Given the long association between a pale, flawless complexion, red cheeks and lips with European ideals of health and beauty, it is not surprising that rouge has a long history of use. It was so well thought of that when the use of ‘paints’ was criticised, many nineteenth century writers made an exception for it.

Red and white being the only paints used on the skin, we shall here briefly treat of them. If ever paint were to be proscribed, we should plead for an exception in favor of rouge, which may be rendered extremely innocent, and be applied with such art as to give an expression to the countenance, which it would not have without that auxiliary. White paint is never becoming; rouge, on the contrary, almost always looks well.

(“The toilette of health, beauty, and fashion,” 1834, p. 89)

As raw materials and recipes for producing it were readily available, individuals in the nineteenth century could make their own rouge; however, by the second half of that century, the trend was towards purchasing rouge that was ready-made.

Devoux French rouge is thus prepared: Carmine, half a drachm; oil of almonds, one drachm; French chalk, two ounces. Mix. This makes a dry rouge.

(“The ugly-girl papers,” 1875, pp. 66-67)


Before the advent of modern dyestuffs, the reds used in cosmetics were obtained from naturally occurring animal, vegetable and mineral sources, many of which were also used to colour textiles, paints and foods.

Animal Red: Carmine was extracted from the dried bodies of the cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus), a native of Mexico and Central America. Cochineal, and the carmine extracted from it, was introduced into Europe following the Spanish conquest of the Americas after which it largely undercut and replaced a similar carmine made in Poland. It was very expensive to produce and often adulterated. Many nineteenth century writers issued warnings about this and included tests that readers could use to determine if the carmine they purchased was pure.

The makers of rouge, out of economy, sometimes substitute cinnabar for carmine. You should ascertain if carmine be genuine, which will be the case if it is not altered either by the mixture of salt, of sorrel, or by that of alkali.

(“The duties of a lady’s maid,” 1825, p. 299)

Vegetable reds: Vegetable reds included cathamine produced from the flowers of safflower (Carthamus tinctoria), alkannin extracted from the roots of alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria), alizarin derived from the roots of the madder (Rubia tinctoria), Brazil wood and red sandalwood. Of these cathamine appears to have been the most important, its use rivaling that of carmine.

Mineral Reds: The mineral reds included lead tetroxide (red lead, minium, calx of lead), mercuric sulphide (cinnabar, vermillion) – both of which were poisonous – and ferric oxide (iron oxide, ochre) which is perfectly safe and is still used in cosmetics today. The toxicity of red lead and cinnabar were well known to nineteenth century writers and they often advised their readers not to use them.

[D]angerous reds are those compounded with red lead, or cinnabar, otherwise called vermilion, produced by sulphur and mercury. Vegetable reds, therefore, should alone be used, since they are attended with little danger, especially if they are used with moderation.

(“The Art of Beauty,” 1825, p.189)

Unfortunately, not all nineteenth century writers were so careful.

ROUGE is prepared from carmine, and the colouring matter of safflower, by mixing them with finely levigated French chalk or talc, generally with the addition of a few drops of olive or almond oil. … For common purposes, vermilion is used; and it is sometimes prepared for this purpose by mixing it with a few drops of almond oil and of mucilage of tragacanth, placing the mixture in rouge pots, and drying it by a very gentle heat.

(Beasley, 1878, p. 237)

The problem of toxic mineral reds in cosmetics continued, at least in the United States, until the 1920s when they were prohibited by law (deNavarre, 1975, p. 965).

Forms of rouge

Rouge was available in a number of forms in the nineteenth century. Red pigment could be mixed with talc or French chalk to form a powder (rouge en poudre), combined with a fatty/oily material and wax to form a pomade (rouge en pommade), or dissolved in a solvent to produce rouge infusion (rouge liquide) usually referred to as a bloom.

Bloom of Roses. (Liquid Rouge.)
Carmine, No. 402 drachms.
Aqua ammonia, FFF½ ounce.
Alcohol, 60°2 ounces.
Gum Arabic½ ounce.
Rose-water, triple1 pint.
Otto of roses10 drops.

Rub the carmine and gum with the aqua ammonia in a porcelain mortar, and a portion of the rose-water, when dissolved add the alcohol slowly and the balance of the rose-water. The perfume to be dissolved in the alcohol. Lastly strain.

(Cristiani, 1877, p. 151)

Rouge could be purchased in small pots (rouge en pot), glass bottles, on saucers (rouge en tasse), on paper or foil made up into little booklets (rouge en feuiles), in impregnated fabric (rouge en crépon), or in saturated cotton pads (rouge d’Espagne). Depending on how the rouge was made and the user’s preference, it could be applied with fingers, a camel’s-hair brush, a hare’s foot, a cotton wool pad, a powder-puff or a piece of fabric.

