Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Eighteenth Century Courtship

Courting took place at organized functions such as dances, horse races and church. Dancing was an important courting ritual among the wealthy. It was considered a good way to determine a potential marriage partner’s physical soundness, as well as the state of their teeth and breath. Dancing taught poise, grace and balance, especially important to women who had to learn to remain in their “compass”, or the area of movement allowed by their clothing. Balls often lasted three to four days and took all day and most of the night. 

Women, then as now, had ways of making themselves more alluring.  Among the elite, cosmetics were commonly worn.  Almost everyone had a pock marked face due to the widespread scourge of smallpox, but a handsomely pocked face was not considered unattractive, only an excessively pocked one.  Flour, white lead, orrisroot and cornstarch were common bases to produce the esthetic of a pure white face. Over these red rouge was used to highlight cheekbones, in a manner that would be considered exaggerated by modern standards, but was most effective in the dim light afforded by candles in the eighteenth century. Lip color and rouge were made from crushed cochineal beetles. Cochineal was an expensive imported commodity; country women substituted berry stains. Carbon was used to highlight eye brows and lashes, which were groomed with fine combs.  The key aspects of the 18th century cosmetic look were a complexion somewhere between white and pale, red cheeks, and red lips.  The ideal woman had a high forehead, plump rosy cheeks, pale skin, and small lips, soft and red, with the lower lip being slightly larger thus creating a rosebud effect. Although bathing one’s entire body was not a regular occurrence in the eighteenth century, the daily washing of one’s face and hands was the norm in elite social circles.

An almanac essay entitled Love and Acquaintance with the Fair Sex assures us that men were incapable of “resistance” against a woman’s, “attractive charms of an enchanting outside in the sprightly bloom of happy nature; against the graces of wit and politeness; against the lure of modesty and sweetness.”  Of course some men felt uneasy about female allurements which could account for the introduction of a bill before the British Parliament in 1770 entitled, “An Act to Protect Men from Being Beguiled into Marriage by False Adornments”. The proposed act read, “All women, of whatever rank, age, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty's subjects, by the use of scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.”  To the everlasting regret of some the Act did not become law.

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