Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Improving upon Nature: Beauty Training in the Regency Era

by Maria Grace

With so much at stake, success in the marriage mart not the least consideration, suggestions abounded as to how a young woman might improve her natural beauty. Recommendations were not dissimilar to those we see today, including medicinal options, diet, exercise and cosmeseutical preparations.

Medicinal Preparations

The digestive system was seen as the source of a great many ills. Those seeking a beautiful form were cautioned to attend carefully to the “stomach and bowels, as the prevalence of acidity or of costiveness will render all…other exertions useless.” (Corbould,1825) Laxative pills, acidity remedies, and even ‘spinal’ pills were suggested, with popular remedies offered for the improvement of health and spinal distortions.

One such recipe, Dr. Jarrold's Spinal Pills, recommended taking one drachm of burnt sponge, fifty grains of carbonate of soda to be mixed and divided into twenty pills; three to be taken for a dose twice a day, and the bowels kept open by laxatives for six weeks or two months. (Corbould,1825)

Beauty training

For those who sought more than pills and other nostrums could offer, beauty training might provide desired results. The process, which promised to ‘restore at least five or ten years of vanished charms’ and insure an addition ten years began with clearing the stomach and bowels with emetics and purgatives—reminiscent of today’s ‘healthful cleanses’.

Once the system was adequately purified, beauty seekers were enjoined to rise early at five or six in the morning. Before breakfast they should take a brisk walk from half a mile and up to three, depending on one’s strength. A similar walk or active pastime was recommended for after breakfast as well.

If one perspired or became damp during the exertion, one should attend to their clothing and skin before breakfast. The face and hands should be washed in cool water and the skin, particularly of the torso, should be brushed with a skin brush or rubbed with a soft cloth for ten to fifteen minutes using hair powder or friction oil to prevent irritation to the skin, if necessary, prior to donning dry clothes.

Another hour's active exercise was recommended before going to bed followed by a foot bath with tepid water and another session with a skin brush or nibbed cotton cloth. One should go to bed no later than ten in the evening.


Naturally, these recommendations also included dietary guidelines.

Breakfast: should be eaten early in the day, no later than eight o’clock, consisting of a plain biscuit (not bread), broiled (underdone and stripped of fat) beef steaks or mutton chops, and half a pint of mild bottled ale, though a small cup of black coffee or tea might be substituted for the ale that then would be taken three hours after breakfast.

Dinner: the midday meal was eaten at two o’clock and greatly resembled breakfast. Chicken or turkey might be substituted and a little rice or potato added. No vegetables were permitted, though.

Supper: the evening meal should be taken at seven or eight o’clock with tea or coffee if none was taken at breakfast, otherwise half a pint of mild ale. The meal should consist of cold fowl, or cold roast mutton or beef, but no fat, and occasionally an egg with a biscuit. Dairy products and fish were strictly prohibited

Interestingly, beauty seekers were encouraged to eat heartily at meals, but forbidden anything to drink between meals. (Corbould,1825)


In place of the braces and other contrivances of earlier days, mechanical exercises were put forth to “train up the youthful and delicate bodies of our daughters into elegance of shape and figure.” (Corbould,1825) Some of the suggestions were unique to the day, but others resemble modern equipment, both that which might be found in a proper gym and that which might be purchased through late night infomercials.

Carrying weights on the head

After noting the erect postures of those who carried weights on their heads, like those who wore heavy turbans or whose employment had them carrying burdens like milk pails that way, experts recommended those who wanted perfect posture do the same.

Some suggested exercising the muscles of the neck and back by balancing a small weight, like a powder-box on the front part of the head. Others believed the spine would instinctively straighten to support itself if a more substantial weight were used. Some suggested "a small footstool, covered with a flat cushion, being inverted, may be placed on the patient's head; the hollow between the feet of the stool will allow” a weight to be placed there, four to ten pounds being the most desirable amount. Once the weight was on the head, the person should then walk in a straight line for ten minutes at a time, several times a day. 

Weight training

Others suggested that posture might be improved by strengthening the muscles of the neck and trunk by the drawing of weights. Proponent suggested a machine of weights and pulleys that strongly resembles machines found in gyms today. A strap would be fastened around the patient’s head and attached to weights via a cord through a pulley. The weight would be raised and lowered by lifting and lowering the torso, not unlike a modern sit up.

Exercise couches functioned similarly, adding weights and pulleys to bed frames and couches to allow the exercise of the shoulders, arms, back and neck.

The chest dilator was a more formidable piece of equipment built upon a wooden chair with a convex back. The patient would sit in the chair, place her hands on the overhead bar, and draw a weight down and in front of her and thus strengthen the chest and shoulders. 

