Posted by: victorianophelia | November 26, 2012

Ophelia Powders, Photos, and Advertising

In reading Carol Mavor’s “Pleasures Taken” I came across the sentence, “When [Hannah] was a lady, she painted herself white: whitening her dark, reddened hands with smart white gloves and, most certainly, dusting her face not with soot, but with the “Ophelia powders” so popular then” (p 95). As you can probably tell, I’m a little obsessed with the Victorian interpretations of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, so I followed the footnote to p 150. Mavor says that “One of the most well known [of the aforementioned “Ophelia Powders”] was “Lily Powder…”

I tried to do some further research into this but, due to the fact that people are just as infatuated with Ophelia today as in the Victorian era, most of what came up were teen angst blogs and edgy makeup lines (Ophelia’s Apothecary & Perfumery at advertises “Good~for~you bath and body products free of sulfates and parabens”).  Many of the makeup and soap lines (e.g. Crabtree & Evelyn and Woods of Windsor) did actually advertise “Lily of the Valley” scented talcum powder, and even used the Victorian health and beauty advertisement frames that we’ve seen so much of on their products:

I did manage to find one seemingly popular advertisement from the 1890s for John Gosnell & Co.’s Toilet and Nursery Powder (talcum powder) at and subsequently (a rather long list of images of many of John Gosnell & Co.’s product history):

Isn’t the image of the nun interesting, considering women’s makeup was loaded with poisons such as lead and mercury (amongst other bizarre ingredients such as chalk, found in “Pearl Powders”), as @Cialci mentioned in her post about  arsenic for skin whitening (Nov 10th)? And yet John Gosnell & Co. claimed their powder was “celebrated for its purity.” Sounds very much like the “Good~for~you” product from Ophelia’s Apothecary etc. (above)… I think it is really interesting how even today we are drawing on the original visual appeal of health and beauty advertisements from the Victorian era, and the words are often of less importance: on the Ophelia’s Apothecary etc. website the only words are the name of the company, and the above quote at the very bottom of the page; on the Crabtree & Evelyn talcum powder bottle most of the space is taken up by the “English Floral” image and the fancy Lily of the Valley font; and on the Woods of Windsor talcum powder bottle most of the space is taken up by the two very large roses, with the name of the product almost concealed by them at the bottom. In John Gosnell’s Cherry Blossom Powder ads the nun takes up most of the image and the actual product is squeezed in at the left side of the page.  As a culture we depend very much on the aesthetic value of products, which is ridiculous because, as we said about the Scrubbing Bubbles ads, images can be entirely deceiving.

What I really find intriguing though was the use of Ophelia as an emblem of beauty and simultaneously of Hysteria (the “medical condition”).  One of Hugh Welch Diamond’s most famous photos is in stark contrast to the flowery, pure, scented powder advertisements that call on Ophelia, Lilies and Pearls.

This Ophelia’s flowers seem sharp and thorny, more akin to Jesus’ crown of thorns than the wildflowers and waterlilies that Ophelia is more frequently associated with in Shakespeare’s play and in paintings since. Also in this photo her eyes are so piercing and downcast, and so unlike the nun in the Cherry Blossom powder ad, which look softly up to the heavens (and to the name of the product). This contrast is very much like, in my opinion, the cult of Ophelia that has come about since Shakespeare’s play, which features the popular understanding of a character (as  the epitome of beauty and femininity with her simple floral bouquets, and the image of her drifting sleepily [yet truly dead] down a flowery stream) that is more often than not entirely unlike her original portrayal (a tragic and sorrowful human descent into heartbreak, madness and eventual death by drowning – recall Laertes pain in particular at her madness/death). The advertisements celebrate the popular, gentle, martyred (and visually pleasing/superficial) Ophelia, whereas the photos of institutionalized Ophelias display the stark reality of depression and insanity unencumbered by the need for aesthetic pleasure.

I just wanted to know what the rest of the class thought about the use of Ophelia in these contexts (both between the advertisements/products and the photos/reality, and between today’s culture and Victorian culture)?


  1. The painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais comes to mind. It depicts er singing before she drowns, the landscape is lush and beautiful, so drealy and romantic. Maybe that is the draw?

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