A Girl’s Best Friend

By Lisa Haushofer

“At equal merit, prefer a friend as a physician to all others.”

L'ami des femmes titleThis quotation by Celsus (preface, book 1) opens J.P. Marie de Saint-Ursin’s 1804 cosmetic advice manual for women, titled “L’ami des femmes.” Both, quote and title, aptly capture Marie de Saint-Ursin’s intention to position himself as a counselor to women on matters of health and beauty. It is a peculiar little book which allows a glimpse of a new unlikely bond between physicians and women in the First French Empire.

Not that cosmetic advice manuals were anything unusual at the time. In fact, historian Morag Martin has unearthed and examined quite a few of them in her book Selling Beauty: Cosmetics, Commerce, and French Society, 1750-1830.[1] And since by now we have gotten used to the idea of cosmetics being used at least as early as the Ancient Egyptian period, a historical book on beauty-enhancing techniques, a kind of 19th century equivalent of the beauty section of Vogue or Elle, might not come as much of a shock (and in France, too).  And yet most of us would be surprised to have our GP offer us recommendations on what to wear and which rouge to brush on our cheeks.

In 1804, however, Marie de Saint-Ursin sat down to write exactly that. He composed a 376 page text that not only warned of the dire consequences of using the wrong tricks to enhance beauty but also provided recipes and instructions on how to do it right. But he was by no means simply a profit-hungry quack who had made a deal with the newly emergent French cosmetics industry. On the contrary, he was quite an illustrious figure, even for a physician. Among the many offices he had held during his life (and which he thoroughly listed on the front page of his manual), he had been chief physician to the Northern Army, an official of the Paris general council on health, and medical inspector to several military and civilian hospitals. He was a member of a number of medical, philosophical and scientific societies. So why did he compromise his scientific credibility in order to write a book on baths and balms?

That he compromised his credibility, he left his audience in no doubt. He felt that the task required him to reconcile a complex scientific subject with an audience that lacked any medical training, and that was not well accustomed to such technical and severe language: an audience of women.

In an article dedicated specifically to the medical lot of cosmetic advice manuals, Morag Martin argues that at the end of the eighteenth century, women became a particular focus of health education campaigns. The future of the young republic depended on women’s capacity to fulfill their roles as nurturers and educators of future citizens. Cosmetics, clothing and unhealthful habits had become topics of concern during the eighteenth century, as more and more illnesses had become associated with possibly harmful ingredients within cosmetic products. The Napoleonic Wars aggravated concerns about the health of citizens, and the health manual market flourished. But whereas earlier texts had emphasized moral and religious concerns against the disguising and seductive powers of cosmetics, and had demanded that the use of cosmetics be discontinued altogether, advice manuals at the turn of the century stressed their health risks, and suggested ways for the safe use of beauty-enhancing tools and practices. It was a compromise, Martin suggests, in which physicians recognized that they had to meet their audience half way in order to be heard by them.[2]

In many ways, Saint-Ursin’s text fits Martin’s conclusion well. The last part of his book, for instance, is dedicated to concrete advice and recipes. Marie de Saint-Ursin insists that his recipes are distinct from the “charlatanism” that reigns on the beauty market. “Simple, like nature,” they are designed only to “help or correct her [nature],” in order to “reveal beauty’s splendor, to prolong its reign, or to compensate for its absence.” (273) This section is conveniently arranged by body part or affliction, and contains a mixture of warnings against noxious substances (mainly mineral and metallic substances like mercury and bismuth), advice for local illnesses (oil of laurel against head lice), and instructions on how to produce safe alternatives to noxious chemicals (alkanet root as a substitute for rouge). No concern is omitted by Marie de Saint-Ursin, he can help with wrinkles, rashes, and bad breath.

femme et miroir

Illustration from J.P. Marie de Saint-Ursin’s “L’ami des femmes”

