Amongst the beauty products sold by Richard Hudnut from his New York pharmacy was a cream he labelled a ‘Toilet Cerate’. It came in two forms, the more expensive variety having a violet fragrance.


Above: 1894 Richard Hudnut Products.

See also: Richard Hudnut

Like many other early skin-care cosmetics, cerates were first developed for pharmaceutical use and it is there that we must look for their origins.

Pharmaceutical cerates

Nineteenth century pharmacists regarded cerates as a type of ointment. Like ointments, cerates had a base compounded from fats, petrolatum and/or oil but they were formulated with more wax (latin: cera) – and occasionally resins – so were stiffer and had a higher melting point than ointments. This meant cerates would not melt or run when applied to the skin, a useful medicinal characteristic that allowed them to be spread over muslin or other bandage materials.

Ointments are soft or semi-solid fatty masses, intended to be applied to the skin by inunction or “rubbing in”, and of such consistence that they are partially or wholly liquefied by the heat of the body.
Cerates are ointments plus the addition of wax, which gives them a firmer consistence and higher melting point. The name of the class is derived from cera, the Latin for wax.

(Beal, 1908, p. 92)

Comparing a typical ointment and cerate base shows the proportion of oils and waxes used in each:

Ointment Base

White Wax5 parts
Wool Fat (unhydrated lanolin)5 parts
White Petrolatum90 parts

Cerate Base

Olive oil60 parts
White Wax30 parts
Spermaceti10 parts

Pharmaceutical cerates generally functioned as skin protectants or were used to soothe inflammation but, as with ointments, other ingredients could be added to a them to extend their capabilities. Some of these formulations – such as Turner’s Cerate made with calamine; or Goulard’s Cerate made with subacetate of lead – became standard recipes well known across the pharmaceutical profession.

Ceratum Calaminae Turner’s Cerate

Yellow Wax3¼ ounces av.
Olive Oil10 fl.ounces
Prepared Calamine¼ ounces av.

Melt the wax with the oil, and when cool enough to begin to thicken, add the calamine, and stir until cool. This may also be prepared by mixing 1 part prepared calamine with 5 parts simple cerate.
This has long been popular under the name of Turner’s cerate as a drying, healing dressing for sores, ulcers etc.

(Fenner, 1904, p. 337)

The ability of cerates to stay in place and provide a protective barrier meant they were also a good choice for pharmacists when formulating salves to prevent chapping. Cerate gloves could be made up for a lady to wear overnight to soften her hands.

Cerate for Chapped Hands

Spermaceti2 ounces
Glycerine½ ounce
Sal ammoniac1 drachm.

(Cristiani, 1877, p. 352)

A cerate lip salve could be compounded to help prevent lips from chapping in cold, dry weather. Adding a little colouring matter, such as alkanet, would turn it into a lip rouge.

Ceratum Rosarum. Lip Salve.

Oil of Almonds8 fl.ounces
White Wax4 ounces av.
Alkanet Root½ ounce av.

Digest the alkanet in the almond oil for some days, then filter or strain, add the wax, melt and perfume while cooling with Otto of Roses, or other suitable perfuming oil a sufficient quantity. This makes a nice lip salve.

(Fenner, 1904, p. 340)

Toilet cerates

Richard Hudnut was a trained pharmacist so was well aware beneficial uses of cerates and he sold perfumed forms as toilet or beauty creams. He was not the only pharmacist to do this; Ricker’s Drug Stores, for example, made a Violet Cerate they sold as a ‘Beauty Builder’.

There is no toilet delicacy so soothing, softening and healing as VIOLET CERATE for sunburn, chaps, roughness, pimples, redness, freckles and tan.
There is nothing known to toilet arts so pure, so creamy, or so deliciously fragrant. VIOLET CERATE is a facial armor against chilling winds and parching sun.

(W. B. Ricker & Son Co., 1901, p. 1)

Richard Hudnut distinguished between two types of cerates: those made with an oil base; and those compounded with glycerine. It would appear from its description that Hudnut’s Toilet Cerate was of the first type. Made with oils and wax it was used as a skin protectant and massage cream.

