Outdated Beauty Advice: Cures for “Delayed Menstruation”

by Bonnie Downing

Last night I went to a CVS near my parents’ house in Westchester, and assumed the drugged-like shuffle of endless browsing. I enjoy big drugstores outside of the city because items tend to actually be in stock, since everyone in the city already knows about, say, the excellent 99-cent eyeliner and the $2.49 pomade that’s perfect for creating the slept-in hair promised by $20 jars of goo with names like Dirt or Slut (it’s called Murray’s Beeswax).

Plus, I get a deeper sense of discovery when I find weird stuff. Just like stories about adultery and murder are juicier when set against the suburban backdrop of bland normalcy, pharmeceutical oddities stand out when shelved next to extraordinarily comprehensive displays of Olay skincare.

Last night it started with a small green tin of Mutton Tallow. I know tallow is still used to make commercial soaps, but I’d never before seen it flat-out sold and recommended for skin in the present. “Since 1895,” the label bragged. I’ve been looking all over the place for tallow! See, my face is rather fleshless, my hands too ruddy:

A flesh-making cream, which may be used when the face is thin, is made from two and a half ounces of lanoline, a quarter of an ounce of spermaceti, two and a half ounces of freshly dried mutton tallow, two ounces each of cocoanut oil and oil of sweet almonds, half a dram of tincture of benzoin, and ten drops of neroli.
 — Margaret Mixter, Health and Beauty Hints (1910)

And to whiten the hands:

Take half a pound of soft-soap, a gill of salad-oil, an ounce of mutton tallow, and boil together; after boiling ceases, add one gill of spirits of wine and a scruple of ambergris; rip a pair of gloves three sizes too large, spread them with this paste, and sew up to be worn at night.
 — Mrs. S.D. Powers, The Ugly Girl Papers or Hints for the Toilet (1874)

It has come to my attention that tallow has its own Facebook page. Are you friends with mutton tallow? You can be.

Right next to the sheep grease were some lovely little flowered boxes of Humphrey’s Homeopathic Remedies. One remedy was for “Delayed Menses,” and I’m no fool.

An herbalist I once knew told me that women often came into her shop asking about herbs that were used to bring on miscarriage. In her line of work, if someone says their period is delayed, or asks for something to “bring it down,” what they want is an herbal abortificant. My understanding is that an herbalist is not legally allowed to instruct a woman on how to use and combine herbs to this effect. (Most books on herbal medicine classify abortifacient herbs simply as emmenagogues.)

Homeopathy is a different animal than herbalism, of course; the purportedly active ingredients are present in truly microscopic doses. When I got back to my parents’ house I looked to see what the internet had to say about Humphrey’s friendly helper. On Amazon, two out of three customers said they used the pills to “regulate” their periods and were satisfied. A third reviewer remarked:

“…the pills i order did not work, they didnt do anything for me at all, but i got them fast and they were cheap!” Sometimes that’s enough? I looked up Humphrey’s three ingredients in an online version of Boericke’s Materia Medica, a fundamental text of homeopathy originally published in 1927 and now in its ninth edition. All were indeed indicated for for menstrual and uterine issues, and also, almost everything else.

It was at this point that I lost interest in finding out whether an over the counter, all-natural, inexpensive abortion-pill alternative was being sold in CVS. My brain (and heart) were instead taken over by the found poetry of homeopathy. I’ve compiled a selection of conditions (personality traits? passing moods?) that are eloquently said to be treated with the following remedies:

Cimicifuga Racemosa (black cohosh)
Sensation of a cloud enveloping her
Great depression, with Dream of impending evil
Fears riding in a closed carriage, of being obliged to jump out
Wild feeling in brain
Tongue pointed and trembling.
Brain feels too large

Pulsatilla (wind flower)
The weather-cock among remedies
Mentally, an April day
Thirstless, peevish, and chilly
Fears in evening to be alone, dark, ghosts
Shrieking; during sleep
Sits quite stiff; still

Sepia (inky juice of cuttlefish)
Acts best on brunettes
“Ball” sensation in inner parts
Indifferent to those loved best
Pain in teeth from 6 P.M
Flabby feeling; internally
Dislikes; husband

Since my research on a cure for delayed periods was inconclusive at best, I offer this by way of prevention:

Fecundity may be prevented by many causes: such as a connexion physically or morally unsuitable, too early marriage, peculiar character or manner of thinking, strong passions, caprices, regrets, the notion of preserving beauty, intemperance, an abuse of pleasure, the embarrassment of a family, &c. In general, the most fecund women are of a sanguine temperament.
 — T. Bell, Kalogynomia, or The Laws of Female Beauty: Being the Elementary Principles of That Science (1821)

Previously: Embalm Your Armpits.

Sinister beauty expert Bonnie Downing collected tips like these in her first book, Peculiar Beauty: Three Centuries of Charmingly Absurd Advice. Now she’s writing a book about animals and needs a new agent. You can find her at peculiarbeauty.com and in Brooklyn.