A 1905 Makeup Book, Starring Grease Paint and Racism

Theatrical makeup from the 1800s-1900s

Although we associate makeup with everyday wear, in the early 20th century people strictly used it for the theater. A plethora of grease and cream paints defined the performer’s features, set with powder if deemed necessary. Here makeup was at its infancy, long before influencers and fast makeup brands catapulted it into a $532 billion industry (and that’s just from 2019 numbers).

Luckily, a handful of makeup books from this time period still exist. Here’s a snippet from Making Up by James Young, published in 1905:

While I haven’t gotten through the entire book yet (it’s 197 pages long), the information it provides is invaluable. Grease paint is strongly preferred – an invention by the Germans, according to other sources – as it holds up to the rigor of stage acting. Cream paints are recommended for women, as it has a softer appearance.

Actors also used an unorthodox method for applying powder such as rouge, as detailed below:

Though “environmentally friendly,” I’m glad we’re no longer using a dead animal’s appendage to apply rouge. Things take another turn when we venture into Chapter 5, however, entitled “Types and Nationalities.”

Let me just say this…oh boy. This was 1905. Though declining in popularity, minstrel shows still lingered on, much like Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings. The early 20th century had a reputation for its racist stereotypes through not just theater, but film as well, such as Charlie Chan.

For the actor or actress in need of guidance, however, Making Up provided advice such as this:

The creation of specific grease paints to portray yellowface is a disturbing one. Worse yet, brands such as Kryolan continue to make face paints called “Chinese” or “Mandarin,” showing that the racism that tainted theater makeup still lives on today. I can’t say for certain if Kryolan is doing this intentionally, but it solidifies my desire to shop elsewhere.

Making Up also includes instructions on how to do blackface and redface, which, as you can imagine, is rampant with racist stereotypes. I won’t link to them here as frankly, that deserves to stay in the past. If you want to read this book for yourself, however, here’s a link via archive.org.

Leave a Reply