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Business of Beauty: A Resource Guide

History of the Beauty Business

Bill Sauro, photographer. Estee Lauder applying lipstick. 1966. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Most people might think that cosmetics are a modern invention but in reality, cosmetics have been used since ancient times. Often they were used in religious ceremonies - as seen in ancient Egypt - or as cultural identification. Egypt's influence impacted the practices and uses of cosmetics though the rest of the ancient world, particularly ancient Rome. As Rome's influence faded, so too did the acceptability of cosmetics. At the same time, the influence of other cultures began to increase and the aesthetics of beauty changed and the use of cosmetics declined.

The spread of Christianity with its denunciations of pride and vanity coupled with a changing ideal of modesty, also impacted the standards of beauty. While cosmetics did not totally fall out of favor, their use seems to have been greatly reduced and their use largely restricted to courtesans, actresses, the wealthy, and assorted "loose" women. However, during the Renaissance high born women including Queen Elizabeth, used them to whiten their faces into an ideal of pale perfection.

Over time, cosmetics moved a little closer to more common usage.  But, it really wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the strictures of Victorian morality, that cosmetics and other beauty aids became more generally accepted. The Roaring Twenties and glamorous movie stars of the 1930's finally brought cosmetics into the mass merchandise market, where they were sold in department stores and other venues. It was about this time that some of the best known brand names - many of which are still sold today - entered the picture, and the modern cosmetics industry was born.

A Few Brands and Names of Note

There have been many people and brands that have left their on the history of the cosmetics and skin care industry. Here are just a few of the early notable brands and people in the history of the modern cosmetics industry:

  • Estée Lauder. The comapany Estée Lauder was founded in 1946 by husband and wife Joseph and Estée Lauder. Estée or Esty as she was called, showed an early interest in the business of her chemist uncle - selling products like cold cream, lip rouge, and fragrances. After a few years she set up a counter in a newly opened salon to sell her products and by 1948 she had gotten her first order to sell cosmetics in Saks Fifth Avenue which led to increased exposure and eventually national recognition. Estée Lauder cosmetics were sold primarily at department stores.
  • Revlon. Charles Revson is known as a founder of Revlon. In his early career, Revson sold nail enamel and experience proved to him that the nail enamel business had a future. In March of 1932 he, along with his brother Joseph and a man named Charles Lachman, started Revlon.
  • Helena Rubenstein. Helena Rubinstein, arrived in New York in 1915 after having established successful beauty salons in Paris, London and Melbourne. One of her early innovations was the concept of classifying women's skin into four groups - oily, dry, combination, and normal - and creating products for each.
  • Elizabeth Arden. Elizabeth Arden was introduced to the beauty industry in nursing school when she became interested in the work of a biochemist who worked on cream for skin blemishes. She moved to New York and got a job in a beauty salon and  eventually developed her own products, marketing them under the name Elizabeth Arden. Her first store opened in 1910 and marked the beginning of the company as well as its signature look with an attention-grabbing red door. After a a trip to Paris during World War I, where she discovered that French women were wearing mascara and eye shadow, she bought back samples and eventually incorporating color cosmetics in her product line.
  • Mary Kay. Mary Kay was founded by Mary Kay Ash in 1963 as Beauty by Mary Kay. She started with a small store front but decided that women would rather purchase products in a relaxed home environment. Eventually, the company became well known for its direct sales model and the signature pink.
  • Avon. But before Mary kay there was Avon founded by David McConnell as the California Perfume Company in 1886.  Originally the company only sold perfumes with a staff  female sales agents who brought the products directly to women's homes.  In 1928 the company introduced the Avon line of cosmetics and toiletries, and eventually the Avon name became so popular that in 1939, McConnell's son and successor changed the company name to Avon.
  • Annie T. Malone. Annie T. Malone made a fortune manufacturing and selling skin and hair care products and founded Poro College for teaching African American cosmetology.
  • Madam C. J. Walker. Madam C. J. Walker founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company with the launch of her first product, Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower. This company was run by and catered to the beauty needs of African American women, and like Malone's company, utilized door-to-door sales quite effectively.