Finding Beauty in Baker:

A Fille de la Charité. Henri Bonnart (France,1642-1711)

Nature's Coin.

‘drinke of it in the morninge; & eveninge & this shall

putt the spots a way…,

In 1871, well outside our 17th century timeline author George Steinman in writing a memoir of Barbara Villiers, mistress to Charles II commented that physical attractiveness was ‘an instrument of ambition and a conduit to pleasure…’ In my own life time I remember my grandmother telling me that a woman’s face was her fortune and after the age of forty it was a choice of either your figure or your face as it was best to carry some weight on the former to plump out wrinkles on the latter.

However beauty wasn’t just the prerogative of court ladies and twentieth century adolescents. If we look closely amongst medicines for dropsy and distemper and recipes for custards and the stewing of racks of mutton we can recognise Margaret Baker between the pages of her Receipt book and through a 'beauty' lens as a woman with the agency, self-knowledge, status, connections to empire, chemical knowledge and economic means to beautify.

Lady at her Toilet c. 1650-1660 (unknown)

It was the discovery of The Lady Croon's recipe for pomatum (f.106.) that started me thinking about the possible inclusion of 'beauty' in Bakers receipt book and looking carefully I noted approximately twenty-eight references to beautifying physic. With research into Baker's identity already having been carried out as part of the EMROC project, it was unlikely that I would be able to add any new data to what was already discovered. Yet assessing how she made face powder; whitened her hands, blended 'waters for the face' and stopped 'hair from falling and grow thick' was going to allow me to personally engage with Baker and situate her within her seventeenth century context. (ff.51, 109).

While Lady Croon appears to be the author of the pomatum recipe the contributors name "Mistress Anne Corbett" is written in the margin. If Mistress Corbett had passed on the recipe directly from Lady Croon then both recipients of this particular means to make the pomatum would have shared in an aristocratic social network or at least aspired to one. Alternatively the recipe could simply have come into Anne's possession another way. In this early modern context Lady Croon's pomatum is more than a means by which to create a beautifying substance; it is a transference of knowledge, a form of ‘gift’ given and received affirming bonds of friendship, social standing and aspirations.

Pomatum as a greasy, waxy, or otherwise water-based substance it was used to style hair before varying amounts of powder was then applied. Powdered hair was a sign of class identity making it reasonable to assume Baker may have, on occasion, attended polite gatherings and so styled her appearance accordingly. To know how to dress the hair and look after your skin required 'both self knowledge and inward identity and knowledge beyond ones self reflecting an understanding of the body, it’s cultural and social meanings.' (Snook, 7) In a patriarchal society in the absence of of wider legal and political representation, this was powerful information.

Political Beauty

It can be argued that the early modern face and body was the blank canvas upon which identity, class, and race could be applied. For Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle beauty and, in particular, fair white skin was political. Born in 1623 she had lived as a young woman through the Civil War (1642-47) something Baker must also have been influenced by, making them contemporaries but we are not aware to which side Baker aligned herself.

Alternatively Cavendish, by insisting her mother was ‘a woman with perfect skin and politics’ polarized the Stuart belief that fair skin was the trademark of class privilege, social order and familial harmony. She could see the political value in beauty, the respect it could command. An inflammatory idea at the time of the civil war it linked fair skin to the Royalist cause.

While not everyone was of the privileged class women still recognized beauty as nature’s coin and a means by which they could forge identity within their own domestic structures and hierarchies. Of course, the real achievement for women was not the face and body they showed the world. It was more the the female knowledge of how to manipulate nature through chemistry and alchemy in order to transform basic materials into healing and beautifying physic. Despite the inflammatory idea of Cavendish's idea that fair skin was indeed political it did little to deter women's desire for whitening powders.

Bakers recipe book contains 'a delicate powder for the face' (f.97.) which is 'most excellent' a sign of efficacy it clearly having been tried and tested.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

Baker's second powder recipe is for 'oyle of talcume' (f. 21,) and appears to have been a labour of love to make, considering at one point in the process it needed to be...

'by a rope let it doune into a well some yard & a halfe or two yardes from the water nere to the well soe it touch it not' & soe let it hang .20. or. 25. daies then if you find that it begine to cast out some oyle take it out of the well & set it in some moyst place, in some corner of your seller to defend it from the ayre: wind or other harmes & soe leaue it soe longe untill all the liccor become out of it.'

