more on powders

Cat doesn’t want me hijacking her post any more, I’m sure, since it’s not actually about the history of powders, but this has been on my mind for some time now, and her post just gave me the excuse to finally write about it. You’ll have to read this to understand the conversation.

my response:

Ok, I posted originally to make this linked argument: Talc is not necessarily cheap filler, pure herbs are not necessarily better, talc and other mineral bases in powder are deeply traditional hoodoo whereas pure herbal powders are not, and there are several reasons other than "cheap filler" for using non-herbal bases. You have swayed me somewhat on point 2 and not at all on the other points 🙂

To point 2: you seem to be saying that if one can get ahold of pure herbal powder, there are both health-related and magical reasons for preferring it. I don’t disagree, except in cases where mineral additions are not magically inert. I personally believe that talc was likely, in some strands of practice, originally a substitution for African-rooted practices involving white minerals that were not easily available in new cultural and geographical contexts, but I also concede that whatever active and conscious connection may have been there at one point has pretty much been lost over the generations. Your use of the word "anymore" won you big points in that round 🙂 ("talcum is a later inclusion, and one that I feel does not fit anymore").

All the stuff you say about health, etc is true, but has no bearing on my primary claim, which is that talc is not necessarily a cheap filler. I don’t use talc myself for precisely those health reasons. Furthermore, I think it’s worth noting that making real talc-based sachet powders is actually a very expensive and time consuming process, assuming the product contains real herbs and essential oils and not just fragrance. It’s much, much easier to use plain old powdered herbs, even if you’re powdering them yourself (and backing over your J the C root with a car before taking a hammer to it, ’cause you can’t powder that shit with a coffee grinder). Manufacturers who make talc-based powders (with real herbs and oils) do so because of long tradition and customer expectations, not because it’s easier and cheaper.

I am also, personally, severely anti-talc. I do not use it and I will not make it, for many of the reasons you list. You don’t have to defend the stance of being severely anti-talc to me. I’m not arguing against it nor trying to change your mind. I just felt obligated as a rootworker, born and raised in the South, whose clientele includes a significant number of older people born and raised in the South, to raise some objections to what I saw as some of the underlying premises floating around your post – not because I think you’re wrong/evil/bad/etc, nor because I think you’re trying to rewrite tradition based on purely personal whim, but because I get a lot of client and reader questions from folks who want to toss out tradition without examining it, and along the way manage to be very insensitive, ignorant, dismissive, and finally deeply disrespectful of the very culture and the very people that have kept these traditions alive. When I get people saying "but pure herbal powders are better," the implicit or not-so-implicit accompanying verbiage sometimes gets close to "and people who use talc-based powders (or whatever – it’s not just powders I get this about) are being tricked/are benighted/are not intelligent enough to know better or ask for any better."

I am NOT saying you said that or that you implied it. But I feel very strongly that changes to tradition – and I hold again that pure herbal hoodoo powders with no mineral element whatsoever are extremely rare prior to the 60s (including prior to the drugstore era) and thus are a change to tradition – should be interrogated and the theories and wherefores understood. That’s really all I’m saying. You say that there are sometimes good reasons to change tradition, citing copper sulphate (old-time bluing. copper nitrate is a completely different chemical, though it’s also blue). I do not disagree. But that does not invalidate my major claim.

I think you’re really onto something with the regional thing, too. The first few years I was making hoodoo products, nobody ever ordered my powders. People who were not from the South had little to no idea what they were for and had no need for them in their regular spellwork. People who were from the South didn’t like them because they weren’t talc-based, and thus they were grittier (you can make a fine powder with an orris root base, a very fine one, and it has the added bonus of being a magical ingredient in its own right, but it doesn’t do the same job as talc as an item to be worn on the body. It will absorb some oil but will never help with "lubricating" the surface of the skin in the same way that talc does – because it’s not a mineral). In Southern rootwork, sachet powders were very often *worn on the body.* Wearing pure herbal matter on the body is preposterous if you live in the South – in an hour you will look like somebody made dumplings under your chin and armpits.

Does that mean everybody should use talc-based stuff? Nope. But sachet powders are the way they are for more than one reason, is all I’m saying, and I think you’re right that some of that is hard to really grok if the regional and cultural variations are big enough. "If we have the technology to omit it, then why not omit it?" Ok, no argument there, as I mentioned at the beginning. But that isn’t evidence to support the claim that talc is cheap filler – it’s just evidence to support the claim that it should be omitted if possible, the latter of which I am not going to argue against.

Re. colored talc-base being a mail-order/cosmetic industry addition, sure, no argument. But that does not invalidate my major point. Pure herbal matter stronger? Well, that depends on one’s theory of powders. Within a certain cultural milieu, no, they are not stronger. They are *different,* and they are for different things. If you use powders mostly for altar work and sneaky deployment, they’re probably *better* for your uses. But I have had to "educate" quite a few newcomers to hoodoo who tell me they want powders made to order because pure herbal powders are "stronger," and they don’t want filler, and I have to find a way to politely tell them that they don’t get to rewrite generations of hoodoo tradition because they are comparing apples and oranges. A mineral base in hoodoo powders is deeply traditional and has much more going on than "cheap filler." And even a non-mineral, other-than-leafy-matter-derived base has many reasons besides cheap filler. Are talc powders a "later invention" than non-talc powders? Yes. But there is no "pure origin" to which we can return to find the organic, unadulterated Ur-sachet powder (foot track powders are a different class – more below). Are the uses of talc-based powders all uses that are still relevant or even desired by many modern practitioners? Nope. But that doesn’t change my main argument.

