Nostradamus: philosopher, astrologer, and perfume guru

Most of us associate Nostradamus with portents of the future. But, in 1552 he also published 2 recipe books: one on preserving fruits, the other for producing articles of the toilet. Here is the introduction to a translation of his work: "TWO BOOKS by the renowned and highly learned philosopher, astrologer and physician, Michael Nostradamus.

"In which a true, thorough and complete account is given as to how a disfigured body, be it of man or woman, may be externally embellished, beautified and rejuvenated as well as the correct and proper methods of preparing all kinds of aromatic, precious and potent lotions, powders, oils, soaps, perfumed candles and musk balls for use against all kinds of infirmities. And how, in the second part, all kinds of fruits may be preserved in sugar in the most skilful and delectable manner and stored against a time of need. Originally written by him in the French language; now, however, for the benefit of our fatherland, it has been translated into ordinary German in the most excellent manner by Hieremias Martius, appointed Doctor of Medicine at Augsburg.

"Not to be reprinted - by order of His Imperial Roman Majesty. MDLXXII." (1572)

Sublimate (1552)

This sublimate is one of the most excellent lotions in the world for whitening the complexion, for it makes the skin white as snow, without any kind of harmful after-effect. Moreover, it does not cause wrinkles, nor does it harm the teeth in any way, but imparts to the face a sheen which looks as natural as if it had been inborn. Its effect is such that, were a member of the fairer sex with blonde or raven hair to have spots on her face and were she to be as much as fifty-five years old, if she were to use this lotion, her forehead and cheeks would look as if she were just twelve years old. It is indeed such an excellent lotion that even if a man were to come very close to the face, he would not be aware of anything unusual, but would believe it was naturally that whit... Furthermore, if a member of the fairer sex were to begin to use this lotion at the age of fifteen, twenty or twenty-five, for the rest of her life her complexion would remain exceptionally beautiful, so that even in her sixtieth year she would have the appearance of being only twenty..."

The first ingredient in this well-lauded lotion is mercuric chloride, and it pretty much goes downhill from there. It includes lead, tin, and mercury, plus the spittle of a young man. And you know it's a bad sign when "it should be put in a mortar which is made entirely from wood, because neither copper nor iron must be allowed to come into contact with it."

Source: The Elixars of Nostradamus, 1552

Elizabethan Sunscreen (1589)

If the Face be smeared with the white of an Egg, It will not be Sun-burnt. With us, women that have to do in the Sun, to defend their Faces from the heat of it, that they may not be black, they defend it with the white of an Egg beaten with a little Starch, and mingled; and when the Voyage is done, they wash off this covering with Barley-water."

This recipe is interesting, because while you can occasionally find concoctions on how to heal sunburns, this is a rare preventative measure. While there is nothing harmful in it,  I doubt it would work; you are much better-off using modern sunscreens. Remember, no matter how dark your skin is, the sun's UV rays will still do damage.

Source: John Porta, Natural Magick: Of Beautifying Women, 1589, in Latin; English translation 1658.

To make washing balls (1615)

To make very good washing balls take storax of both kinds, benjamin, calamus aromaticus, labdanum of each a like; and bray them to powder with cloves and orris; then beat them all with a sufficient quantity of soap till it be stiff, then with your hand you shall work it like paste, and make round balls thereof."

Soap formed into scented balls was a popular commodity of the 17th century, and into the 18th and 19th. (And, who has not encountered scented soap today?) This recipe features all vegetable matter: storax and benjamin (aka benzoin gum) and labdanum are resins, calamus and orris are roots, and cloves are flower buds that you probably have in your spice cupboard already.  If you are making this at home, use whatever scented ingredients you like, and it helps to grate the soap beforehand.

Source: Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, 1615

Musk and civet perfumes. (1829)

Take 2 penny-weights of pure musk, 12 grains of civet, and 1 penny-weight of the residuum of spirit of ambergris. Make this into a paste, with 2 ounces of spirit of musk, made by infusion. Powder it with loaf sugar, and mix in 16 pounds of fine hair powder."

These three scents-- musk, civet, and ambergris-- were extremely popular in 17th, 18th, and 19th century perfume recipes. They are all animal-based and very strong; consider the proportion of scent to powder in the recipe above. They are almost impossible to obtain naturally now; musk and civet cannot be taken humanely from the animal, and ambergris is rare and expensive.  They have all been replaced by synthetics in most cases... and, to the civet cat and musk deer, this is all for the better.

Source: Mackenzie's Five Thousand Receipts, 1829

Dress to suit your complexion (1568)

Let us set the case of one whose complexion is pale but lively; let her beware of the bright colours, except it be of white, as are the greens, yellows, changeables, and bright colours of that sort. Let those ladies whose complexion is wan dress almost alwaies in black. Those who have a certain ruddy liveliness in their faces, which makes them as constant tipplers to behold, let them wear dark lion-tawny or russet. Red is the colour in general the most pestilential and sorts itself to no complexion whatsoever. And contrariwise white agrees well with the most part of ladies, given that they are still in the flower of their youth..."

This text was first written in Italian, by a man who wished to address (and, one suspects, poke fun at) many of the practices of ladies that vexed him. In the form of a dialogue between an older woman instructing her younger kinswoman, he touches on (his opinions of) dress, behavior, cosmetics, and more.

