Thursday, February 2, 2012

On Beauty ...

My paternal Grandmother died when I was eighteen.  Her passing was particularly sad for me because, having been raised many miles from London, where she lived, I had just started college a few miles from her home, and was enjoying popping in to see her on a Saturday afternoon, or dropping by on a weeknight.  She always sent me back to my digs with a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits (you Anglophiles know what those are), or she’d put a few coins in my hand, reminding me to call my parents – this from a woman who didn’t have a telephone.   

Nan had suffered a dreadful fall down a steep flight of stairs.  Her neck was broken, so we all knew she had very little time.  I remember my mother coming back from the hospital, where Nan had asked her to wash her face.  My mother told me, “It was like touching a baby’s skin, so soft and smooth.”  Her skin was something people talked about, it was so unblemished – and she had never worn make-up in her life.  That life had been a hard one.  She had left school – and home – at twelve to go into domestic service.  Her father brought her back at thirteen when her mother died – she was needed to care for the house and three younger brothers.  She married my grandfather in 1917 – a soldier who was still recovering from physical and psychological wounds sustained at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and who was about ten years her senior.  She must have been all of 18.  To the day she died, she never had a washing machine, but instead completed all her household tasks with little in the way of labor saving devices (I think she had a wringer, because I remember her telling me to keep my fingers out of the way when I was a little girl and had been sent to stay for a week in the summer), yet her face remained barely lined even to her death in her late seventies.

I remember visiting Nan when I was about sixteen.  I was sitting at the kitchen table when she stopped whatever she was doing – you hardly ever saw her sitting down – and took my chin in her hand and moved my face from side to side, scrutinizing me through her thick spectacles.  “Time to get you some rosewater and glycerine, my girl,” she said.  So that afternoon we walked down to the shops, stopping in at the pharmacy.  She asked for, “My usual rosewater.”  I watched as the pharmacist brought out two large demijohns, each marked in gold lettering.  He blended equal measures of rosewater and glycerine in a plain bottle, marked the label and handed it to her. It was cheap.  Much cheaper than anything else I’d been using on my skin. Nan instructed me that upon waking and before bed I was to soak a small ball of cotton wool with the solution, and to cleanse my face completely.  She also told me that the sun was not my friend. Why I didn’t stick with her advice, I don’t know.

I thought of Nan this week, while reading an article written in 1926 for a woman’s magazine, and I wondered how far we women had come, really, where care of the skin is concerned.  Tackling the question of what makes a fine complexion, here’s what the writer said: “To do her best for her appearance is every woman’s duty towards herself and her surroundings.”  Her surroundings?  Might my living room be doomed if I forget to moisturize?  Mind you, maybe our foremothers knew there was a link between personal care and a respect for one’s environment, and thus, one another. Or perhaps an untidy house leads to – heaven forbid – wrinkles!

Here’s something I think I always knew, but of course in a more modern article wouldn’t get a mention: the relationship between discomfort and poor skin.  Those women who came of age in the early part of the last century knew this.  Nan always said, “If you’re bad on your feet, you’re bad all the way through.” I never saw her in more than one inch heels.  And here’s what the author of the 1926 article said:  “Take for granted that your health is in trim, that you have no corns or sore feet that tend to giving your features a pained expression (the beginning of wrinkles!), and that you take a sufficient amount of daily exercise and fresh air.”  A suggested beauty regime followed, which I would basically describe as “soap and water” cleansing (and remember, soap was often pure of chemicals in those days), but then our writer asks the question, “Does the so-called beauty culture result in anything worth having?” 

Can you imagine that question in today’s magazines, when any regime seems to be worth having – and at great cost?  Here’s the 1926 answer:  “While some of it may be useful, a great deal of it is positively harmful.  The powders clog the pores, which are the ‘breathers’ of the skin.  The paints and lipsticks encase the face so that the captivating muscular twinkling movements stop; the dimples lose the art of ‘dimpling’ and every kind of animation of the face disappears.”

What would they say about Botox?

My grandmother’s face was beautifully animated.  Her smile was broad and her gray-blue eyes twinkled as a grandmother’s eyes should.  My father has her skin, and so does my cousin Celia, who took that sage advice and kept out of the sun.  Unlike me.

