Better living through 18th century chemistry
In 1744, Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst arrived in Russia, a minor German princess plucked from obscurity thanks to her dead uncle. That uncle had once been betrothed to Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Because of Elizabeth’s fondness for her dead fiancé, she selected Sophia as a bride for her heir, Grand Duke Peter.
But once married to Peter and converted to Orthodoxy, Sophia (now rebaptized as Catherine) found life in Russia more Hobbesian than she would have liked: solitary, nasty, brutish, and — if you were unlucky — short.
These early years in Russia shaped her understanding of power, relationship dynamics, and self-worth. At three different periods later in life, she looked back and wrote about these years, explaining how they shaped her destiny as the future ruler of Russia. The last version of these recollections, written a few years before her death, is what historians usually refer to when they mention her memoir.
Today, that memoir is surprisingly readable. It contains funny anecdotes about court life, pranks, mishaps, jokes, and the occasional home remedy for common ailments.
Let’s take a look at two of them.
In December of 1748, the Russian court left St. Petersburg to spend Christmas in Moscow. When they arrived, it was 28 or 29 degrees below zero, and Empress Elizabeth excused Catherine from going to church because of the excessive cold.
While bundled up inside, Catherine reminisced about her first visit to Moscow four years earlier. “I was obliged to remain in my room during my first stay in Moscow because of the excessive number of pimples that had broken out on my face; I was scared to death of being scarred.” ¹
So she sent for Dr. Boerhave, who gave her all kinds of potions — none of which worked. The doctor took pity on Catherine and said, “I am going to give you something that will really get rid of them.” ²
What was this magic solution?
Oil of talc. He told her to put a drop in a cup of water and wash her face with it once a week. Ten days later, Catherine’s zits were gone and she could appear in public once more.
But What the Heck is Oil of Talc?
It’s referenced by the English poet Ben Jonson (1572–1637) in To Sickness, when he bemoans the fact that illness seems to take the “best” women instead of the ones who do nothing but spend their husband’s money on crappy cosmetic and wellness procedures:
“[there are women]
That distill their husbands’ land
In decoctions; and are manned
With ten emp’rics, in their chamber,
Lying for the spirit of amber.
That for the oil of Talc, dare spend
More than citizens dare lend
Them, and all their officers.” ³
Turns out, Jonson really has a thing against oil of talc. He also smack-talks it in his play, The Alchemist:
“A lady that is past the feat of body,
Though not of mind, and hath her face decayed
Beyond all cure of paintings, you restore
With the oil of talc.” ⁴
But that still doesn’t tell us what it is.
Luckily, I found the recipe in an 1833 pharmaceutical supply book.
First, you need one part Venetian talc and two parts calcined borax. Pulverize and blend them, put them in a covered heat-proof container, and set it over the fire. Heat it for an hour until you get a mixture that looks like greenish-yellow glass. Grind it back into powder, then mix with two parts of “carbonate of potass,” then melt it all again over the fire. Drain the resulting lump — that liquid runoff is oil of talc.⁵
That sounds like straight-up alchemy to me, but I’m a writer, not a chemist. Let’s see what we can glean about those ingredients, shall we?
First, Venetian talc. Turns out, it’s a pearly green mineral embedded in serpentine, found in the Austrian Alps. Later, it would also be discovered in Vermont.
The second ingredient, calcined borax, is found in Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for breathing difficulties. In terms of topical use, borax is a cleanser and degreaser.
The third ingredient, potassium carbonate, is a white salt that’s one of the drying agents used to make modern soap.
My guess? Oil of talc was probably intended to help mop up the excess facial oil that can cause breakouts, and maybe counteract the redness or scarring. But it seems unlikely that Catherine’s prescription, one drop once a week, was going to help much.
I suspect that within ten days, Catherine’s breakout ran its course and cleared up naturally. I’m sure Dr. Boerhave was happy to take the credit.
In June of 1749, Empress Elizabeth commanded Catherine to join her in the country. But Catherine had already spent most of the spring and early summer riding outside, so she looked a little worse for wear.
The Empress was horrified by what too much sun had done to her skin. Catherine wrote, “Indeed, she immediately sent me a vial with a liquid composed of lemon, egg white, and eau de vie from France.” ⁶
Her ladies whipped up more of the concoction as needed, and Catherine reports that her sunburn disappeared within a few days. She became such a fan that she recommended the same fix for anyone else with red, chapped, or sunburned skin. “When the skin is heated, I know of no better remedy,” she wrote.⁷
Bonus: She reports that it also works on “an inflammation that makes the skin crack.” Based on the German word she used for this condition, the editors of my edition have translated this as “herpes.” ⁸ YMMV.
Ready to make your own?
You’ll need to get your hands on eau de vie (“water of life,” in French), a clear fruit brandy from the Alsace region of France. It’s distilled from fruits other than grapes, including pear, raspberry, plum, or cherry, and diluted with local spring water. After dilution, it’s 80 or 86 proof (40 or 43% alcohol). ⁹
Catherine doesn’t give us the ratio for mixing these ingredients, but since alcohol is a drying agent, it was probably used sparingly. My guess? Her vial contained beaten egg white with the juice of a lemon and a splash of alcohol. The egg white likely provided moisture, the lemon juice disinfected and possibly provided a bleaching effect, and the alcohol acted as a toner.
The upside? If your skin doesn’t look sufficiently refreshed, you can console yourself with the brandy.
¹ Catherine, Memoirs, 66.
² Catherine, Memoirs, 66.
³ Jonson, Poems, 105.
⁴ Jonson, Comedies, 446.
⁵ Rennie, Supplement, 434.
⁶ Catherine, Memoirs, 73.
⁹ Apple, Eau de Vie.
Apple Jr., R.W. “Eau de Vie: Fruit’s Essence Captured in a Bottle.” New York Times, April 1, 1998.
Catherine, Empress. Translated by Mark Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. New York: Modern Library, 2006.
Jonson, Ben and George Parfitt, ed. The Complete Poems. London: Penguin, 1996.
Jonson, Ben and Helen Ostovich, ed. Jonson: Four Comedies. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.
Rennie, James. A New Supplement to the Pharmacopoeias of London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Paris. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1833.
Thomson, Thomas. Outlines of Mineralogy, Geology, and Mineral Analysis, Volume 1. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1836.