And yet the tone throughout the rest of the little volume is severe indeed, and moral concerns feature prominently among Marie de Saint-Ursin’s recitation of beauty advice. His argument, spread out over more than two thirds of the book, is fairly simple at heart: artful, luxurious dress and habits have an effect on morals (not the other way around, interestingly), and morals, in turn, affect health. Marie de Saint-Ursin’s tour de force through the history of clothing, from Ancient Greece to present day France, attempts to show that it is possible to infer the “looseness” (la mollesse) of morals from the “looseness” of garments (46), and looseness of morals leads to ill-health. This is not merely an argument about individual health, but extends to the health of the entire nation. Soft, loose dress is a sign of luxury, and luxury of any kind has estranged the French from their natural conditions of life. They have abandonded gymnastics, which prevented so many maladies in Ancient Rome; night and day have become inverted; all manner of luxurious foods from all parts of the world are brought to France and consumed there. (48-49) He cites another physician, who complained that it has become so fashionable to expose parts of the body, that women have abandoned all prudence, and are running around the streets of Paris practically naked! (50) Numerous examples of women who have perished after being exposed to cold through inadequate dress attest to the folly of French fashion in Marie de Saint-Ursin’s mind; he even knows of a gravestone in the cemetery of Quatre Sections, Rue de Vaugirard, which reads:

LOUISE LEFEBVRE

23 years of age

Victim of murderous fashion

Not even the waltz is safe from Marie de Saint-Ursin’s reprobation. This dance, featured in “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (“the most sentimentally dangerous work that I know”) must undoubtedly lead to nudity and undecency.

So what was left for women if they could not amuse themselves with dress, drink and dance? Fortunately, Saint-Ursin had nothing against bathing. On the contrary, he thoroughly elaborated on its uses, as he believed that they were still widely underestimated. He delves again into history, and backs his fervent recommendation of baths with an exploration of the history of bathing in Ancient Rome, before expanding on its physiological mechanism. Water is a fluid, and as such, can alter the body’s qualities according to its own nature. It can have “relaxing, diluting, diuretic, and truly purgative effects.” (151)

But here the good news end. Marie de Saint Ursin has nothing flattering to say about the practice of wet nursing (“the milk will stagnate in its reservoirs, turning into a noxious poison”), about tea (“that fatal present of the English”), about whigs of foreign make (“they clog the pores, irritate the skin and prevent the development of capillary bulbs”). Even dicvorce can be the consequence of such luxuries (214). All in all, the book reads more like the small print of a surgical consent form than that Vogue beauty section.

Perhaps, the compromise in this text lies less in the content than in its literary form. The most striking aspect of this little book is that it was written in the form of several letters addressed to the empress Josephine, “Madame Bonaparte.” As such it plays with the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, between professional guidebook and personal guidance.

Saint-Ursin’s choice of the epistolary style was deliberate and considered. In the preface, he allows the reader insight into the reflections that led him to choose the letter format. He felt that the medical subject matter was at odds with the delicate and poetic disposition of his target audience, women. Having received conflicting advice from two friends, he decided to heed the advice of a third, who had suggested that he divide his text, and be “painter first, physician second.” (x) He considered himself as an intermediary between the technical language of science, and the more diplomatic and delicate tone required in the education of young women. In order to “make scientific language more intelligible”, he had therefore “sowed with flowers the painful path that leads to the steep temple of Aesculap.” (5)

"La lettre." Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

“La lettre.” Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

But the letter format was also a way for Marie de Saint-Ursin to counsel rather than preach, to offer advice rather than impose lessons. Crucial for this target was that Marie de Saint-Ursin’s letters are seemingly prompted by a fictional first letter written to the physician, requesting his opinion on matters of health and beauty. “You are asking me, Madame, my opinion regarding the influence of clothing on the moral and the health of women, and, if possible, to offer a way which, under these two aspects, could replace the old usage, and prevent the dangers of the modern one,” he writes. (1) Throughout the book, he keeps the illusion of dialogue and exchange alive, addressing “Madame” at the beginning and the end of each letter, and pretending to be scolded by her from going too much off topic (she has a point). (195) The choice of the word “ami” in the title confirms Marie de Saint-Ursin’s desire to appear as a trustworthy source of guidance. He tapped into a good tradition of advice books containing the word ami in the title, for example L’ami des filles by Graillard Graville (1761), L’ami des hommes, ou Traité de la population by Victor de Riquetti Mirabeau (1758), or the several volumes of “L’Ami des enfans [sic]” (1782-1783) and L’Ami de l’adolescence (1784-1785) by Arnaud Berquin.[3] The word “ami” carried notions of trustworthiness and impartiality that were able to ward off any suspicion of profit-mongering or insincerity. In his Essai sur les moeurs, G. Jean Soret describes the difference between a “gallant man” and an “honest man;” only the latter is the “friend” of women, the former is deceptive and seeks merely his own advantage.[4] In this sense, Marie de Saint-Ursin, as the “friend of women,” is a friendly but respectful counselor to his pen friend and to all women.