Source: Rafaella of Master Alexander Piccolomini, or rather A Dialogue of the Fair Perfectioning of Ladies, 1568

Ladies beware: your artifice may be discovered (1829)

Place a little oxide of bismuth on a white dish, and pour over it some Harrowgate water. Its beautiful white colour will instantly be changed to black. It is well known that this oxide, under the name of pearl white, is used as a cosmetic by those of the fair sex who wish to become fairer. A lady thus painted was sitting in a lecture room, where chemistry being the subject, water being impregnated with sulphuretted hydrogen gas (Harrowgate water) was handed round for inspection. On smelling this liquid, the lady in question became suddenly black in the face. Every person was of course alarmed by this sudden chemical change; but the lecturer explaining the cause of the phenomenon, the lady received no farther injury, than a salutary practical lesson to rely more upon natural than artificial beauty in future."

Stories similar to this abound in the 19th century, in which a celebrated beauty is suddenly exposed as a cosmetics-user by the chemical reaction that turns bismuth oxide (a white powder) black.  As a note: this same source, while including this story that preaches natural beauty over artificial, also contains the recipe to make bismuth pearl powder.

Source: Mackenzie's Five Thousand Receipts, 1829

Perfumes (1882)

The strictest moderation is required in the use of perfumes, else they become very offensive and disagreeable. Musk and patchouli should be discarded, as to people of sensitive temperament, their odor is exceedingly unpleasant. Cologne water is good and never offensive."

While this author disapproves of musk, it turns up in a large number of cosmetic recipes in the 19th century (and earlier), often combined with its close companions, civet and ambergris. All three come from animal sources and are very strong-smelling so a little goes a long way-- and a good thing too, given the prohibitive cost, both then and now. Musk and civet cannot be obtained without harm to the animal so they have been banned in many places and replaced with synthetics.

Recipes for cologne water vary; they consist of an alcohol base with added scent, much like modern perfumes.

Source: Deportment and Social Culture, 1882

Cosmetics: Atrocious or Acceptable? (1899)

I am always a bit amused when anathemas are hurled at the present use of cosmetics, particularly when a hopelessly-soured and pitilessly-unattractive female or a blatant, tobacco-smoking, spiritously-odorous male addresses me on the subject. I read from time to time of the untold millions we women are spending annually for our paints and powders, and of all the good we might do were we not so given over to vanity and deceit. I have been assured by men who should know, if experience go for anything, that no good woman at any time of the world ever painted her face. I have had Jezebel thrown at me with a pertinent verse of Scripture attached, and with such spite that one would think I personally am accountable for that most trying woman and had given her the formulas for the paints and eye darkeners she adorned herself with before going out to the capture of King Jehu. As a matter of actual fact, whatever one's opinion may be as to the morale of the question, cosmetics have been used by both good and bad women as far back as we can learn anything of the personal customs of the sex, just as wine has been drunk by priests and sots, by gentlemen and cads, and will be used and abused so long as men and wine exist.

I am not an advocate of indiscriminate painting of the face, of hair dyeing or bleaching, because all are usually unpleasant and perceptibly artificial and unbecoming in their results, but I certainly think a woman should be her own judge in the matter, and the subject is one she is entirely competent to study for herself without masculine interference or dictation... There are times in a woman's life, when, if she be wise, she will attempt to repair the damage of years and care...

Here is a late-Victorian passage that establishes at least 2 things (according to this author): That many women of the time regularly wore cosmetics, and that many other people disapproved of their use.   What seems generally agreed-upon, from this and other sources, is that when cosmetics are used they should not be obvious, but should imitate the natural look. The author goes on to suggest a few recipes for whitening and rouging the face, with instructions on how to make their use undetectable.

Source: Harriet Hubbard Ayer's Book, 1899


"A method for getting rid of spots on the face" (1552)

to be used at night so that they disappear completely and do not reappear, except when one continually stays out in the sun. It also rids the face of red moles and blemishes." Take six drachms each of squirting cucumber roots, lily bulbs, daffodil bulbs, the roots of adder's-tongue or cuckoo pint, mallow or ivy with fresh berries, our borax, date stones, bitter-almond kernels and cherry stones, one drachm each of white coral, bean flour, fig-seed flour, crystal, cuttlefish bone, axungiae vitri, rock salt, woodbine, gypsum, whitest marble, gluten and juniper berries and half an ounce of white lead. Grind it to a fine powder and, as far as is possible with the metals, soften it and knead it with very fresh oxgall for almost a whole day. Then make small pills from the mixture, each weighing about one drachm.

When you want to use one, place it on a piece of marble, mix it with fine honey until it is like a salve and is hot. When you want to use one, place it on a piece of marble, mix it with fine honey until it is like a salve and when you go to bed at night, rub your face with it while it is hot. 

When you get up in the morning, boil some beans, but make sure no traces of pod remain and that they have previously been soaked in water until they are half-saturated. While the water is still hot, wash your face with it, then dry it with a sponge which has been moistened with white wine, rose-water and spittle. If you do not want it to have such a sheen, use only the rose-water.

When you look in a mirror you will wonder where the spots on your face have gone. It is suspected that this is what Dioscorides used when the heat of the sun brought him out in spots while he was looking for herbs. I have used it in Savona for the wife, now a widow, of M. Bernard Grass and for the bride of M. Johan Ferlin of Carmignol. You should have seen the wonderful things it achieved in the course of one night. I had intended to use it on several people in the neighbourhood, but I have to say that I live among simple people who have nothing in common with educated people and are extraordinarily inexperienced in all the liberal arts."

While it's interesting to read, don't actually try this one; not only does it have lead, several of the herbs listed are known skin irritants, and did you catch the part about spittle? The note at the end is amusing, too!

Source: The Elixars of Nostradamus, 1552