Mrs Clay's Freckles - or the (not so) subtle art of Regency beauty adverts

7 Sep 2014

This advertisement is taken from the March 1809 issue of the regency women’s magazine La Belle Assemblee (or Bell’s Monthly Compendium for those who preferred their titles in English).    A popular magazine of the period, it featured articles, serialised fiction, poetry, fashion plates, sheet music and a sewing pattern (for all those accomplished young ladies that Mr Bingley met).   And, like the magazines of today, it also featured lots of advertisements persuading regency ladies to part with their money in order to become a more beautiful/fashionable person (which, of course, would help you to find a rich husband).   


As you can see, we have several examples in our handling collection at the museum.  This collection of regency objects is the one we use for visiting groups who want to learn more about Jane Austen and her world; this includes school and college groups who are studying one of Jane Austen’s novels, or adult groups who want to find out more about their favourite author.  Because none of the items actually belonged to Jane Austen, we can allow visitors to touch and handle these objects, which, in turn, helps to bring Austen’s world (and the world of her characters) more vividly to life. 


So how can an advertisement for a beauty product enhance our appreciation of Jane Austen?    In Persuasion (written here at Chawton Cottage, now Jane Austen’s House Museum) Jane Austen describes how Sir Walter Elliot has recommended the use of a beauty product called Gowland’s Lotion to his friend, Mrs Clay, in order to reduce the appearance of her (shock, horror!) freckles.  Nowadays, we try to avoid exposing our skin to too much sun for health reasons, but to a man like Sir Walter, exposing one’s skin to the sun meant you had a bit too much in common with, er, the common people, who, of course, were the ones who did all the dirty work (often outdoors in the sunshine).   Sir Walter includes sailors in this category; he dislikes the profession as it is ‘the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction’ and also that ‘it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man.’  During the course of the novel, we learn that his daughter, Anne, is in love with such a sailor, and she has far more admiration and respect for the naval profession than her snobbish father does (echoing Jane Austen’s own views; as you may know, two of her brothers were sailors). 


Reading the advertisement for Gowlands, one can almost hear Sir Walter’s condescending voice in the following statement:


What can be more painfully disgusting to the feelings than a scorbutic or pimply face, and yet how often do you meet with persons enduring the misery of an eruptive face for years, as if they had settled it in their own minds there was no remedy? 


As you can see, Regency advertising was not subtle.   And no safeguards were in place to protect the users of such products; for instance, Gowlands was highly abrasive and contained small amounts of mercury.  Poor Mrs Clay.  But beauty, as today, was big business.  In the same edition, there are advertisements for other beauty products; Macassar Oil (for the hair) as used by ‘most of the nobility’ (this product, incidentally, was the subject of a satirical print by Thomas Rowlandson published in 1814, which poked fun at the gullible customers who are using what is obviously a useless product); Catharmian Water ‘for the cure of all complexional ailments and beautifying the skin’; Huberts Roseate Powder for removing ‘superfluous hairs’ and ‘the celebrated’ Vegetable Polish Soap Paste ‘for softening, nourishing, and whitening the skin…even a trial of two days will convince of its superior virtues’.   I haven’t yet found an advertisement that recommends you use the product ‘because you’re worth it’, but you get the idea….


Jane Austen may well have seen these products for sale on one of her many visits to London, though there is no evidence to suggest that she bought or used any of them.  It is my feeling that she would not have been taken in by the extravagant claims of such advertisements.  The fact that it is Sir Walter and Mrs Clay (not sympathetic characters) who are using/recommending Gowlands, and not Anne, the sensible heroine, says it all.   


Martha Lloyd’s household book


What is more likely is that Austen would have used home-made beauty products instead.  Many household books of the period include receipts for such products, including the one we have in the museum collection which was owned by Martha Lloyd, who lived with Jane Austen and her sister and mother here at Chawton.  This handwritten book is full of recipes for the sort of food that would have been eaten by Martha and the Austens when they lived here (more of that another time); it also contains receipts for remedies (my favourite being the one that was meant to cure the bite of a mad dog – not that I would want to try it, I hasten to add) and beauty products such as cold cream, hand soap, milk of roses (a kind of skin lotion), rose pomatum (used mainly for the hair but sometimes for the skin) and coral tooth powder.   



Chawton Roses


Many of the ingredients used would have been grown in the garden here at Chawton, for example, roses and lavender.   For Jane Austen and her family, home-made products were safer to use and more economical. 


For those of you unable to visit the museum, I hope this post has helped to bring a tiny piece of Jane Austen’s world to life for you.  I will be sharing more of my favourite items from our handling collection in future blogs.   Watch this space…


Annalie Talent, Learning Officer


If you would like to bring a group to the museum to take part in a handling session, please email, or phone 01420 83262

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