In the twenty-first century, cosmetics include a full range of products to protect the skin and improve appearance, from moisturizers to makeup, manufactured by a multibillion-dollar, global cosmetics industry. Before the twentieth century, however, cosmetics were understood differently in Western cultures. In English, the word “cosmetic” referred to skin-improving substances, such as creams and lotions. Cosmetics to mask or color the skin were known as “paint” or, in a theatrical context, “makeup.” This fundamental distinction was a legacy of the ancient world, and shaped the early use of cosmetics.
Cosmetics Before 1900
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European women prepared simple cosmetics from recipes appearing in household manuals and cookbooks or passed on orally from generation to generation. In that period, cosmetics were as much science as art, a branch of self-help therapeutics that women were expected to master. Recipes in early household manuals called for roots, wild-flowers, and other plants to be mixed with water, beer, vinegar, and spices; these produced remedies to clear the complexion, improve color, and remove signs of smallpox. The principles governing these mixtures were based on Galen’s theory of the humors, in which the correspondence between internal and external organs, and the balance between hot, cold, dry, and moist qualities, was the key to health and beauty. In addition, belief in the power of nature’s cycles and astrology found their way into beauty preparations, in recipes using May dew, the first juice of spring plants, and “virgin milk.”
Colonial Americans used similar cosmetic recipes, preparing cold cream, skin lotions, and lip salves from such common substances as wax, lard, nut oils, and sugar. They also incorporated the flowers and herbs of the New World, such as puccoon-root or “Indian paint,” prevalent in Algonquin therapeutics. Africans brought to the colonies as slaves similarly adapted native plants into traditional West African techniques of grooming and beautifying, using berries and roots to redden the skin, for example.
In addition to home preparations, a small but significant global trade made exotic herbs, extracts, dyes, and proprietary cosmetics available to the wealthy in the early modern period. French and English court society encouraged the use of enamels, white powder, rouges, and beauty marks to enhance appearance, serve fashion, and cover pockmarks and other disfigurements, and colonial elites followed suit. These paints, powders, and enamels to whiten the skin often contained dangerous substances, such as arsenic and lead, jeopardizing health while creating brilliant effects. Perfumers, hairdressers, and apothecaries in major cities offered fashionable cosmetics to both women and men. Until the early nineteenth century, cosmetics tended to mark rank as much as gender; they connoted gentility, social prestige, and political standing, and were as much a part of high culture as ornamental clothing and tea drinking.
Fashionable cosmetics became a source of controversy, however, in Europe and America. Puritans condemned painting as a mark of vanity and defiance of the divine order; masking the face falsified one’s true identity. The American Revolution placed a political perspective on such cosmetics, valuing the plain appearance of republican virtue over the foppery of aristocratic men. In the early nineteenth century, the religious sensibilities and domestic ideals of an emergent middle class in the North emphasized both natural beauty and women’s duty to be beautiful, to be achieved through healthful regimens and a moral life. White southern women, especially those on plantations, held onto the earlier ideals of gentility that permitted powder and rouge. Still, the association of cosmetics with prostitution—the “painted woman”—remained a strong one through the 1800s, and women who dared to use cosmetics did so covertly and with a light touch.
Sales of skin creams and lotions grew through the middle of the nineteenth century, but they remained small in scale when compared with such commodities as patent medicines and soaps. According to an 1849 manufacturing census, thirty-nine toiletries firms produced only $355,000 in merchandise in the United States. Nevertheless, the expansion of the market in this period made formerly rare preparations more available and affordable. Typically pharmacists would use a range of chemicals, herbs, and oils to “put up” skin creams under a house label. Commercial agents also imported goods from around the world, including English patent preparations, French perfumes, Portuguese rouge dishes, and Chinese color boxes, containing color-saturated papers of rouge, pearl powder, and eyebrow blacking.
The most commonly used cosmetics of the nineteenth century, however, were skin whiteners and bleaches. Advertisements claimed they removed tan and freckles and made women look more refined and genteel. These were directed at white, middle-class women, playing on their social aspirations, as well as working-class, immigrant, and black women.
Cosmetics Use and the Beauty Industry
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 cosmetics 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, businesswoman 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.
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 ammoniated 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 aspirational 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.
By the 1940s, makeup had become accepted as an integral dimension of women’s everyday appearance. Home economics courses taught how to use makeup in classes on good grooming; department stores held beauty days for schoolgirls; white-collar personnel offices looked favorably on job candidates with carefully applied lipstick and rouge. Psychologists and other professionals insisted that cosmetics were essential to women’s mental health and a mature feminine identity.
During World War II, bright red lipstick became a sign of women’s patriotism among the Allies. As women went into industry in record numbers, they continued to use cosmetics to affirm their femininity and boost their morale. When the American government tried to restrict cosmetics as a conservation measure in 1942, it found itself backpedaling six months later. Although discontinuing metal containers and limiting some ingredients, it nevertheless made a wide range of beauty preparations available.
Cosmetics use increased dramatically in the postwar world. Women purchased cosmetics to complement seasonal changes in fashion, buying wardrobes of lipstick and nail polish. As the market for cosmetics matured, the beauty business created distinctive brands intended to appeal to women according to demographics and lifestyle. Maybelline, Revlon, and Noxzema (Noxell)—small-scale firms that before the war had specialized in eye makeup, nail enamel, and skin cream, respectively—became large corporations with extensive product lines. New women entrepreneurs also emerged after World War II, including Estee Lauder and Mary Kay Ash. Home-based selling proved highly successful in this period. Avon, founded in 1886, used door-to-door sales to expand from rural communities and cities into the burgeoning postwar suburbs. Using the multilevel marketing strategy pioneered by earlier black businesswomen, Mary Kay organized home parties for women to learn about and purchase cosmetics.