Finally, and this could have its own post, foot-track type powders and sachet-type powders are really not even coming from the same place, and the principles of combination are not the same. Foot-track type powders pre-date sachet powders as they’re currently used by a long, long, long time. I would argue that before there was Pryor’s ™ hot foot powder, there was parched foot track and manure. But before there was drugstore Love Me powder, there was nothing (powder-wise). It didn’t replace anything – *as a standalone powder item.* It’s its own thing. So absolutely no argument against your statement about talc being "later" – but also not germane to my original claim. "ashes and dirts and things" were indeed the original powders. And the original powders were not deliberately worn by people wanting to draw a new lover. Is the distinction I’m trying to make even making sense? I’m up past my bedtime, sorry 🙂

"If we want to be uber-super-traditional, why not go back to the days when we didn’t use talc at all?" Then we would be going back to days when powders weren’t often knowingly applied to the body for all the reasons they are now applied to the body. We’d be going back to a day when powders did a different job, in general. That’s all I’m saying. Talc is relatively new, compared to pepper and manure and foot-tracks, but so is Black and White ointment, Florida Water, two-dollar bills, and my great-grandmother. I’m not saying things don’t change over time and that talc’s inclusion was not one of those things. I’m also not saying that maybe the sensible next change for people who use powders like you do is in fact to move away from any base at all, to pure herbs. All I’m saying, I guess, is that it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than "cheap filler," and I feel a sort of – I guess moral! — obligation to explain why I say this – not because I have an axe to grind with you in any way, shape, or form, but because people without your understanding of the social and cultural history of hoodoo can draw some pretty ignorant and disrespectful conclusions from the plain statement "talc is cheap filler."

Now I will shut up 🙂 Thank you for a provocative and engaging discussion! I’m sorry for hijacking your post with a discussion I think you wanted to end, but aside from the "moral" considerations :-), this has to do with ritual deployment as well, I think. The more people understand about *why* things are the way they are, the more sensible their proposed changes and alterations will be, know what I mean? Need to dust your lover with something that looks like a cosmetic and hate talc? Orris root powder will do the job as 1. a base, 2. a stabilizer for your essential oils so they will last when kept in a cosmetics container, and 3. still be in line with "hoodoo theory." Need to disguise the tell-tale color of goofer dust?  Mix it with local dirt.  It will do its job and still be in line with "hoodoo theory."  I am absolutely not arguing that we should cling desperately to things simply for the sake of clinging, even if technology, science, the internet, coffee grinders, whatever have given us better, more efficient, or healthier ways to do things.  I’m just arguing for understanding the wherefores before changing stuff, is all.  Overall, I think I agree that the days of talc are waning. Most of my customers that prefer it have grandchildren who do not, and the "incoming generation" is going to make its own changes, as it always does. Nighty-night 🙂

8 thoughts on “more on powders

  1. (Anonymous) on November 13th, 2009 07:59 pm (local)

    ROTFLMAO, I see this discussion has moved. 😉
    Really, I have even more good reasons for my opinion/thoughts on talc in powders that were capable of clicking into my brain when the coffee finally absorbed that day, but I’ve gone on and on enough. But you have a point – I see with what you’re saying where like wearing talc on one’s person is not common here, and perhaps we might say some powders evolved over one way to be worn and in certain cases, perhaps to be born. Maybe my hoodoo tree had already branched up north before that happened, thus my dislike of the practice. Interestingly enough to me, this starts seeming to relate to my reluctant “its anointing oil not purfume, but I can make you one to work as both,” argument. 😉 And I don’t mean the use of purfumes in Hoodoo, I mean that some people use straight up anointing oils in a purfumey way and want a nice purfumey smell… I try to explain sometimes there is a difference between the two…deaf ears on that one… So it seems perhaps its my deaf ears (or my fingers in my ears while I sing tralalalalalalala) when it has come to the talc. Seriously, I wasn’t lying when I said people’s argument for it in the past would be call me a name and say it was cheaper so there. Why should accept that argument? 😉 Of course I wouldn’t.

    This works for me. I’ve always said I was the Yankee Hoodoo, and it seems you’ve proven that so. I was not meaning to be ignorant…and maybe from the roots I learned from, it was not so much ignorance as that branch of Hoodoo I came from which moved north before the drugstore era, and therefore a branch which sampled the straight nothing-but-colored-talc (we both know those…I saw Goofer of just talc once) and found itself repulsed by such a thing in place of my treasured dirts and herbs and the like. I am big enough to say so.

    You are right that J and C is a sonofabitch to powder. No argument here.

