the law of supply and demand down to an art form. What you might not know is that back in the day being a prostitute was not such a bad thing.
They came to the “wild west” boomtowns to escape the Victorian Era restrictions placed upon women. In the East where married women were not allowed to own property, where all women were barred from most employment, and had no recourse against being sexually assaulted by their husbands, the chances of women leading independent, wealthy lives were almost non-existent.
Women of The West
In the West, including Los Angeles things were much different. If we look at prostitutes in Los Angeles in the last nineteenth and early 20th centuries what we see is a group of smart, business savvy women who owned property, and made high wages. Some madams did so well financially they were able to provide free health care to the women who worked for them. They hired police officers to protect prostitutes from violence instead of accepting it as the norm.
The women who headed west and became prostitutes enjoyed a freedom they had never experienced. Not only were they financially independent, they had sex outside of marriage, danced, drank alcohol, used birth control, walked alone in public and more all without being ashamed. It was freedom-glorious freedom!
Beauty in The West
They also wore perfume, stylish clothes and makeup. Lots and lots of interesting makeup. Makeup was considered something “naughty” girls wore. If you were makeup you were either an actress which many people frowned upon or you were a prostitute, which many people also frowned up. This is why there were known as “painted ladies.” But these judgments didn’t stop these women from using makeup and being very creative about it.
They couldn’t just run down to Macy’s and buy the latest products. So they had to use what was around them to “paint” their faces. Sometimes the ingredients in products were what we know today to be harmful. Interestingly enough, the “natural” look was the in thing back then. The sun was a woman’s worst enemy because it caused freckling and tanning of the skin. So pale skin was what women wanted and many had to use makeup to achieve this.
Skin whitening, which is the practice of using chemicals and other substances to lighten the skin and provide and even skin tone by reducing the melanin in the skin became the practice. Women painted their faces with whitening products made from talc, bismuth, oyster shells and seed pearls dissolved in acid. Wan complexions, where the skin is not just pale but also pallid and often sickly looking was highlighted in an interesting way. Women used blue grease pencils or paste made from chalk, gum, Arabic water and blue die to draw veins on their faces to make them appear more pale.
Whitening may seem strange in Los Angeles of 2016 as we often think of it as the land of sun but in circa 1890’s this was what women had to do to meet the standards of beauty and make a living.
In typical wild west fashion, with everyone trying to make their fortune, druggists got into the cosmetics business as well. They sold products to help make the skin “radiant” with ingredients including mercury, lead and arsenic. Three things we know today are very dangerous to ingest or use on skin.
Arsenic was actually the go to ingredient for many beauty products of the day. It was used in facial washes and even available in a digestible form as evidenced in Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers. Advertised and promoted in Vogue and sold by low-cost retailers and catalogs, these solutions were promoted as providing clear and brilliant complexions not obtainable by external applications, as well as being beneficial to general health.
Makeup in Brothels
While we know women who worked as prostitutes and the women who ran the brothels that employed them in the Los Angeles of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s made high wages that doesn’t mean they did not look for bargains when it came to their makeup. Considered a luxury items, makeup could be expensive and also hard to come by. We know part of the “painted lady” mystique that many men found enticing was the fact that prostitutes wore makeup and did other things that were forbidden to nice girls. It is what helped make them seem even more naughty.
Sometimes you have to use what is at your disposal to get the job done and what was used for makeup in brothels was often what they could find in their kitchens. For example, with sun being the enemy that made women freckle and lose their pale complexion and Coppertone years away from being invented women made their own sunscreen. A recipe in an 1896 issue of the Los Angeles Evening Herald suggested that women bathe their face two to three times a day with buttermilk and wear a thin gauze veil for protection against the sun. Apparently they thought the moon could darken your skin as well because the article warns against excessive exposure to moonlight.
If heaven forbid a woman did freckle then she was able to make a spot or freckle remover of Pearl Water which included rosemary, wine and Spanish Oil soap. You could often find women scrubbing and scrubbing with these concoctions to remove freckles they were born with or those brought on by the sun.
Brothel Makeup Remedies
It is hard to imagine a prostitute in 1890’s Los Angeles without blush. Blush or rouge as it was more commonly called at the time gave color to the cheeks and helped promote a youthful appearance. Brothels got very industrious coming up with rouge for the women they employed. Here are just a couple samples of recipes they used to make their own rouge: Rouge, For the Complexion: One-part fine carmine power, five parts andlevigated French chalk, mix together and apply to face.
“Rouge, Liquid: Take carmine, 2 parts, pearl ash, 1 part, and water, 9 parts; mix. Rouge, Pure: Take safflowers, any quantity; wash them until the water comes off colorless; dry, powder, and digest in a weak solution of carbonate of soda; then place some fine cotton wool at the bottom of the vessel, and precipitate the coloring matter by gradually adding lemon juice or white vinegar till it ceases to produce a precipitate. Next wash the cotton in cold water, then dissolve out the color with a fresh solution of soda; add a quantity of finely-powdered French chalk, proportional to the intended quality of the rouge; mix well, and precipitate as before; lastly, collect the powder, dry with great care, and triturate it with a minute quantity of oil of olives, to render it smooth and adhesive.”
Prostitutes made their own mascara as well to darken both lashes and brows. They often used blackened cork, elderberry juice or burned cloves. If they wanted it to stay on while they would sweat, which as you may imagine was and is an important part of makeup for a naughty working girl, they used frankincense, resin and mastic.
Beauty and Imperfections
An interesting standard of beauty during this period and often used at brothels was something called White Eyes. This is when women would put drops from a Belladonna plant, which is a poisonous herb, in their eyes. These drops enlarged the pupils which was thought to make women more attractive and seductive. Both useful tools for prostitutes Bella Donna is Italian for beautiful lady so the plant was certainly trying to lie up to the standards of the day as women were told to “bathe your eyes in prussic acid to enhance their whiteness and brilliancy.
There was more than one way to cover up the imperfections of a woman’s complexion. The finer houses or brothels used good lighting helps to mask imperfections. Wisely used candlelight, chandeliers in boudoirs and dimmed electric lighting in parlor rooms all helped show women in the most flattering way possible.
Women in Los Angeles in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s who worked in brothels absolutely had a lot of freedom from East Coast conventional norms. They also worked very hard for their money and part of that was learning to use makeup and adapting local ingredients to make their own cosmetics. They may have been naughty girls but they were very resourceful naughty girls. If for some reason, cosmetics were not affordable, as they were considered a luxury, they would improvise by rubbing their faces with bread crumbs, eating chalk, slate, and tea grounds; sucking on lead pencils or sipping vinegar. For those who were truly unable to afford makeup and wanted to look pale they even resorted to being bled. A truly horrific and barbaric solution.
While this bit of history is truly fascinating doesn’t it make you happy you were born in the age of Macy’s when you can just hit up the Clinique counter?