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Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
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Extracts of Matters of Historical Interest from "The Huissier, News For and About the Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff" By The Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff
(July 15, 2006)
Makeup in Louisbourg, 1744
by Anne Marie Johah
In a letter written in January of 1749, Elisabeth Bégon, the colonial-born widow of the governor of Trois Rivières, told her son-in-law about his daughter’s experience attending her first ball in France. She reported that the girl, who had attended balls in Montréal, found the ball in France a beautiful assembly, but was shocked that the women were “barbouillées (thickly or roughly painted) de rouge.” Did the rouge surprise her because she was not used to seeing it? Other period descriptions of the appearance of the women of New France talk about clothing and hairstyle, and the use of powder for hair, but at this point, I have found no comments about someone wearing white makeup or rouge in Quebec or Louisbourg. This lack of information is not proof that makeup wasn’t worn, but it indicates that it was not common.
Makeup in the 17th and 18th century in France was a sign of status. The elaborate appearance of the courtier at Versailles should not be mistaken for the appearance of anyone who we, presenting Louisbourg, might call “upper class.” The highest nobility at court, men and women, wore makeup, white powder or paste and rouge, as a sign of their distinction, to assert their position. Wealthy bourgeois and lesser nobles, especially women, wore simpler makeup to enhance their appearance. We, like Élisabeth Bégon’s granddaughter, might not be pleased with the effect, but their goal was “heightened naturalism,” not a startling mask. It is important that discussion of 18th century court makeup, as it is a popular topic, should be in the context of the colonial experience of Louisbourg.
Approximately 80% of the women in the upper class of Louisbourg in 1744 were born in the colonies, either from bourgeois families or of lesser nobility. They, and their brothers, were not of the status to affect courtly makeup, or dress, for that matter. A study of the transcribed inventories and the import lists for Louisbourg did not produce any references to makeup, “maquillage,’ or “céruse,” the makeup based on lead oxide. There also were no references to rouge or rouge pots. There were only two mentions of “mouches,” small black face patches, one “boîte à mouches” belonged to a visiting merchant captain, another was part of the stock of a boutique. The well to do of Louisbourg owned a lot of powder and the import lists contained pomade. The pomade helped powder to stick to the hair or wig; the powder could also be used for the skin. Some inventories listed, just before or after the powder, a “boîte sauvage” or a “boîte d’écorce.” Some Louisbourgeois seemed to like a Mi’kmaw product, a birch bark box, possibly to hold their powder, on their dressing tables. Reference to European practice is a starting point for comparison and discussion, but the colonial reality often contained differences, adaptations to the new context, creating a story particular to Louisbourg.