The finished result was powder that once mixed with water enabled the washing of the hands and body the result being 'it will make them very white, soft and free from freckles or spottes - good for ladies'

Interestingly the fact Margaret Baker could produce beautifying physic shows that she as a female could afford the ingredients to make them. There are however relatively few make-up items as we today would understand them, but there are many gender neutral cosmetic preparations as was common in seventeenth century. Her products include items to 'take away heat and pimples in the face','to make a clense from spotts', 'waters for the face','to take away freckles', 'to stop hair falling and grow thicke', 'to take away chapped hands', and to keep the face smooth'. (ff.14, 44, 51, 83, 109, 49, 92). In addition there are instructions for making 'a butter to curl the hair', 'to make hands soft and white', 'make a perfume' and to perfume gloves'. (ff.94, 85, 31, 98).

Connections to Empire

At first glance this list of products appears domestic, and uninspiring. Yet there is a connection to the world outside the domestic rooms often used to make them. Connections to empire can be found in the increasing amounts of luxury ingredients available to those women who could afford them. In making some of her beauty recipes Baker was buying into the expansion of the luxury market. With a growing foothold in India via the East India Company traders could now import silks and spices. Stored in warehouses they in turn sold these commodities onto grocers and apothecaries shops from which Baker was able to purchase ingredients to make her perfumes.

I was alerted to her participation with empire not only in the use of ingredients in her culinary recipes where she uses wines and quantities of sugar in order to make "sugar cakes" (f.88) but also in her use of Civit and Ambergris for perfume.

Title page of Sir Hugh Plat's Delights for Ladies (1609 edition)

Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade (London, England), Friday, April 20, 1694; Issue 90. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes civet as a ‘yellowy brown unctuous substance with a strong musky smell, obtained rom the sacs or glands in the anal pouch of several animals of the civet genus.’ Similarly it describes the wax-like substance known as ambergris as 'a secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale, found floating in tropical seas and used in perfume manufacture.

It would not be until the eighteenth century that alternative base notes would be used allowing some perfumes to become increasingly more fragrant in conjunction with improvements in basic hygiene. Today ambergris and civet continue to be used though there is a vast range of scents to choose from. In Baker's seventeenth century it was predominately the aromas of musk and spice that most effectively covered body odour. (Moeran, 3)

We can see the use of civet in Bakers recipe for perfumed gloves (f.98). Spanish and Italian glovers settling in England in the sixteenth century had established the practice to sweeten the smell of leather having undergone the tanning process. Common fragrances were either cinnamon or cloves but the more expensive gloves were infused with musk, civet, ambergris and spirit of roses.

The fact Baker is perfuming her gloves is a significant social comment. Suggesting damask rose water is used in the first line of her recipe could signify her gloves were expensive suggesting a level of wealth. Yet it is just as plausible her gloves were only made of linen. If so, we can see an earlier connection to the Lady Croon's pomatum in this manuscript. In both cases their inclusion may point to Baker as a woman with social aspirations.

Bakers instructions as to how to perfume gloves are similar to those found in 17th Century manuals such as Sir Hugh Plats 'Delights For Ladies' that were considered part of a woman's 'secret knowledge.' (Rankin & Leong 172). This manual gives instructions on how to perfume up to eight pairs of kid-skin gloves at a time proof that women knew how to redress the leather at home (Dugan, 150).

Mary Doggetts recipe for perfuming gloves in the 'spanish manner' instruct that the gloves be anointed until they ‘swim with amber (ambergris) and ‘drink up the ointment’ emphasizing the Spanish ingredients of ambergris, civit, and musk'. Again echoing Bakers recipe it is suggested the gloves are then 'Rowled up in fair paper very close so they do not lose their smell’ then ‘layed 3 nights under the first bed quilt of the bed you lie on' (Dugan,150).

Baker's links with empire rest with the transference of geographical, specialist and domestic knowledge, in the connections with foreign markets and the sourcing of ingredients resulting in and the smells of luxury infusing the early modern kitchen. (Dugan, 151). It also gives us a social link to Baker via her gloves. Was she wealthy enough to afford expensive gloves that she would have wanted to keep scented? Or, was she simply buying into the early modern expansion of empire and perfuming cheaper gloves to give an impression of status? Until we know more biographical detail about Baker it can only be supposition.