Given the variety of different forms, it is not surprising that nineteenth century names for rouge varied considerably, recipes for products with identical names differed, and a name was no guarantee against substitution or adulteration. For example, rouge made with cathamine could be referred to as Rouge de Carthame or Rouge Végétal but if it was used to make a brighter rouge for theatre use, then it could be called Rouge de Théàtre.

One way to avoid the problem of buying poor quality rouge was to purchase it from a trusted supplier. Sellers of rouge and other cosmetics such as Bourjois, Guerlain and Dorin packaged their wares in quality containers with their name prominently displayed.


Above: 1886 Dorin Vinaigre de Rouge Superfin and Rouge Végétal. The ‘Superfin’ suggest the liquid rouge was made with carmine whereas the ‘Végétal’ probably used cathamine.

Synthetic colours

The twentieth century saw the inclusion of synthetic reds into rouge formulations – including geranium lake, erythrosine, erythrene and phloxine – which enabled a greater range of red shades to be produced.

Colour: Rose
Carmine, No. 40

Colour: Bright red
Geranium lake

Colour: Yellowish-red to bluish-red
Phloxine P.
Rose Bengal
Rose Bengal 3B

(Modified from Poucher, 1932, p. 544)

As with lipsticks, bromo acids were also added to rouges and could be used to produced a changeable rouge – e.g. Princess Pat English Tint – that worked in the same way as a changeable lipstick – e.g. Tangee Lipstick – that is, it looked orange in the container but turned red on the cheeks.

Also see: Indelible Lipsticks

The use of different synthetic reds changed as the century progressed as the use of synthetic colours became subject to legislative controls. Some early colours did not survive while others were developed, tested and added to approved lists.

Rouge, lipstick and nail polish

Early forms of rouge were also used to colour the lips. As the use of stick rouge or lipstick increased during the twentieth century it became fashionable for women to match the colour in their rouge with their lipstick so early manufacturers of cosmetics produced lipsticks and rouge in matching shades. Whether by deliberate design, or through a lack of knowledge on how to use cosmetics, some women used their lipstick as a substitute for rouge in the same way that paste rouge was sometimes used as a substitue for lipstick.

When the fashion trend of matching lipsticks with nail polish took hold in the 1930s, and the colour ranges of both lipsticks and nail polishes increased dramatically, it was not cost effective for manufacturers to do the same with rouge, and after the Second World War the shade ranges for rouge generally remained more limited than those for lipsticks or nail polishes although they continued to be colour coordinated with them.

See also: Lipsticks, Nail Polishes and Colour Coordination


As the manufacture of rouge became more widespread and reached an industrial scale, the plethora of names used for rouge declined and disappeared. By the early twentieth century cosmetic chemists were generally referring to different forms of rouge by the base in which the red dyes and pigments were dissolved or suspended – liquid, powder, compact powder, paste and cream – with paste and cream often being conflated even though they were quite distinct in composition.

Liquid rouge

Early liquid rouges were relatively simple solutions of eosin, carmine or some other dyestuff to which a little glycerin was sometimes added to make the product easier to handle.

1 to 3  Carmine, No. 40.
2 to 5  Liquid ammonia, 880.
600  Rose-water.
400  Glycerine.

Dissolve the carmine in the liquid ammonia, add the rose water, and then the glycerine—shake.
Stand aside for one month, and decant the clear liquid.

(Poucher, 1932, p. 146)

Early liquid rouges were also made with an alcohol-water base, which enabled the use of alcohol-soluble dyes. Liquid rouge was used on the cheeks but could also be applied to the lips although in the later case gums were often included to thicken the fluid so that it would stay in place.

For much of the twentieth century liquid rouge was not as popular as compact or cream/paste forms. However, it underwent something of a resurgence after liquid foundation was introduced in the 1940s and 1950s as it could be applied over the liquid foundation and smoothed in.

Powder rouge

Powder rouges only differed radically from face powders in being more highly coloured and opaque. This required higher concentrations of dyes and pigments along with opacifiers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

See also: Loose Face Powders

Loose powder rouges do not appear to have been very popular in the twentieth century, with most women preferring their rouge powder compressed into a compact.

Paste rouge

The paste or salve type of rouge is the easiest rouge to make. A simple anhydrous base can be made by blending mineral oils and waxes together to make an ointment.

Paraffin wax48 parts
White beeswax6 parts
White oil160 fluid parts
Perfume5 fluid parts
Colour107-214 parts as required

Make a small quantity of base and allow it to set. While the base is setting, sift the dry colour through the fine sieve, remembering that the colour cannot be too fine. Next weigh out the amount of base required and remelt. When liquid add it to the previously sifted colour. Mix thoroughly, heating again, if necessary, to keep the whole mass in a pourable condition. Now strain through the silk which has been stretched over the receptacle. any dry colour that has nor passed through is transferred to the mortar and ground as finely as possible, after which it is added to a small quantity of the molten mass, which is then strained. The perfume is added as usual when nearly cold.

