Let’s face it. A modern gal needs her lipstick, eyebrow pencil, nail polish and skin lotions to look and feel her best.
So it may come as no surprise that this is nothing new. While the tubes and containers — and some of the ingredients —have changed throughout the years, the ritual of adorning and anointing oneself pretty much has remained unchanged since biblical times.
Beginning June 1, visitors to The Biblical Botanical Garden at Rodef Shalom Congregation will be able to learn about the use of plants in ancient and modern beauty products through a special exhibit entitled “Lookin’ Good Then and Now.”
“No other garden has ever done an exhibit like this,” said Irene Jacob, director of the garden. “It was quite a job to do the research on this.”
Jacob, who founded the garden in 1987, and who does all of its planting and upkeep (with some help from her husband, Rabbi Walter Jacob), spent months researching the use of plants for cosmetic purposes. She has come up with a unique exhibit, exploring the beauty rituals of the ancient world, along with the ingredients of products still used today.
“We use all sorts of things to beautify ourselves,” Jacob said. “Oils, gums, waxes and fibers. In Egyptian times, people also wanted to look good. Their skin, eyes and nails all needed attention. And everything involved nature. Plants were imported in from everywhere.”
Jacob noted that beauty rituals both then and now begin with clean skin.
“They (the ancients) used soap,” Jacob said, “and got the animal fat from cows, and used a lot of plant oils.
“The Egyptians also made toothpaste out of powdered oxen hooves and myrrh and burned eggshells and pumice and water,” Jacob explained.
“They used a lot of mineral content like galena, grey ore, lead malachite, blue lapis, even copper,” she continued. “Things we wouldn’t use today because they would kill us.”
Women apparently used lipstick as early as 1,295 B.C.E., according to depictions in ancient paintings.
“They usually used henna for lips,” Jacobs said, “but sometimes they would add some crushed beetles or ants.”
“Hair was also very important,” she added. “We know they had shampoos and wig shops. The wigs were either from human hair, or poor people had to use vegetable fiber.”
The ancients used henna to color their hair, lips and nails, according to Jacob. The also had products for removing wrinkles, eyebrow pencils made out of waxes, and jojoba and castor oil and toothbrushes made from twigs.
At one-third of an acre, the Biblical Botanical Garden is the largest of its kind in North America. It is designed in the shape of Israel, and includes a waterfall, a mock River Jordan and a pool representing the Dead Sea. The plants are all labeled with corresponding Bible verses.
“Our garden is really plants of the Bible and plants with biblical names,” Jacob explained. “Because the plants of the Bible can’t bloom in the summer, we added plants with Biblical names to add some color.”
Each year, the garden features a special exhibit.
“We’ve done all sorts of things,” Jacob said. “We did beer in ancient times. We’ve done drugs and pharmaceuticals. Fragrances. Dyeing. Grains and breads. Even botanical symbols in world
Plants featured in this summer’s exhibit include aloe (for skin care), anise (a breath sweetener), cucumber (face mask), indigo (used to blacken hair), soapwort (soap) and sunflower
Jacob said that people would be surprised by the amount of plant products we use in our daily lives.
“People should look at the ingredients of the things they use,” she said. “It’s really very interesting. Soap, skincare, toothbrushes, hand creams, deodorant. Even eyebrow pencils are made from castor oil.”
“For skin care we use things like aloe, cucumber and rosemary for face masks,” Jacob said. Products used by the ancients, like henna and cinnamon, are still used today, she added.
Jacob began her love of gardening as a child in England. “I grew up with an English garden,” she said. “The English are great gardeners.”
The Biblical Botanical Garden, which boasts 10 docents and 35 hosts and hostesses, receives many visitors each summer, Jacob said, including several garden clubs, and has a wide appeal to the community at large.
“It’s a good interfaith thing,” Jacob said.
The garden is open from June 1 through September 15. Formal tours are available for groups of eight or more.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)