Liaisons dangereusesYet the French language reserves another meaning for “ami,” one that is more erotically charged and that suggests confidentiality and intimacy. The Grand Robert de la langue française lists the word ami as having platonic as well as erotic connotations.[5] This double entendre is also evident in many eighteenth and nineteenth century love letters written in French, which customarily addressed their object of desire as Mon cher ami/ma chere amie. Letter writing, as a form of communication, held an important place in the transmission of intimate and secretive thoughts. The popularity of the genre of the epistolary novel during this period attests to the central position of the letter in conveying private, highly priced information. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses famously tells a tale of deception, secrecy and intimacy in a series of letters.

V0018217 A physician taking a lady's pulse in her boudoir. Gouache su

A physician taking a lady’s pulse in her boudoir.

While letters were a way of communicating intimacy and individuality, the toilette was a way in which intimacy and individuality could be enacted. Many historians and literary scholars have commented on the importance of the boudoir as a space of secrecy, but also as a private room to which only the most intimate and valued friends gained entry.

Letter writing and the female toilette were thus connected through a common association of intimacy, secrecy, and individuality, and suggested a particular bond between writer and addressee, and between the mistress of the boudoir and her guests. In literary fiction, the boudoir is often the place in which letters are read, or where secret communications are placed.[6] In Choderlos de Laclos’ novel, for example, the Marquise de Merteuil announces that she will retire to her toilette to read a secret communication made by the Vicomte de Valmont. (120)

Marie de Saint-Ursin utilized this association between the letter and the boudoir in order to fashion his book as a privately communicated revelation of secrets of beauty and health. He demonstrated that he had gained the confidence of the most illustrious woman in France, the empress herself, who had figuratively granted him access to her dressing room. He felt that he could congratulate himself on having succeeded in reaching his female audience if he would encounter his book from time to time “on their toilettes, tucked beneath Gentil-Bernard, Dumoustier [sic], Bertin and Legouvé.” (xii) Like the most crucial object on their dressing tables, he hoped that the book would serve as a “mirror” for women and for his entire century, for “in order to be able to change it has to recognize itself.” (xi)

The book is held by the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis Countway Library of Medicine, and has been digitized by the Medical Heritage Library. Read it online here.


[1] Morag Martin, Selling Beauty: Cosmetics, Commerce, and French Society, 1750–1830 (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2009).

[2] Morag Martin, “Doctoring Beauty: The Medical Control of Women’s Toilettes in France, 1750-1820,” Medical History 49, no. 3 (July 1, 2005): 351–368.

[3] For an exploration of conduct books for young women in Eighteenth century France, see Nadine Bérenguier, Conduct Books for Girls in Enlightenment France (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).

[4] G. Jean Soret, Essai sur les moeurs (Bruxelles: s.n., 1756), 103, 104.

[5] “ami, ie:” Le Grand Robert de la langue française (http://gr.bvdep.com), accessed July 15, 2013.

[6] Elizabeth Helme’s novel “Albert”, for example, which was translated into French in 1800, addresses the placing of a love letter in the toilette of the object of desire by the femme de chambre. Elizabeth Helme and Lefebvre, Albert, Ou Le Désert De Strathnavern, De Mistress Helme, Auteur De Louisa, Ou La Chaumiere; Des Promenades Instructives, etc. etc: Avec Romances Et Musique Gravées (Tavernier, 1800).

One comment

  1. Pingback: From Remedia: “A Girl’s Best Friend” | Medical Heritage Library

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