(“Cream rouge,” 1935, p. 153)

Both dyes and pigments could be used in a paste rouge. The pigments would be dispersed through careful blending of the mixture but should a dye be required then a suitable solvent – such as castor oil – would need to be incorporated into the formula.

As these rouges do not contain water, they usually have a good shelf life as long as steps are taken to ensure that bacteria or fungi do not grow in them. Their tendency to ‘drag’ when applied could be reduced by including fatty esters to counteract the effects of the mineral oil or petroleum jelly.

Cream rouge

Although a cream rouge looks very similar to a paste rouge and, when advertised, little distinction was made between the two, cream rouges are emulsions so contain water. Technically almost any type of face cream could be made into a rouge by adding colouring and most early cream rouges were made using a cold cream or vanishing cream base.

Cold Cream Type%    
White beeswax17.0 
Oleic acid refined14.0 
Petrolatum, white22.0 
Cosmetic lake color8.0 

Mix the color into the petrolatum by use of a roller or ointment mill. Heat the water, add the triethanolamine and the borax. Melt the beeswax and the oleic acid. Add the triethanolamine solution and mix until thoroughly emulsified, then add the perfume and finally the color base. Mix thoroughly and if necessary run the entire mass through an ointment mill.

Vanishing Cream Type%    
Stearic acid (triple pressed)20.0 
Cetyl alcohol3.0 
Potassium hydroxide 85%0.6 
Cosmetic lake color8.0 

Proceed as with vanishing cream. Mix color and perfume into the cream base after it is cool and mill thoroughly.

(Thomssen, 1947, p. 290)

See also: Cold Creams and Vanishing Creams

Given that cream rouges contain both oil and water it was important to ensure that any colouring used was either soluble or insoluble in both the oil and water phase otherwise a mottled look would be produced. As they contained water, cream rouges were susceptible to evaporation as well as bacterial and fungal degradation. As only small amounts of rouge tend to be used at any one time, these cosmetics had a long life so cosmetic chemists had to ensure that they were stable over the long-term; tight screw-top lids and preservatives were essential.

Compact rouge

Compact powder rouge was the most popular form of rouge but also the most difficult to manufacture. It used a similar formulation to loose powder rouge but a binder was added to hold the powder together when it was compressed into a firm cake.

Max Factor rouge compact

Above: Compact or compressed rouge from Max Factor with mirror and puff.

See also: Compressed Face Powders

The problems associated with manufacturing early compressed face powders also beset making compact rouge. However, as the rouge tablets were smaller they were probably less likely to break or crack, a common problem with early forms of this cosmetic.

Given the rising popularity of the more portable compressed face powders many manufacturers developed compacts which included a large compressed face powder combined with a smaller compressed rouge.

Manufacturing compact rouge

Once the base and colours had been selected a manufacturer would need to select an appropriate binder such as water-soluble gums or mucilages, water-repellant oils, emulsions and dry metal stearates (Heinrich, 1957, pp. 257-258).

The choice of binder determined some aspects of the manufacturing process. If a gum or mucilage was used this was added to the coloured and perfumed base, mixed well, thoroughly pulverised and then pressed into godets immediately. If an water repellant oil binder was selected this was thoroughly mixed with a portion of the white base which was then added to the bulk powder prior to the addition of the colour and water before being mixed, pulverised and pressed. The emulsion method required the emulsion to be mixed into the coloured base until a stiff paste was formed which was then spread out thinly on trays to dry out, then passed through a granulator to break it up. This was pulverised before the perfume was added and the rouge was mixed and pulverised again, then pressed into cakes as needed (Kempson-Jones, 1948).

Compressed rouge was pressed into metal godets – also known as pans, trays or bezels – generally made from tin-plate to limit rusting. The godents were often corrugated with a circular pattern to reduce the possibility of the rouge cake lifting from the godet when wiped with a puff. Some rouge manufacturers also used a non-hardening adhesive to secure the cake to the godet but a better method was to incline the side of the godet wall inward so that the lip of the wall overhung the cake – a practice also used in making powder compacts. Once pressed, the godets were fixed into a container with adhesive.


Above: A plastic Lourney compact rouge case dismantled to show the various parts. The metal godet (bottom right) has circular ridges for added adhesion; some rouge can still be seen on the plate. The walls of the metal godet are not inwardly inclined but there is no trace of glue being used to help the rouge cake stick to the metal. The metal godet was originally fixed into the container with adhesive; traces of glue can be seen in the plastic base (top right).

