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I discovered this advertisement for Gowland’s Lotion in a copy of La Belle Assemblee dating from June 1st 1816 that I have in my possession yesterday, and I thought you might enjoy reading it:
Gowland’s Lotion was of course mentioned by Jane Austen in Persuasion,when the idiotic Sir Walter, a man whose advice was always going to be questionable, advises Anne to use it for, having advised Mrs Clay ( foolish woman)to use it, her complexion had ”improved” tremendously:
In the course of the same morning, Anne and her father chancing to be alone together, he began to compliment her on her improved looks: he thought her “less thin in her person, in her cheeks; her skin, her complexion, greatly improved: clearer, fresher. Had she been using any thing in particular?” — “No, nothing.” “Merely Gowland,” he supposed. — “No, nothing at all.” “Ha! he was surprised at that”; and added, “Certainly you cannot do better than continue as you are; you cannot be better than well; or I should recommend Gowland, the constant use of Gowland, during the spring months. Mrs. Clay has been using it at my recommendation, and you see what it has done for her. You see how it has carried away her freckles.”
Why foolish? Well, Gowland’s Lotion was known to have a damaging effect on complexions,certainly by the time Jane Austen was writing Persuasion.
The reason this original lotion was so caustic was of course its ingredients. It contained bitter almonds sugar,water and mercuric chloride.This last ingredient was a derivative of sulphuric acid. It was powerful enough to remove the top layer of skin of anyone who applied it: it was in effect an early form of chemical peel treatment. And of course if repeatedly applied to the skin one can only imagine the dreadful damage that would result. However by the time Jane Austen was writing about it, to add insult to injury,the ingredients of the original lotion had been adulterated, and its damaging effects were widely known.
If we review the history of Gowland’s Lotion all becomes very clear. John Gowland was an apothecary and the inventor of the lotion. John Gowland’s family were northern lawyers,but he did not follow in the family footsteps but became an apothecary. Through his extensive social contacts he rose to become the apothecary to the Frederick, Prince of Wales, heir to George II.
His claim to fame and fortune, Gowland’s Lotion, first attained great fame in 1743. Elizabeth Chudleigh, the famous bigamist, was appointed maid of honour to Frederick’s wife, Augusta, the Princess of Wales and became part of their court circle. Miss Chudleigh’s skin became blotchy and opaque,and aware that her face( and her body) was her fortune she sought the advice of the royal doctors fora cure. They subjected her to a regime of purging, sea-bathing, and other treatments which all proved to be ineffectual. Poor Miss Chudleigh resorted to using patches and paints to disguise her blemished complexion. This would never do for such an attractive and ambitious woman,who knew her face(and her body) was going to be her path to fortune and titles.(and in this she was right…her ambition was also her down fall and she was eventually tried and found guilty of bigamy in 1776)
In desperation, she eventually sought the advice of the court apothecary, Mr Gowland, and he diagnosed her problem as blocked pores. He therefore devised his lotion,which could be used to bathe the face and indeed any other affected area of the body, Gowlands Lotion as delineated above. The purging action of the lotion produced a form of scurf , the top layer of the epidermis in fact, that could be then rubbed away, taking all the blemishes with it. As a result the skin’s “bloom” would be recovered, and even unsightly blemishes like freckles were taken clean away.
As a result of the spectacular effect on Miss Chudleigh’s skin, the lotion was much in demand in society. Mr Gowland lived in Bond Street in London where he also dispensed his lotion to the fashionable hoards at a cost of 10 shillings and 6 pence per quart bottle.. Eventually Gowland was appointed to be George III’s apothecary in 1760 a post he held until his death in 1776..
He died a wealthy man,and having no children left the receipt for his famed lotion to his long standing friend ,Thomas Vincent, the principal oboist in the Kings Band,and clerk to the Royal Musick Closet. Mr Vincent began manufacturing the lotion, but sadly he soon had troubles of his own,which are hinted at in the advertisement above. You will not fail to note that throughout the advert refers to Mrs Vincent’s Gowland’s Lotion. Mrs Vincent was Mr Vincent’s second wife, Maria Elizabeth.
A very ambitious woman, during her husband’s absence abroad, she began making and marketing her own version of the lucrative lotion,despite not having the full details of the ingredients, which were kept secret from her. Mr Vincent began to counter her production by going into partnership with his son-in-law Robert Dickinson, and a trade war began between husband and wife, as to whose lotion was the “original and the best”. You can see in the advert above that Mrs Vincent has managed to make Lord Sherbourne refer slightingly to Mr Dickinson’s inferior product. Mrs Vincent unbelievably had the upper hand when it came to commerce and it was her version that captured most of the trade. Mr Vincent died in 1800,and Mr Dickinson eventually disappeared from view. Mrs Vincent continued to profit from selling her version of the lotion.
Mrs Vincent’s Gowlands lotion,with its unknown but clearly demertitious ingredients,had a dreadful effect on women’s complexions. As no doubt did repeated use of the original version. John Corry in his book Quack Doctors Dissected (1810) delineated very clearly the effects of applying the then available Gowland’s to one’s face:
There the lotion of Gowland that flays Ladies faces
Distorting the features of our Modern Graces.
Jane Austen appears to have understood this, and so it is no surprise therefore that she makes Sir Walter the mouthpiece for such bad advice,and Mrs Clay ( foolish woman)his dupe.