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Chemists, Con Men and Conspicuous Claims

September 9, 2020

A gentle meandering through cosmetic science’s history books brings up some inconvenient truths about my professional peers of yesteryear. I feel it’s fair to say that some of these early chemists were full-on shysters (disreputable, unethical, unscrupulous), peddling cures and potions that ranged from outright dangerous to straight-out morally wrong. MY people (and yes, I feel obliged to ‘own’ them as part of my story) exploited Indigenous medical knowledge (biopiracy), said that your black skin could be ‘remedied’ with diligent scrubbing, that your thinness was unbecoming of a woman and your fatness slovenly. Oh and let’s not forget those who let their grey hair and wrinkles show. You, my dears have you let the side down and let yourself go. Damn those emotionally dead shit heads for the role they played in cementing our feet in self-loathing and enslaving us in this prison-of-the-self. Damn me for making my money in an industry that continues to do this.

In the west and countries into which westerners sought influence during the 17th and early 20th century (yes, not that long ago) something weird was going on. Chemists (aka Pharmacists/ Cosmeticians) and medical doctors competed with one another for patients, especially around daily gripes such as issues of the skin, digestion and lungs (?). During this time medically trained doctors were often too expensive or simply unavailable to the average person. There was no over-arching and legally regulated health care or pharmacy system and as such potions, ointments, creams and balms were largely unregulated, a situation that may sound attractive and freeing to some but also provided an opportunity for exploitation and quackery. This competition for hearts, minds and bodies spawned a whole industry based on ‘nostrums’ or patented medicines, goods that have now largely been replaced by OTC medicines, cosmetics and herbal preparations (loosely speaking). As you might expect during such a ‘wild west’ period, not all of these ‘cures’ were helpful and some were downright outrageous!

I love reading history and have a brain who’s joy is sparked Marie Kondo style when investigating both the origin of our ideas about ourselves and their rate-determining-step (how quickly they evolve and change). Now I can understand the desperation that comes with feeling physically ill or dis-harmonious and given the times, can see how easy it would be to fall for the slick advertising of yesteryear and slip some snake oil into my handbag – what other choices did most people have? That side, the truly medical side did start to get cleaned up pretty early in the 1900’s but the more cosmetic side of this story remained as outlaws for much, much longer, some might even say that it’s still the used car salesman of the science world today.

So, if I’m honest, the reason I enjoy doing this historical digging so much is because I just can’t understand why anyone would buy into a marketing scheme that insinuated the way their bodies present was somehow un-whole, in need of ‘fixing’, unworthy, unequal or unlovable. For me, cosmetics and personal care is an art space- an ‘icing-on-the-cake’ type of affair, a practice that facilitates and prioritises self-care and respect, something that restores and supports balance rather than fixes or erases reality. Why layer that over with somebody else’s crap?

When I say ‘I can’t understand’ I want to emphasise the word ‘can’t’ as a defiance rather than an intellectual or attitudinal deficit.

Oppositionality = The refusal to conform to the ordinary requirements of authority and a willful contrariness.

I want to stress that this is less about anarchism of society and more absolute freedom of self – a strength rather than deficit mindset. So, with that in mind I read history knowing that coded within these pages just as within ourselves, lies the key with which to break this lock.

In the meantime why not pop yourself over to the website of Caroline Rance at The Quack Doctor who has been studying this subject for many more years than me and who has uncovered some corkers including this below:
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