In 1838, Robert Collyer, a British-born medical student turned American mesmerist, described New York City as a place where ‘‘much quackery abounds, where any one who has the impudence may leave his foreplane, or lapstone, or latherbrush, and become a Physician; where any unlettered biped who has sufficient cant and hypocrisy may become a Minister of the Gospel.’’ A bit rich coming from a man who based his life’s work on animal magnetism and phrenology — the idea that the size and shape of a person’s cranium was directly correlated to his intelligence and character — but in the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening, his diagnosis was sound.
And in many ways, it still is. If I face away from the shower (which is blighted with my husband’s dandruff shampoo and sickly green bar of soap), our moldering Brooklyn bathroom resembles a 19th-century apothecary. It smells medicinal; tiny vials of amber oil crowd the sink. The windowsill, once uncluttered, now casts shadows like the battlement of a castle: The entire length is littered with vessels whose labels make preposterous metaphysical promises, all of which I half-believe.
Sitting next to an ‘‘aura spray’’ made with various essential oils and ‘‘supercharged’’ reiki blessings is a bottle of body oil, which, according to its label, is ‘‘stored in violet glass to preserve the vitality of the precious ingredients.’’ Always threatening to tumble into the trash is a canister of raw, vegan and organic bath salts meant to purge my body of toxins accrued by chatting on my phone or typing on the computer (otherwise known as electromagnetic fields, or E.M.F.s). Sometimes, while physically in the bath, I’ll browse the website of the Heritage Store, which for decades has offered tinctures that balance and heal in accordance with the readings of Edgar Cayce, a Southern Christian mystic with alleged psychic abilities and a ninth-grade education. I like to think that my tolerance for charlatans of the mind is low, but when it comes to the lotion I pat on my cheeks and the grease I smear on my legs, I’ll consider anything — as impressionable as a passive, pseudoscience-prone young woman in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel.
There global organic personal care market is expected to exceed USD$25 billion by 2025; as it grows, so too will the number of companies that rely on syncretic and occult ideas: paranormal energy fields, electromagnetic flows, straight-up magic. It’s no longer enough to employ pesticide-free ingredients — these days, products should have superpowers, too. Many companies are concocting formulas to offset the radiation allegedly emitted by technological devices, while others promote oils that don’t just moisturise the skin, but also feed the soul.
But while this surge of half-mystic, half-homespun enlightened grooming products may seem new, their purported promise is not. Collectively, they signal a return to the ideas of no one so much as Rudolf Steiner, an esoteric Austrian educator and social reformer. In addition to founding the Waldorf education system, which prioritizes a child’s imagination and individuality above all else, he was also responsible, in the 1920s, for the development of biodynamic farming, an agricultural philosophy that involves planting according to the zodiac, and (for example) fermenting the dung of a lactating cow inside a buried horn and then spraying the mixture on crops during a descending moon. At the heart of Steiner’s take on education and farming is anthroposophy, a philosophy he invented that fuses science with spirituality, promoting the idea that every organic thing has a life force . . . including the chamomile flowers that infuse your favourite facial mist.
Steiner was considered eccentric by his contemporaries, but he correctly predicted a market for personal-care products manufactured by less-industrial means than what had become popular by the end of the 19th century. In the early 1920s, with the help of a Dutch gynecologist and a chemist from Munich, Steiner founded Weleda, a pharmaceutical lab based on these principles. It went on to produce natural cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, with most of its ingredients sourced from the brand’s own biodynamic farms. The establishment of Weleda coincided with lebensreform, a ‘‘life reform’’ social movement in Germany that promoted alternative medicine, health food and nudity. Like all good Teutonic things from the early 20th century, it was eventually sullied by the Nazis, some of whose leaders favoured state-sponsored organic farming. (Weleda was almost shut down by the Third Reich multiple times on the basis that anthroposophists maintained close relationships to Jews.) By the 1930s, anthroposophy was deemed ‘‘directly opposed to National Socialism,’’ and Steiner’s books were banned from Bavarian public libraries.
Weleda itself lived on, but in the 1980s, the idea of a beauty product having to be also responsible for one’s spiritual health was relegated to the fringe, replaced by the aspirational promise of sterile, lab-born solutions. Similar to the processed-food movement in 1950s America wherein simple, healthy foods, like home-baked whole-grain bread, were considered backward, while heavily processed items like Wonder Bread became the epitome of modernity, so too did the beauty industry move toward the impersonal.
Now, though, we once again expect that balms and creams will make us not just beautiful, but happy. In the factory of Ila, a beauty company based out of an idyllic barn in the Cotswolds, Eastern chants play over loudspeakers all day. The company designed the factory based on sacred geometry, as specified by a Vastu priest. Also based in the English countryside, de Mamiel sells different facial oils for spring, summer, winter and fall, all of which ‘‘attune the skin and soul to the new season.’’ Therapie Roques ONeil, the company that packages many of its products in the aforementioned protective lavender glass, makes a chakra-restoring balm — a ‘‘potion’’ — which they call a ‘‘perfume for the soul,’’ and a spray described as ‘‘an angel’s kiss,’’ which can ‘‘create a vital yet protective veil that helps you regain an inner sense of self.’’ Together, they offer not just younger-looking skin, but something less tangible yet equally powerful: hope. Here is a promise — that we may finally have the chance to, truly, make ourselves better.
Our cultural infatuation with organic food and locally grown produce has surged as the earth blisters and withers. And for obvious reasons our romanticisation of nature feels urgent in a way it didn’t even a few years ago, an acknowledgment of the terrifying Antarctic iceberg breaks, the perennially disappearing honeybees and all the flowers they won’t be around to pollinate — facts only heightened by our recent withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. As the world speeds up and its institutions crumble, we revert to rustic wizardry and the simple beauty and comfort found in nature’s bounty. Why not, when the future looks so dim? It’s no wonder we want to believe in a little magic: Who wouldn’t want a lotion that can convince us that things aren’t as bad as they seem — if only for as long as it takes to smooth it onto our skin?