History is fascinating, frustrating, and occasionally downright gross.1
In And By Fire—while my modern-day police detectives are chasing a murderous arsonist creating sculptures from burnt flesh—a pair of 17th century amateur detectives search for a friend gone missing during London’s Great Fire. During that hunt, Margaret Dove (a lady-in-waiting to the queen) and Etienne Belland (a royal fireworks maker) discover foul play in the supposedly accidental destruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and begin to wonder … did that same devilry lead to murder?
I consulted many sources—both primary and secondary—in creating Lady Margaret Dove’s story. The number of books I own on the history of the Great Fire alone form a dangerously teetering pile in my office. But today I am not here to talk about fire, but rather about the WORST historical beauty product I ever accidentally discovered.
While writing And By Fire, one of my favorites sources for details of everyday life in 17th Century Britain was The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer.2
It was in Mortimer’s pages that I discovered puppy water.
Yes puppy water—as something women used to use to wash their faces. As Mortimer writes: “It’s not what you’re thinking . . . I also thought it was puppy’s urine when I heard that Samuel Pepys’s wife bought some. . . .” No readers it is WAY WAY WAY WAY worse than urine. In fact, after I tell you what it actually is, you’ll be begging to employ puppy-pee in your daily beauty regimen.
You see actual 17th century puppy water—touted as a beautifier—is distilled puppies. There are multiple recipes (Mortimer lays out two examples) but first you must get your hands on dead puppies, or perhaps kill a few yourself next time your family dog whelps. Dead puppies in hand, it’s time to prepare your beauty aid—or presumably as a lady of means you will order some kitchen servant to do it. Whether you boil the dead puppies in olive oil with earthworms as an extra ingredient, or roast them first and go with snail shells instead of worms, you are ultimately left (after straining of course) with an oil you are expected to rub all over your face!
Mortimer informs readers that puppy water wasn’t controversial in Restoration England. That little tidbit frankly had me giving EVERY SINGLE woman I ran into during my character research the side-eye. Although to be fair—given the Brits of this era par-boiled executed prisoners to preserve their bodies and then hung them in cages along the Thames River as a warning to other criminal sorts—maybe puppy water shouldn’t have shocked me.
The jury is out, as far as I know, on whether puppy-water made women more beautiful. It was popular, but so are many beauty products today that are more puffery than proven science. I suppose the only way to resolve the question would be to resurrect a recipe and give it a try. But that’s a firm “no way” from me! And I suspect, dear readers, you feel the same.
1 I learned this over the course of my career as a multi-published historical novelist under the penname Sophie Perinot. Have you met Sophie yet? Click here to learn more.
2 Mortimer, Ian, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain: A Handbook for Visitors to the Seventeenth Century: 1660-1700 (New York, Pegasus Books Ltd, 2017)