Hall exercise

Another approach to exercise encouraged otherwise indolent patients to engage in novel activities. A hall exercise mechanism that involved rolling balls down an upper ramp to a partner who would catch them and return them to her partner via a lower ramp provided one such novel activity. By such means patients who might otherwise be reluctant would be encouraged to stretch their muscles and improve their health. (Corbould, H. , 1825)

Posture Couch

After such exercise, the use of a posture couch might be used that the spinal muscles could be relaxed and the patient enjoy a change of position. The patient would lie upon their back and her position adjusted by the rollers on the frame. At night, the contraption might be converted into a regular bed for convenience. 


Surprisingly, bathing, along with friction to the skin, was considered an essential element of beauty-training, necessary for removing impurities and improving the flow of blood in the skin. However, beauty seekers were cautioned to remember the dangers of indiscriminate cold bathing, especially for those who were of a nervous or weak constitution. Warm baths were thought to stave off the effects of aging and be of particular benefits to the skin, especially when aromatic herbs or substances such as borax were added to the water. For those for whom bathing was not practical or possible, sponging and the use of the ‘flesh brush’ might provide an adequate substitute.

Recipe books replete with recipes for soaps, washes, waters, potums, salves and the like were available for who sought chemical assistance in their pursuit of beauty. The next part of this series will examine the much debated issue of bathing in the Regency era.


Buc'hoz, Pierre-Joseph. The Toilet of Flora Or, a Collection of the Most Simple and Approved Methods of Preparing Baths, Essences, Pomatums, Powders, Perfumes, Sweet-Scented Waters, and Opiates for Preserving and Whitening the Teeth, &c. &c. With Receipts for Cosmetics of Every Kind, That Can Smooth and Brighten the Skin, Give Force to Beauty, and Take off the Appearance of Old Age and Decay. For the Use of the Ladies. Improved from the French of M. Buchoz, M.D. London: Printed for J. Murray, Mo 12 Fleet-street and W. Nicoll, No. 51, in St. Paul's Church Yard, 1784.
Corbould, H. The Art of Beauty, Or, The Best Methods of Improving and Preserving the Shape, Carriage, and Complexion ; Together with the Theory of Beauty. London: Printed for Knight and Lacey ... and Westley and Tyrrell, Dublin, 1825.
Duties of a Lady's Maid with Direction for Conduct and Numerous Receipts for the Toilette. London: James Bulock, 1825.
Snively, John H. A Treatise on the Manufacture of Perfumes and Kindred Toilet Articles. Nashville: C.W. Smith, 1877.
The Art of Preserving the Hair on Philosophical Principles. By the Author of The Art of Improving the Voice. London: Printed for Septimus Prowett, Old Bond Street, 1825.
The book of health & beauty, or the toilette of rank and fashion: embracing the economy of the economy of the beard eye-brovs gums nails breath eye-lashes hands skin complexion feet ips teeth eyes hair mouth tongue, 8::- 81c. With recipes, and directions for use, of safe and salutary cosmetics— perfumes—essences-simple ‘vaters—depilatories, etc. And a variety “ select recipes for the dressing room of both sexes. 2nd ed. London: Joseph Thomas, 1, Finch Lane, Cornhill, 1837.
The Hand-book of Bathing. London: W.S. Orr, 1841.
The Hand-book of the Toilette. 2nd ed. London: W.s. Orr and, 1841.
The New London Toilet: Or, a Compleat Collection of the Most Simple and Useful Receipts for Preserving and Improving Beauty, Either by Outward Application or Internal Use. With Many Other Valuable Secrets in Elegant and Ornamental Arts. Containing near Four Hundred Receipts under the following General Heads. Perfumes Fine Waters Baths Cosmetics Conserves Confectionary Snuffs Pastes Wash Balls Scented Powders Pomatums Fine Syrups Jellys Preserved Fruits, &c. With Every Species of Cosmetic That May Be Useful in Improving Beauty, or Concealing the Ravages of Time and Sickness. To Which Is Added a Treatise on the Art of Managing, Improving, and Dressing the Hair on the Most Improved Principles of That Art. London: Printed for Richardson and Urquhart, under the Royal-Exchange, 1778.
The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion: Embracing the Economy of the Beard, Breath, Complexion, Ears, Eyes, Eye-brows, Eye Lashes, Feet, Forehead, Gums, Hair, Head, Hands, Lips, Mouth, Mustachios, Nails of the Toes, Nails of the Fingers, Nose, Skin, Teeth, Tongue, Etc., Etc., : Including the Comforts of Dress and the Decorations of the Neck ... with Directions for the Use of Most Safe and Salutary Cosmetics ... and a Variety of Selected Recipes for the Dressing Room of Both Sexes. Boston: Allen and Ticknor, 1833.


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn and Remember the PastClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


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