Applying rouge

In the days before lipstick, rouge was applied to both the cheeks and the lips. Although all forms of rouge were used on the cheeks only liquid or paste forms were generally applied to the lips. Other places rouge was used included: the ears, especially the ear lobes; nails, to make the nail plate appear healthy; and the knees, as dresses got shorter in the 1920s. When used on the face, the type of rouge would also determine when it was applied in the make-up routine. Liquid, paste and cream rouges were generally applied before powdering, while compact rouge was generally, but not always, added afterwards.

The most popular forms of Rouge are the dry, the liquid and the fatty.
The use of fatty Rouges is usually confined to the lips, while the dry and liquid forms are employed to beautify the skin.
Dry Rouge has the advantage of being more readily carried about, but the liquid is much more permanent in result and, if artistically used, defies detection.
Dry Rouges are usually rubbed on the skin with a rouge cloth or a bit of soft flannel. If applied before the face powder, the result is heightened. Liquid rouge is usually applied before any other preparation, in order to produce an underlying tint, which may be modified, if desired, by the after use of powder.
Liquid Rouges are best applied either pure or with distilled water, according to the strength of the Rouge and the effect desired, by the aid of a bit of wet absorbent cotton, care being taken to spread the preparation evenly and let it dry on the skin.
A good Liquid Rouge, such as Permanent Rose Tint, will not rub off on a dry handkerchief, nor does perspiration effect it. It may be used to color the lips, although our specially prepared Lip Rouge in sticks is more convenient.

(Richard Hudnut, 1915, pp. 29-31)

By the 1920s and 1930s many cosmetic companies were providing more detailed descriptions of the best way to apply the rouge they manufactured.

1934 Richard Hudnut

Above: 1934 Richard Hudnut. Instructions for applying compressed powder rouge.

Also see the company booklet: New loveliness for you

Post-war developments

Many types of rouge used before the Second World War were not compatible with the newer, more highly coloured and opaque stick, cream and liquid foundations introduced in the 1940s and 1950s. In an attempt to shore up sales, cosmetic chemists produced ‘new’ rouge formulations made by altering the base which to embed the pigments. Of all of these, stick rouge – generally marketed as ‘blushers’ even though they were not necessarily red – was probably the most important. Stick rouges had existed before the war; Revlon, for example had introduced Cheek Stick in 1940, but the new stick blushers were made wider than normal lipsticks and were generally used to sculpt the shape of the face rather than introduce rosy cheeks.

Suspension: Pigment colourants suspended in water containing antisetting agents. Produces an inexpensive matte finish but may settle over time.
Lotion: Pigment colourants suspended in a liquid emulsion. Produces an easy blending controllable sheen as long as the emulsion is stable.

Water-free: Pigment colourants in a water-free cream. Stable and blends well but is greasy and the surface of the cream may sweat and wrinkle in the container as it ages.
Emulsified: Pigments in an water in oil (w/o) or oil in water (o/w) creamy emulsion. Produces an easily blending controllable sheen but may dry up in the jar.
Stick: Similar to lipstick. Stable and easy to apply but needs tight manufacturing controls.

Cake: Dry compressed powder. Produces a long lasting matte finish. The cake may break and the colour may become too intense over creamy makeup.

Anyhrous: Soap gel with oil as the vehicle. Has a built in applicator and produces a natural transparent look. May sweat, gel can become cloudy and the high surfactant concentration may result in skin irritation.
Hydrous: Gum-like gel with water as the vehicle, Stable, easy to apply but may thin and dry out.

Foam: Pigment colourants suspended in an emulsion containing a propellant. Produces a transparent natural look but is difficult to control the amount applied and is expensive.

(Modified from Navarre, 1975, p. 966)

Despite all these developments, rouge/blusher never achieved the growth in sales seen with other cosmetics after the war. The tanning craze that started in the 1920s had largely put an end to the ‘peaches and cream’ look and even when lighter skins became fashionable again redden cheeks generally did not.

Updated: 8th August 2017


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The toilette of health, beauty, and fashion: Embracing the economy of the beard, breath, complexion, ears, eyes, eyebrows, eye-lashes, feet, forehead, gums, hair, head, hands, lips, mouth, mustachios, nails of the toes, nails of the fingers, nose, skin, teeth, tongue, &c. &c. Including the comforts of dress and the decorations of the neck; also the treatment of the discolorations of the skin, corns-eruptions-spots-pimples scorbutic or spongy gums, tainted breath-tooth-ache-carious or decayed teeth-warts-whitlows prevention of baldness, grey hair, etc. With directions for the use of most safe and salutary cosmetics-perfumes-essences-simple waters-depilatories, and other preparations to remove superfluous hair, tan, excrescences, etc. And a variety of select recipes for the dressing room or both sexes. (1834). Boston: Allen and Ticknor.

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