Postwar youth culture spurred cosmetic firms to market cosmetics especially for teenage girls. Noxzema’s Cover Girl offered sheer, medicated foundations and lighter tints as a “clean makeup” that would appeal to both teens and their parents. In the early 1960s, the sale of eye makeup—mascara, eyeliner, and colorful eye shadow—finally took off, an aesthetic trend among young women that coincided with the miniskirt and long hair of the time. Grooming aids, powder, and lip gloss for young girls appeared as early as the 1950s; by the 1970s, toy companies and major cosmetics firms competed for these juvenile consumers.
Market segmentation meant that advertising varied considerably in this period. Compared with their prewar counterparts, however, advertisements in the 1950s and 1960s more boldly accentuated women’s sexuality and need to appeal physically to men. Revlon’s Fire and Ice campaign in 1952 cast a playful yet erotic and charged aura around a medium-red lipstick. During the “British Invasion” of the 1960s, Mary Quant’s Love Cosmetics used phallic packaging and Mod design to tie teen cosmetics to the sexual revolution.
Politics of Cosmetics
By the mid-1960s, the counterculture and a nascent feminist movement attacked these trends in advertising, the commercialization of beauty, and women’s sexual objec-tification in the media. Embracing a “natural” look, some women gave up makeup entirely, while others began to compound their own creams and lotions using herbs, berries, and other organic ingredients. Major cosmetics firms were slow to respond to this challenge. Estee Lauder introduced Clinique in 1968, emphasizing a scientific and hygienic appeal. A number of cosmetics lines appeared that contained natural ingredients and were not tested on animals; these often sold in food coops or other alternative outlets. The Body Shop, founded by Anita Roddick, became highly successful marketing to women sensitive to the environment and influenced by the counterculture.
In the 1960s and 1970s, women of color also protested the narrow images of beauty that appeared in fashion magazines and limited cosmetics lines available to them. African American businesses like Fashion Fair and entrepreneurs from the post-1965 immigrant groups have created niche makeup lines for black, Latina, Asian-American, and other women. Increasingly attuned to American ethnic diversity and the global economy, corporations like Maybelline began to manufacture foundation and other cosmetics for the full range of human skin tones.
The feminist critique of cosmetics continued to be heard in the last decades of the twentieth century, notably in the 1991 best-seller The Beauty Myth. That critique, in turn, was challenged in the 1980s and 1990s by postfeminists, postmodernists, lipstick lesbians, and devotees of such subcultural styles as punk. They rejected the “natural” as a measure of authenticity, and held instead to the view that cosmetics use could be a source of play, pleasure, and self-expression. Again, cosmetics companies have picked up on that attitude, marketing lipstick, eye makeup, and nail polish in unusual and extreme colors and such provocative names as Vamp and Juicy.
Developments in the Early 2000s
Western cosmetics became widespread in the global economy in the second half of the twentieth century. Corporations like Unilever and Ponds established subsidiaries, contracted with local import firms, and sold beauty preparations in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. American manufacturers marketed cosmetics in a difficult balancing act, appealing to universal ideals of beauty, promoting the American style of actresses and models, and nodding to national and cultural differences. Avon’s success in the international arena depended on native sales agents who understood local customs and concerns even as they projected the image of American beauty, lifestyles, and values. By the 1990s, “Avon calling” could be heard around the world, including post-communist and developing countries.
By the twenty-first century, cosmetics manufacturers had invested heavily in scientific research, working closely with chemists and dermatologists. These new “cosmeceuticals” went beyond the hypoallergenic products available since the 1930s and included creams and ointments containing such ingredients as Retin A, which appears to reduce the effects of aging and improves the skin. These products have increasingly blurred the lines between cosmetics, drugs, and medical specialties. The post-World War II baby-boom generation has fueled the growth of anti-aging research and product development, a trend that is expected to continue.
An important development in cosmetics is the partially successful effort to sell cosmetics to men, beyond the traditional grooming products like aftershave and cologne. Both mass manufacturers and some high-end firms, including Helena Rubinstein, tried unsuccessfully to sell cosmetics to men earlier in the twentieth century. Since 1980, however, a significant number of urban professional men and gay men have begun to use moisturizer, exfoliating liquids, and even bronzers to improve their appearance. Although often similar to women’s cosmetics, these products are usually segregated in a separate men’s counter in retail stores and appear with different brand names and packaging. Young men in such music and dance subcultures as heavy metal and goth will often wear colorful makeup as performers and audience members. Most makeup remains so deeply associated with femininity and effeminacy, however, that very few men choose to use it in everyday business and social life, and those who do seek a “natural” look.
Allen, Margaret. Selling Dreams: Inside the Beauty Business. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Banner, Lois. American Beauty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
De Castlebajac, Kate. The Face of the Century: 100 Years of Makeup and Style. New York: Rizzoli International, 1995.
Gunn, Fenja. The Artificial Face: A History of Cosmetics. London: David and Charles, 1973.
Koehn, Nancy. “Estee Lauder: Self-Definition and the Modern Cosmetics Market.” In Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America. Edited by Philip Scranton, 217 – 251. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Manko, Katina L. “A Depression-Proof Business Strategy: The California Perfume Company’s Motivational Literature.” In Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America. Edited by Philip Scranton, 142 – 168. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Peiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.
Smith, Virginia. “The Popularisation of Medical Knowledge: The Case of Cosmetics.” Society for the Social History of Medicine Bulletin 36 (1986): 12 – 15.
Vinikas, Vincent. Soft Soap, Hard Sell: American Hygiene in an Age of Advertisement. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1992.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. New York: William Morrow, 1991.