'For the Ladies.' John Strachan Looks at Women and Advertising in Late Georgian England

By Strachan, John | History Today, April 2004 | Go to article overview

'For the Ladies.' John Strachan Looks at Women and Advertising in Late Georgian England


Strachan, John, History Today


HISTORIANS HAVE in recent years paid little attention to the cultural significance of advertising before the 1840s, often dismissing pre-Victorian promotional copy as 'primitive'. Yet advertisements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are both fascinating and socially revealing. England in this period saw significant developments in advertising. Alongside the introduction of nationwide systems of product distribution and a growing awareness of the potential of brand and marketing, advertisers became increasingly sophisticated in targeting specific audiences in terms or region, social class and gender.

Both ordinary newspapers and periodicals intended for a female audience, such as La Belle Assemblee, The Lady's Magazine and The Lady's Monthly Museum, frequently targeted women consumers, often in gender specific terms. A great deal of copy-writing ink was spilt on endorsing clothing and cosmetics, and on the aspirations of contemporary ladies: to wear finer clothing, to have a beautiful complexion, to copy the fashions and personal appearance of those of a higher social status. The preeminent aspiration was to beauty. Early advertisements for Pears soap and cosmetics, which date from the 1810s, marketed the company's goods as 'modern appendages to beauty'. Ladies were urged to try

   Pears's Liquid Bloom of Roses and
   White Imperial Powder which, by
   beautifully tinting the cheeks and lips,
   bestows a delicacy to the female
   countenance.

Pears also marketed a toothpaste, which rejoiced in the exotically oriental name of Pears's Malabar Dentifrice ('for beautifying the teeth and rendering them a personal adornment to the decline of life'). Their most notable brand, however, was their wash ball, a brand which survives to this day, a honey-coloured soap which ensured that feminine skin remains 'delicately clear and beautiful':

   MODERN APPENDAGES TO BEAUTY
   --PEARS'S TRANSPARENT SOAP.
   This soap stands unrivalled as a
   Discovery of the highest
   importance, for its superior
   excellence in cleansing the
   skin, preserving it from the
   weather, sun, air, and co., and
   improving its appearance. It
   removes every blemish from its
   surface, and by due perseverance
   never fails to render it delicately clear
   and beautiful.

Such rhetoric excludes the gentleman consumer, of course, and sometimes cosmetic advertisers selling a product which might be used by both sexes addressed men and women separately, marketing the same product differently. For example, John Gowland's spot cream, Gowland's Lotion for 'cutaneous eruptions', a mid-eighteenth century product that was still popular in the early nineteenth century, was advertised in the Sussex Weekly Advertiser in February 1791:

   TO THE GENTLEMEN

   THIS LOTION is an EFFECTUAL, REMEDY
   for all SCORBUTIC and HERPETIC
   eruptions of the FACE and SKIN, from
   the most trivial to the most
   DISFIGURING and INVETERATE; from the
   smallest PIMPLE or TETTER to the most
   universally SPREADING Eruptions or
   Ulcerations. For redness of the NOSE,
   ARMS, or other part, and in short for
   every train and species of EVIL to
   which the Skin is liable, whether VIVID
   and INFLAMED, OR LANGUID and
   OBDURATE,

   TO THE LADIES

   It is an acquisition of the first
   moment to those Ladies whose Faces
   are impaired from the use of PAINTS
   and COSMETICS, as there is nothing
   which it performs as readily as the
   entire removal of those SALLOW
   EFFECTS; restoring ALMOST IMMEDIATELY
   the complexion to its natural Bloom.
   A moderate application of this
   Lotion on going to bed, allows
   the free use of paints in the day.
   as it infallibly PREVENTS their
   pernicious, as well as those
   UNPLEASANT EFFECTS on the SKIN.

Thus men were encouraged to conquer 'vivid and inflamed' cutaneous eruptions, which are portrayed as evil enemies, invaders of the body, while women were encouraged to worry about their personal appearance and the potentially malign side-effects of cosmetics. …

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