This most useful preparation is readily absorbed by the skin, and owing to this and certain other characteristics, it is particularly adapted to use as a massage cream, while as a general healing application to the skin when burned, irritated, chapped, inflamed etc., it has no superior. It is entirely different to the so-called “Cerate” of the Pharmacopoeia, and is greatly superior to it in its own sphere of usefulness.
Toilet Cerate may be used at any time to protect the skin from the effects of wind, glare and dust, when yachting, automobiling, etc. It should be gently rubbed in and the superfluous portion removed with a soft towel.

(Hudnut, 1915, pp. 18-19)

Also see the 1910 Richard Hudnut booklet: Beauty Book

This type of cerate has some similarities with traditional cold creams which were also made with oils and wax but included water, generally as rose water. It is no coincidence that in pharmacy circles, cold creams – which were originally compounded by the Roman physician Galen from beeswax and olive oil – were also known as Galen’s Cerate (Ceratum Galeni) or, when made predominantly with spermaceti rather than beeswax, as Spermaceti Cerate (Ceratum Cetacei).

Ceratum Galeni.   Cérat de Galien, Fr.

Oil of Sweet Almonds,8 fl.ounces
White Wax,2 ounces av.
Rose Water,6 fl.ounces

Melt the wax in the oil by heat, and while cooling, gradually add the rose water, beating it with a wooden spatula.
This cerate is considerably used in French pharmacy as a cerate or ointment base. It is similar to cold cream, or rose-water ointment, and is used for similar purposes.

(Fenner, 1904, p. 338)

See also: Cold Cream

Ricker’s Violet Cerate was described as being non-greasy with a tendency to tingle when applied to the skin, both characteristics of a glycerine-based cerate.

Greasy creams do not freely enter the skin; they form an oily coating. Riker’s Violet Cerate is not a grease. It dissolves freely in water.
The skin and sub-cutaneous tissues will absorb large quantities of the Cerate. This absorption is so rapid that in some cases is causes a tingling sensation where applied. This sensation should not alarm the user. It is caused by the parched and starved skin devouring the Cerate with such avidity. It is rarely that the tingling is felt, and is then only of about ten minutes duration.

(W. B. Ricker & Son Co., 1901, p. 3)

Glycerin would help the cerate feel less greasy and also give it the appearance of being rapidly absorbed.

Ceratum Glycerini.   Sp. Cerato de Glicerina.   Glycerin Cerate

White Wax12 parts
Almond Oil60 parts
Glycerin30 parts

Melt the wax, add the oil and incorporate the glycerin while cooling. (The addition of borax 2 parts, dissolved in the glycerin facilitates the mixing of this cerate and is otherwise advantageous).

(Fenner, 1904, p. 338)

This would benefit the skin in a manner similar to that produced by glycerin starch creams or jellies.

See also: Glycerine Creams and Jellies


Beauty products sold specifically as cerates were not common and largely disappeared from shelves after the First World War when cold and vanishing creams became dominant. However, there were exceptions. Ricker continued to produce their Violet Cerate into the 1920s at least and Rexall Drug Stores made a Violet Cerate Cream through to the 1950s. Helena Rubinstein also persisted with the Novena Cerate she had introduced early in the century, although she altered its function. Originally sold before the First World War as a cleanser and nursery cream, by the late 1950s it was being marketed as a ‘rich, bland, soothing, night cream for face and neck’.

Updated 20th May 2016


Beal, J. H. (1908). Prescription practice and general dispensing. An elementary treatise for students of pharmacy. Author.

Bliss, A. R. (1937). Ointments, pastes, cerates. The Drug and Cosmetic Industry, 40(4), 490-492.

Cristiani, R. S. (1877). Perfumery and the kindred arts. Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird & Co.

Fenner, B. (1904). Fenner’s twentieth century formulary and international dispensary (13th ed.). Westfield, NY: Author.

Richard Hudnut. (1915). Beauty book containing some account of marvelous cold cream and other complexion specialities [Booklet]. New York: Author.

W. B. Ricker & Son Co. (1901). A beauty builder [Booklet]. New York: Author.