In the late 18th century, a woman named Marie Grosholtz was doing something strange in Paris, France. She was sculpting faces of dead people out of wax.
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The period was just after the French Revolution. As a way to show her loyalty to the new order of affairs, Grosholtz was ordered to create death masks of guillotined aristocrats from the former monarchy. The masks she had to make included the faces of her previous employers – King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
According to a March 2017 report in National Geographic, death masks were an integral part of Roman and Egyptian culture, and were used to preserve faces of the dead prior to the invention of photography. They have been used over centuries for funerary rites, portraits, and even crime investigations.
Grosholtz didn’t invent the death mask, but she’s considered to be the first person to commercialise the ancient practice, and take it around the world. She took her waxworks on a travelling show through Britain, eventually settling in London’s Baker Street in 1835.
But Grosholtz didn’t stop at death masks; she saw the fascination people had with the lifelike imagery and so, went on to produce masks of living people, including English royalty, famous figures and even dioramas of notorious criminals and their crime scenes.
Ever the businesswoman, Grosholtz became savvy about the best way to make money. She secured original artifacts to add to her collection, such as King George IV’s coronation robes. When London’s Punch magazine coined her establishment the “Chamber of Horrors”, it was a description that was apt. Grosholtz’s work flourished and her business boomed, not just in the UK, but across the world, as branches of her establishment opened up in metropolitan cities around the world, from Los Angeles to Dubai.
You may have heard of her. Grosholtz is better known by her married name, Marie Tussaud, or Madame Tussaud. Today, the museum’s studio still uses some of her original techniques, and has produced reproductions of famous people from around the world, from Hollywood stars to athletes and politicians.