Though we think of beauty as a female preserve it was also contextualized within male viewpoints and male spheres. The beautification of women both pleased and distressed men and was less about women’s own feelings toward themselves as patriarchal anxieties. There was a tendency among men to trivialize aspirations of beauty as vanity especially from a religious stance yet from a female perspective beauty was associated more with health and the preservation of what had been God-given (Snook, 21). It is reasonable to assume that this is the reason there are few outright cosmetic recipes in Baker and more preparations for face washes. These were designed to transform the skin rather than cover it. Similarly hand ointments were not only used with the intention of removing blemishes but to keep hands soft as a way to avoid it drying and cracking and becoming susceptible to disease.

An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower of David Teniers the younger,. c. 1610-1690.

Mercury appears in several of Bakers recipes;-

Top, (f.12)

Bottom, (f. 62.) a salve for scalds and burns mentioning ‘brimstone and quicksilver’ at first glance a devilish concoction.

Having said that, mercury, a poison, was used by Baker in both her medicinal recipes and beautifying physic. Not just an ingredient, its use put her within the recognized masculine sphere usually reserved for male practitioners of medicine, surgery and science. However, in relation to one particular beautifying physic (f.12v.) it appears that Baker is attempting the impossible.

An anomaly arises in the title 'the taking away ‘quicksilver from mercurie’ as the Oxford English Dictionary affirms that mercury and quicksilver are in fact the same. However alchemist Robert Boyle, Baker's contemporary explains that through a system of depuration or continuous distillation and reduction common quicksilver will run from the purified form of mercury left behind which is then suitable for more sophisticated use. (Boyle 645). In Baker's case she is able to produce a 'perfect water to keep the face cleare from spots or wrinkles'

To be familiar with such details is proof of Bakers intellect, her interaction with ideas of the day, the scope of her reading material and an ability to 'transform' on both a chemical and alchemical basis. This is also a testament to her engagement with scientific experiment either by herself or in possible collaboration with others, an indication of significant female agency. (Snook, 30).

In conclusion, finding beauty in Baker has been an interesting exercise. Her beautifying physic has been largely ambiguous as it has not always been 'cosmetic' as understood by the modern mind. However they illustrate the ideas that early modern women largely considered beauty to be a state of outward good health. As well as being politicized by Margaret Cavendish fair, white skin was considered an indicator of 'wellness' with illness marked out against it described in terms of rashes being red and skin being yellow through jaundice. As a consequence it has also been possible see women as producing beautifying physic for their families and friends as a way to preserve health. Finally, in the absence of detailed biographical information it has been possible through a beauty lens, to catch a glimpse of Margaret Baker, a woman of means and intelligence behind manuscript V.a.619.

Karen Bowman


A Fille de la Charité. Henri Bonnart (France, 1642-1711) - Image: Gallery:

The_Milkmaid.jpg Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lady at Her Toilet - Unknown Artist, c. 1650 Dutch, The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund, Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Margaret Cavendish (1661-1717)

Embroidered Leather Gloves, C.17th century.

African Civet.


Newspaper archive/ Burnley Collection Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade (London, England), Friday, April 20, 1694; Issue 90. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Delight for Ladies (manual) By Sir Hugh Plat -,

An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower of David Teniers the younger.

Baker, Margaret. Receipt Book of Margaret Baker, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. (f.12).


Archer, J. ‘Women and Chymistry in Early Modern England: The Manuscript Receipt Book (c. 1616) of Sarah Wigges’, pp. 191-216 in K. Long, ed. Gender and Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Culture (Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate, 2010).

Boyle, Robert, The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle: In Six Volumes. (London 1772)

Dugan, Holly. The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England. (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2011.

Heal, F. ‘Food Gifts, the Household and the Politics of Exchange in Early Modern England’, Past and Present 199 (2008): 41-70.

Moeran, Brian. 'Fragrance and Perfume in West Europe' in The Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, edited by Joanne B. Eicher (Oxford: Berg, 2010).


Rankin, Alisha, (Author),Leong Elaine (Ed) Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800 (Routledge, 2011).

Snook, Edith. Women Beauty and Power in Early Modern England. (new York, Macmillan). 2011