10 Astonishingly Strange Beauty Rituals from the 1920s

The 1920’s seemed like the height of glamour — fringe dresses, sequins, feathers, bold eyes, and bolder lips! But it wasn’t always so glamorous. In fact, some of the strange beauty rituals from the 1920s were downright astonishing and not in a good way! Here are some of the stranger things from the world of cosmetics 100 years ago.

1. Eyebrows? Shave ‘Em!

Cara Delevingne would have had a hard time with brows if she were a performer in the 1920s. It was fashionable to have pencil thin brows — literally. Because the 20s brow style was so thin, most film and stage performers just shaved their brows off completely! Then, they could pencil on the thin, curved brow shape with none of that pesky natural hair to get in the way. And we thought the 90s were bad for over plucking!

2. Eyeshadow Right Up To the Brow

Now, you can find about 10,000 Youtube videos to show you how to do a proper cut crease eyeshadow look. But in the 20s, it was a lot simpler. Just use one color shadow and cover the whole eyelid all the way up to the brow!

Women could choose from mostly dark eyeshadow shades like charcoal grey, brown, deep purples, some greens, and indigo blue. For the most part, eyeshadow was only for special occasions or heading out to a speakeasy. When they did go out, women matched their shadow shade to their dress color and really piled it on.

3. Long Lashes Care of Mascara and Spit

Tube mascara wasn’t available until the 50s, so women of the 20s had to use cake mascara to darken their lashes. This little black cake was essentially soap and black coloring, not something we’d want to put near our eyes today. To make it worse, you had to add water to activate the cake and lots of women chose to use the most convient source of water — spit!

Cake mascara became known as “spit black” because so many women would either spit on the cake or stick their tongue on it to activate the mascara. Licking a bar of black soap seems like a pretty dismal way to get fuller lashes!

If you’re a Bésame Cake Mascara user, don’t worry. We don’t use anything like soap in our cosmetics. In fact, if you wanted to lick the cake, it would be perfectly safe. Though, we definitely don’t recommend it!

4. The Paler the Better

No need to get a tan in the 20s, pale was in! Actresses in particular often thought that ultra pale makeup made them look younger on camera. Since film at the time was very high contrast, using makeup that was closer to a natural skin tone often made faces look dirty or highlighted imperfections. So, they piled on the greasepaint.

Though actors liked being extra pale, makeup artists tried to dissuade actors from going for the ghostly look. In A Condensed Course in Motion Picture Photography (as found on Cosmetics and Skin) of 1920, the author wrote, “Some actresses think that the lighter they can make themselves the more youthful they appear whereas they only succeed in making themselves look like billiard balls.”

5. Cold Cream As Foundation

Even outside of stage and screen, women mostly had to accept an extra pale complexion if they were wearing makeup. They didn’t have the wide array of foundations we have now. They just had cold cream and powder. White powder.

To try to even out skin tone, women would apply cold cream then cover that cream in nearly white powder. Add this pasty visage to the pencil thin brows and heavy eyeshadow that was popular at the time and you’ve got a pretty shocking look! A lot closer to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? than The Great Gatsby.

6. Smooth Out Your Skin With Mercury!

Gourad’s Oriental Cream promised to beautify the skin and work almost by magic. Sadly, the cream had no magic and lots of mercury. This smoothing cream contained calomel, a mercury compound that would poison the wearer over time. Though women could wear the cream once or twice without ill effects, over time they might develop dark rings around the eyes, loose teeth, and black gums! 

The cream was available for decades, but the FDA started to regulate cosmetics in 1938. Calomel was no longer allowed, which means we’ll never again experience the “magic” of mercury-filled makeup. Or figure out what color "Rachel" cream was.

7. Why Use Rouge? Tattoo Your Cheeks!

The idea of permanent blush is still a little scary. But going under a tattoo gun in the 1920s seems utterly horrifying! In the Pathé newsreel above, a woman consults a doctor (maybe?) to get her cheeks flushed permanently. He puts on a dark powder, uses electric needles to apply, and in a few days she’s healed! We don’t really get a before and after shot, but hopefully the woman was happy with her new blush tattoo.

Tattooed makeup certainly wasn’t a common practice in the 1920s, but it shows how the desire to “look good” at any cost has been around for more than 100 years.

8. Amazing, Color Changing Lipstick

The idea of color changing lipstick seems very modern and still pretty magical (check out our Ink & Paint Lipstick for some real color changing wizardry). But lipstick that changes based on a persons pH has been around since the 20s. 

Tangee built their brand on color shifting products. Their lipstick looked tangerine colored in the tube (hence the Tangee name), went on clear, and transformed to a natural “your lips but better” shade that was slightly different on every person. One hundred years later, color changing lipstick continues to amaze.

9. Just Paint Half the Nail

Who says you need to paint all of every nail? In the 1920s, it was popular to leave the “moons” (the half circle by the cuticle) and tips of the nails blank, while painting the middle only. Basically, they’d paint an arched stripe across the nail and call it a day. It may not look like our modern manicure, but it would save a lot of money on nail polish!

Though you might think it was invented for Instagram, some ladies of the 20s had detailed nail art. It wasn’t common, but this Pathe newsreel shows a women getting a detailed manicure with a butterfly, star, question mark, and a lady’s face on each nail. It’s more daring than most nail art today!

10. Don’t Make Your Baby Ugly!

In the 1920s, it wasn’t just women that had to worry about their beauty, but babies, too! Mothers were told to “think pretty thoughts” so they would have a pretty child. If their thoughts turned ugly, then they’d have an ugly baby. Obviously, over the years we learned that this isn’t true. Firstly, your thoughts don’t affect a baby’s looks. Secondly, there’s no such thing as an ugly baby! Thankfully, pregnant women no longer have to monitor their every thought and we don’t have to worry about starting a beauty routine in the womb.

The 1920's were a fascinating (and strange) time for makeup, but all of cosmetics history is full of captivating detail! To find out more about cosmetics through time, check out Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup.

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  • Victoria Bork

    I find that the history of makeup and fashion is very interesting! I wish you would come up with a lipstick like Slicker in the 60’s that would stay pale/pearly and not darken or change color based on a person’s ph. I have confidence that you can do this!

  • Deborah Denaro

    Very interesting rituals! My microbladed eyebrows are fading so I will be in style again with my naturally pencil thin eyebrows ! I remember using cake mascara as a teen and using spit in a pinch. Oh, what we will do for beauty !!!! I wonder if in another 100 years microblading will be looked upon as a strange beauty idea?

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