Powder Puff Comparison
There seem to be quite a few paintings of feather powder puffs available from the 18th century, but I have yet to find one of a silk powder puff being used at a toilet table; what we do have are images courtesy of Diderot and Garsault. Diderot describes the puffs on his plate as “39. Powder puff of swans down for ladies toilet; A, the puff, B, the handle. 40. Headless puff. 41. Puff with a head; A, the head.” As well, Colonial Williamsburg has an original silk powder puff in their collection.
There are explicit instructions from James Stewart, who wrote Plocacosmos: of the Whole Art of Hairdressing, on what these items should look like and how they should be used. He describes the silk powder puff as follows: “The silk puff you use, the filament of which should be six or seven inches long, the knotted kind is best, powdering much finer, as it rejects the coarsest particle, while taking up the powder.” (page 267). The feather powder puff is recommended to be a good one if, “The swan-down to be good should be at least three inches long, and the purest white, without the least cavity, hole, or unevenness, but appear, when you blow on it, like a tall field of corn, bending before the wind. It will retain the powder, and powder more regular than those of a worse quality, which look gray and ragged, as if moth-eaten.” (page 267).
To use the powder puffs, Stewart recommends using the feather powder puff in the following manner: “beat a sufficient quantity of powder, with the swan-skin puff, till there is not the least darkness or greasiness to be seen, and till there is enough to thicken and make the hair feel of a proper body.” (page 276). It seems that he encourages the hairdresser to use the feather powder puff while dressing the hair and then either of the puffs to finish the hair. He says, “The hair is now completed on both sides in this fashion, it now is to be powdered either with the machine [powder bellows], or silk, or swan-down puff.” (page 286).
Stewart describes how to use each powder puff to finish the hair as follows, “To powder with the silk puff is to fill it very full of powder, and let it be nearly shook out, again filled and again shook out, two or three times, till the finer parts of the puff is filled with the finest powder. Grasp then the root of the puff in your hand, and, with your arm raised pretty high, and the back or your hand toward your face, direct the body of the puff to the head and hair and then shake and jerk it quickly with your hand and arm raised as before; this jerk is something like the smacking with a horse-whip: at every jerk the powder issues forth fine and proper, continuing this till done, then finish as before directed. When powdered with the swan-down puff you must also bury it very much in the powder, and shake it well out two or three times, the same as the silk puff; when filled with fine powder, begin quite from the face, and go gradually up to the hair all the way, proceed so till finished in every part, and finish as before.” (pages 287-288).
Now I will talk about my experiment, I took two pieces of hair that are identical and used pomatum to smooth them out and help the powder stick. Next I used the silk puff on one piece of hair and the feather puff on the other to see if there was a difference, and to my surprise, there was quite a difference in the final look of the hair. With the feather powder puff, it put the powder more thickly and saturated on the hair, whereas the silk powder puff put the powder on more lightly and subtly. The feather powder puff made the powder look a bit splotchy, where the silk powder puff put the powder on more evenly. I definitely think that there are advantages to each powder puff and can be used depending on your needs. If you like a look where the powder is more visible, the feather powder puff is a better one to use, but if you like a more subtle look of hair powder then the silk powder puff is your best option.