Unfortunately, I never kept up with the glycerine and rosewater, though I have always tried to keep things fairly simple regarding my skin. However, after sustaining a hamstring injury some months ago, I decided to take one of those joint and ligament supplements that are supposed to help with movement. I did my research and picked a good one, but missed the observation of many reviewers that, while their joints felt better, their skin was adversely affected by the supplement.  Uh-oh, if you could have seen my skin.  My grandmother would have brought out the carbolic soap and a scrubbing brush!  I was so miserable, and couldn’t bear to be near a mirror.  But Nan must have spoken to me from the beyond, because in my despair, I went online and found a bottle of Glycerine & Rosewater.  Within hours of applying the water, in the way my grandmother instructed, my skin had calmed, and a few days later, there was even a bit of a glow.  Now, many years after she took my adolescent chin in her hand and inspected my complexion, I know without a doubt that my grandmother knew best.

So, what tips about skincare did you learn from your mothers and grandmothers?  And did you stick with them?


  1. I'm convinced! I'm going to be looking for glycerin and rosewater. Sounds divine and so simple!

  2. My grandmothers both were farm wives in the dust bowl of western Oklahoma. Both of them kept their skin out of the sun and wore sunbonnets (which they made) along with housedresses and cotton stockings. Had they not been such hard working, gardening women, they would probably worn gloves to protect their hands too!
    The rosewater and glycerin sounds so soothing! perhaps I'll order some for a special Valentine treat!

  3. There is but one way—and it's so simple—of making oneself good to look upon. Resolve to live hygienically. There is nothing in the world which works swifter toward a clear, glowing, fine-textured and beautiful complexion than a simple, natural diet of grains and nuts and fruits. But you women—oh! it positively pains me to think of the broiled lobsters, the deviled crabs with tartar sauce, the pickles, and the conglomerate nightmare-lunches that you consume. And yet you're forever fussing over leathery skins, dark-circled eyes and a lack of rosy pink cheeks. Oh, woman! woman! why aren't you wise?
    From “The Woman Beautiful or, The Art of Beauty Culture” by Helen Follett Stevans (1899).
    You find the book at:
    Don’t you love Project Gutenberg!

    I actually used glycerine and rosewater in the sixties - in my early teens. All I use today is a good soap and water. Unfortunately I never knew my grandparents, so I probably learned that from my mother.

  4. My grandmother died when I was ten and I never asked her why her skin so so soft and unblemished. She always had a soft glow about her. She never used makeup, wore jewelry, other than a plain gold wedding ring, never dyed her hair, used nail polish or perfume. She did always smell ever so faintly of roses and to this day, I am now 61, whenever I catch a whiff of roses, I think of her. Perhaps she knew the secret.

  5. After reading this blog entry, I went looking for Rosewater & Glycerin. Bert's Bees makes it, no more costly than some of the harsher toners I have used, and it smells MUCH better: Bert's Bees Rosewater & Glycerin


  6. I am fortunate enough to be named for both my grandmother's, Dorothy and Louise. I never knew my paternal grandmother, Lousie died when my father was only twelve. They were very poor and had little access to health care. Dorothy ( Helen Witherhead Davies) lived to the age of 81 and died when I was 18 and in my freshman year of college. She was a private, quiet person and what did I know about her really? She used Castile soap and Mum deodorant. She always wore gloves. She had 5 daughters, my mother was number 4, and not one of her son's-in-law could ever say anything uncomplimentary about her. Having her visit was a very special treat indeed! Most of what I do know comes from stories from my mother Mary, an excellent story teller! Once when I was very young, Grandma commented to my mother that she must have "infinite patience" in dealing with me.

  7. I periodically use Bert's Bees Glycerin and Rosewater toner; I love the scent, and it is much gentler than any other toner I've used, but it does contain alcohol, witch hazel and a few other things in addition to the two title ingredients. As for advice from my mother, who worked for Marshall Field's years ago, in the cosmetics department: moisturize, moisturize, moisturize! And I do, and have for years, and I frequently get complimented on my skin. So that's one bit of advice from my mother that I have actually followed, despite being the rebel of the family (but I'm the middle sister, so what choice did I have??).

  8. Hi I was just wondering, it's equal parts of rose water to glycerin? My skin was rather oily after applying that and I stuck with it for some weeks. My skin was definitely smooth but just looked really shiny. Any thought?