    I had sort of hinted that maybe rice powder was replaced by talc? I’ve always wondered. That would be an interesting thing to look into.

    And that’s all I havta say about it (for now, and on your blog.) 😉

    Alrighty…well, I’m not going to drink this big glass of shut up, just sip on it. And pure herb powders still rawk! (just my opinion.) 😉




    1. ma_domina on November 23rd, 2009 01:49 pm (local)

      I actually prefer real talc myself — and I have to go to some pains to find it. If I put starch-based powders into my shoes it just turns into a sludge, it’s absolutely vile. Meanwhile, talc says nice, cool and powdery. I actually got into real talc on an unrelated matter though — my fondness for 18th century costume. Real talc holds up better as a hair powder than cornstarch does (and I think it’s more authentic.)

      Which makes me think of something else — in the 18th century, it was fairly usual to have one’s hair powder perfumed. I wonder if some of the talc tradition came about from that — I can certainly imagine some African-born valet sneaking a spoonful of his master’s scented hair powder for his own magical use. So many of the hoodoo traditions seem to have evolved from a basis of ‘what was available’ and it’s possible this was among them.


      1. (Anonymous) on November 28th, 2009 06:29 pm (local)

        That would be interesting to research ma_domina – I am a HUGE fan of 18th century style and have panniers, and a dress I need to be helped into…but I always use wigs and do not powder my hair when I get 18th century dressed. I had thought, however, that it was the pomade the powder stuck to and not the powder which was purfumed. I know that several noble survivors of the French Revolution always said the scent of a particular hair pomade reminded them of Versailles.

        Interesting stuff!



        1. ma_domina on November 29th, 2009 04:32 am (local)

          I think you could have both perfumed — or not, as one preferred. One recipe (interestingly, this one non-talc) is made from starch, pigment if desired, and “fragrant oils.” (Link: )

          I found in my experiments that if you want a strong white when your own hair is dark, talc works a lot better than starch (starches go a little transparent when the oil soaks in, and to get a strong white you need a lot of oil and pomade.) Also holds up better if you powder any hanging curls. Plus, reputedly it discourages parasites and insects — definitely something to keep off the peruque. The main flaw in talc is that it’s more expensive than starch.

          I always remember a story in a book called Justine, or; The Perils of Virtue, where the housekeeper is ordered by the miserly couple she works for to scrape plaster off the walls of the attic and pulverize it to use as hair powder, because her employers are too cheap to buy the stuff.


        2. ma_domina on November 29th, 2009 05:24 am (local)

          Hair Powder Recipe
          Okay, found one, here’s the text best as I can translate from the original German:

          Take a pound of Florentine orris root, two ounces benzoin, dry one pound (?) (“ein Pfund trockne”), grind to a powder red rosepetals, one and a half ounces powdered yellow sandalwood, two drachms powdered clove, cinnamon as you please, ten grains of musk rubbed with sugar, and combine this all with exactly 18 pounds white powder, and if you want you can make it blonde or gray.


          1. ma_domina on November 29th, 2009 05:28 am (local)
            Re: Hair Powder Recipe
            I think the punctuation was screwy and it should be “dry and powder 1 lb rose petals”


          2. (Anonymous) on December 3rd, 2009 02:00 pm (local)
            Re: Hair Powder Recipe
            I never read Justine – 120 Days of Sodom was enough Marquis de Sade for me for a lifetime. 😛 But, no doubt there was some references (or several) to powdered hair given his nobility and when he lived.

            I could not find my reference to the pommade I was thinking of…I have a poorly-written “History of Versailles,” (its historically suspect in one too many places…like someone who isn’t a history buff for the era would be disgusted,) which had referenced it, but I want to say this was in some memoirs of the court written by someone who survived the Reign of Terror. It wasn’t Vigee-LeBrun, who’s memoir is nice and brief, and not Campan either (I checked.) Which leaves me with 3 large stacks of books (the good, the okay, and the “someone wanted to make a buck right around a Marie Antoinette movie so its crap” pile.) 😉 Instead of feverishly going through my own stack of 18th century history books, I will agree that there is probably a good case the pommade and the powder could be scented, therefore its not a far off thought to believe ritual powders may have evolved from powdered hair.

            See, I am a Ancien Regieme buff moreso than just the style. If you want to know what the Bourbons ate on Christmas for dinner in 1787, I know that. 😉 If you want to know what they or their court’s hair powder was composed of, I have very little info because it hasn’t been a huge focus as much as the history and the fantastic clothing (I am less enamored of the hair.) 😉 I can tell you if its a Rose Bertin gown, maybe even of Leonard was the one behind that giant coiffure with a sail boat motif (hehe,) but not what the powder was made of…so…wow, I’d like to thank you for helping educate me some! This has been really interesting, and has given me reason to go look into hair powders more than I ever thought I would. 😀 I will have to look deeper into some of my literature for the time. I have just started focusing on the American Colonials (after awhile if you focus too long on one region in the 18th century, you get mostly the same info repeated over and over and over, so its time to move focus,) and I would think I might find some interesting recipies from the USA that would back up your theory. Now I will definitely have an eye out.


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