Cosmetics Use and the Beauty Industry

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Cosmetics use began to increase in the late nineteenth century, a consequence of several key developments. Embracing photography and the theater, Americans became newly oriented to visual culture and social performances. In retailing, innovative department stores used mirrors, plate glass, and the latest fashions to encourage women to engage in self-scrutiny and display.

Many cosmetics businesses began as manufacturers of perfume, soap, and patent medicines and initially went into beauty aids as a sideline. Ponds, one of the leading sellers of skin-care products, started out making patent medicines; in an early instance of market research, it discovered a demand for skin-care products in the 1890s. By 1910, Ponds's advertising promoted cleansing cream at night and vanishing cream by day as a regular beauty treatment for women.

Most important, beauty salons and manicure parlors began to spring up in the nation's cities. These popularized a concept of "beauty culture," encouraging women to improve their looks systematically, using proper cos

Women Cosmetic Counters
Cosmetic counter. Most major cosmetic lines have displays in department stores, complete with beauticians to demonstrate the products and make recommendations to customers. © Greg Smith/Corbis Saba. Reproduced by permission.

metics and facial techniques. Emphasizing cleanliness, grooming, and skin care, they also sold tinted face powders, whitening creams, rouge, and lip pomades. Women entrepreneurs pioneered the new beauty culture and some became early leaders of the cosmetics industry. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden created their New York salons in the 1910s; each developed a full line of cosmetics for facial treatments and home use. By World War I, each had expanded operations into manufacturing and distribution at the "class" end of the market, selling in exclusive stores, specialty shops, and a growing number of salons.

The Parisian fashion for maquillage was slow to be accepted in the United States, although by the 1910s style setters and socialites were purchasing French-made rouge and powder. Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, and other women in the beauty business encouraged affluent American women to use makeup and quietly offered applications in their salons.

African American entrepreneurs also found a market for cosmetics within black communities. In the early twentieth century, Anthony Overton developed a "High Brown Face Powder" specifically for women with darker complexions. Although focusing on hair treatments, busi nesswoman Madam C. J. Walker also expanded her product line to include skin creams and powders for black women. Neither created products for the full range of African American skin tones at this time, but both sought to address black women's dignity and desire for good looks. In contrast, many of the cosmetics sold to African Americans manufactured by white-owned companies relied on blatantly racist appeals to bleach skin and look white. Such products were widely advertised in black newspapers and remained a subject of controversy through the twentieth century.

What is especially striking about cosmetics at this time, however, is the popularity of beauty preparations among workingwomen, including the daughters of immigrants. They embraced powder and paint, along with fashionable clothing, to assert a new sense of individuality. In the early twentieth century, when sexual mores were changing and young women had entered the workforce in large numbers, the "painted woman" could no longer be distinguished as a prostitute. Indeed, by the 1920s, women increasingly used the term "makeup" rather than "paint," thus indicating that cosmetics were not a means of covering up one's looks but rather an integral part of a public persona.

Conde Nast 1900
Beauty kit. In the early 1900s, cosmetics began being packaged for portability, increasing their popularity. © Conde Nast Archive/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

Growing through the 1910s, the cosmetics industry took off after World War I. From 1909 to 1929, the number of American perfume and cosmetics manufacturers nearly doubled; by 1929, Americans were spending $700 million annually for cosmetics and beauty services. The transformation of women's appearance in the 1920s—corsetless and revealing clothing, bobbed hair, a thin body image—went hand-in-hand with the increased consumption of beauty products and makeup.

Still, cosmetics use spread unevenly across the United States and Europe, more popular among the young, employed, and urban women than their mothers or small-town sisters. Surveys of nonurban women's daily regimens in the 1920s showed that most simply washed the face with soap and water, then perhaps applied cold cream or white powder. It was not until the end of the 1930s that farm women's use of cosmetics approximated that of city dwellers.

A number of innovations in cosmetics and packaging appeared in this time. French cosmetics firms had produced finely textured and tinted powders, and American firms followed suit, selling a wider range of shades. These included, in the mid-1920s, powders and rouges to complement suntanned skin, which had become a popular craze. Metal compacts and lipstick tubes emphasized the portability of cosmetics, so that women could touch up throughout the day. Vanishing cream was typically used as a base for powder, but foundations began to appear in the 1930s. Among the most innovative and successful was Max Factor's Pan-Cake, a water-soluble foundation in cake form, invented for use by motion picture actors, then introduced to the general public in 1938.

In the first half of the twentieth century, however, most cosmetics manufacturers followed standard formulas, modifying basic creams, lotions, and other preparations. Firms selling lipstick, rouge, and eye makeup often depended on "private label" manufacturers, who offered similar products with small variations. Scientific discoveries led companies to make new claims for wrinkle removers, and small amounts of vitamins, hormones, and even radium were added to skin creams. By the 1930s, the public paid heightened attention to the composition of cosmetics and the exaggerated claims of advertisers. Consumer advocacy groups highlighted cases where women had been blinded by aniline dyes in mascara or burned by skin bleaches that contained a high percentage of ammo-niated mercury, common in whiteners sold to African American women. Such concerns led to the increased regulation of cosmetics in the United States and passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act in 1938.

It was advertising and marketing, more than product development, that spurred the expansion of the beauty industry and cosmetics use. Cosmetics and toiletries were heavily advertised in women's magazines, second only to food items, and appeared frequently in general interest magazines, in newspapers, and by the 1930s, on radio. These advertisements invoked aspira-tional images of beauty, youth, and romance, on the one hand, but also touched anxieties about social competition and failed romance, especially during the Great Depression. Hollywood also played an important role; motion picture actresses established new beauty ideals and endorsed a range of products, including mascara and eye shadow, cosmetics few women wore at the time. Whether sold in department stores or five-and-dimes, cosmetics were often an impulse purchase; retailers set up eyecatching displays in the central aisles of their stores and hired saleswomen to demonstrate beauty techniques and promote specific brands.

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