Spirits of Saturn was a fine, white powder that 17th-century women smoothed into their skin. Also known as Venetian ceruse, it hid smallpox scars, spots and blemishes, transforming faces into a fashionable pallor. It also slowly poisoned the wearer—it was made of powdered lead.
Over time, the powder caused teeth to rot, hairlines to recede and, in a particularly cruel twist of irony, the skin to shrivel and turn gray. Yet, for hundreds of years, European and Asian women dabbed lead on their faces. It’s not even the most unsavory preparation that women have used to whiten their skin. Ancient Roman women used crocodile dung; Japanese women preferred nightingale droppings.
Women have been powdering their cheeks, lining their eyes and rouging their lips for nearly all of recorded history. The story of makeup may begin even earlier—stores of red ochre found in Paleolithic caves suggest humans have been painting their skin for 100,000 years.
While ideals of beauty change over time and across cultures, some elements are nearly universal: fair, unblemished skin, ruby lips, alluring eyes. Psychologist Richard Russell ’97, who studies the biological underpinnings of beauty, believes he has figured out why.