Cosmetics are consumer products that are used to beautify, clean, or protect the body. Cosmetics can be used on any part of the body, but they are most frequently applied to the face. The term makeup has become synonymous with cosmetics because such formulations are often applied to enhance one’s physical exterior. Cosmetics have played a significant role in female culture in the United States since the 19th century, when an identifiable cosmetic industry arose.
The 19th Century
During much of the 19th century, creams, lotions, tonics, and other cosmetic preparations were primarily produced and consumed in the home. Initially, these homemade concoctions were based on formulas found in popular advice books or derived from family-held recipes. By mid-century, cosmetics were popularly prized for their ability to soften the skin, protect against sunburn, and remove freckles. By the late 19th century, many American females were also grinding chalk to make face powder and using beets to give their cheeks a rouge glow. While a home-grown U.S. cosmetics trade prospered, many Americans viewed commercially produced cosmetic preparations with much skepticism and caution. They feared that commercially produced cosmetics were unsafe and could harm their health.
In addition to health concerns, many 19th-century Americans disapproved of cosmetic use for moral reasons. Inspired by the attitudes and beliefs of the Victorian era, these individuals referred to cosmetics as paint and questioned the virtues of those who applied it. Such objections were based upon the belief that a person’s core moral character would manifest itself directly in the body’s physical form. Under this line of reasoning, blemishes, for example, were not understood as a superficial skin condition, but were rather believed to be the result of personal moral failings. Persons who engaged in illicit sexual activity, it was thought, would develop skin conditions as a result of their sinful actions. The use of cosmetics, therefore, was taboo because it was seen as a ruse to cover up a lack of honesty, piety, frugality, or sexual purity. If pimples were the result of sinful behavior, using cosmetics to cover them up was similarly disdained. Indeed, before the 20th century, cosmetics were most frequently associated with sex workers and actors, persons who, it was believed, had an interest in masking their true identity in order to present an altered public persona.
Early 20th Century
During the early 20th century, several factors helped to popularize commercially produced cosmetics and change the stigmatization associated with their use. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 allowed the federal government to regulate the cosmetics industry and crack down on faulty marketing practices. This legislation gave traction to the emerging cosmetic industry because it mandated that producers provide correct ingredient information for their goods, thereby discouraging inaccurate product labeling and the use of harmful chemicals in cosmetic preparations. The growth of national markets and the emergence of mass consumer cultures in the early 20th century were among the most important factors leading to the widespread acceptance of cosmetic use in the United States. With heightened national production capabilities and the development of a professional advertising industry, 20th-century producers were able to send positive messages about cosmetic consumption to a wide array of Americans. During the
1910s and 1920s, the number of advertisements for cosmetics in popular magazines ballooned. Ads featured in The Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and other popular women’s magazines helped to raise the public visibility of commercial beauty products and familiarize Americans with their use. Following the advent of the radio, in the 1920s, cosmetics manufacturers also began to market their products heavily through the airwaves. Commercial advertisements extolled the safety, effectiveness, and desirability of mass-produced cosmetic preparations.
Female entrepreneurs played important roles in the growth of the cosmetics industry during the early 20th century. Women such as Sarah Breedlove (Madam C. J. Walker), Florence Nightingale Graham (Elizabeth Arden), Chaja Rubinstein (Helena Rubinstein), and Josephine Esther Mentzer Lauter (Estée Lauder) helped to create a national cosmetics industry that was not only headed by women, but that employed many female workers as well. Sarah Breedlove created the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906, and in 1918 her company began to sell an array of cosmetic products for African American women, including four shades of face powder, cold cream, and cleansing cream. Earning over a quarter of a million dollars that year, Walker vociferously fought back against critics who derided her industry as undesirable. Walker contended that the sale of her products offered African American females respectable employment and lucrative incomes at a time when employers were remiss to offer women of any color high-paying jobs. The fact that Walker drew large profits throughout World War I, a time of great public rationing, points to the solidification of the cosmetics industry in the early 20th-century United States.
The consumerist ethos that emerged during this era changed the most basic ways in which Americans related to, understood, and used their outward physical appearance. During the first decades of the 20th century, ordinary Americans began to use consumer goods as avenues for the expression of the inner self. The mass availability of cheap cosmetics allowed the American female to easily try on various makeup styles and the public personas associated with each look. By the 1920s, the Victorian mores that shunned cosmetic use had given way to the impulses of the modern girl, whose cosmetic preferences helped redefine the boundaries of womanhood. Alongside loosening sexual mores and changing clothing styles, cosmetic use was a staple feature of the era’s popular flapper look.
It was in this atmosphere of change that the aspiring saleswoman Josephine Esther Mentzer Lauter learned her craft. Starting in 1924, Lauter worked at New Way Laboratories in Manhattan, a cosmetics manufacturing and distributing business owned by her uncle. At New Way Laboratories, Lauter became an expert at applying lip color, cleansing oils, powder, eye shadow, freckle remover, and cold creams on the faces of potential consumers. In 1933, she renamed herself Estée Lauder and began her own home-based cosmetics business. Rather than in the gregarious years of the roaring 1920s, Lauder launched her business during the Great Depression, when one out of four Americans was unemployed. However, as Lauder aptly realized, a national depression could be good for the cosmetics industry. In part because of the many economic problems people faced, Americans used inexpensive commercial pleasures, such as movie tickets, records, alcohol, and cosmetics, to boost their mood. Lauder grew her business by promising women both a new look and a new feeling about themselves. Attempting to briefly turn her clients’ thoughts away from their economic woes, she offered them what she called “confidence-building beauty” through cosmetics.
Another cultural factor that led to the mainstream acceptance of cosmetics use in the 1930s was its visibility in U.S. cinema. Film brought images of self-assured, sexually confident, and glamorous women to the masses of Americans living through the anything-but-glamorous realities of life during the Great Depression. Due to the popularity of cinema, fashionable clothing, cigarettes, and cosmetics became associated with a modern lifestyle. As a result, many American women demanded access to the look they saw on the silver screen. After applying cosmetics to the faces of Hollywood stars, including Judy Garland and Bette Davis, the Polish immigrant Maximilian Faktorowicz (Max Factor) was able to popularize his cosmetic line among young women. Max Factor cosmetics were popular among women in many immigrant households; for them, cosmetics use was not only glamorous, but also a way to solidify their identity as Americans. Max Factor advertisements regularly appeared in the Mexican American publication La Opinión, which was targeted to firstand second-generation Americans. In addition to film stars, many American women of different backgrounds learned how to stylize their bodies by mimicking the actresses they watched on television beginning in the 1940s. Taken together, print, film, radio, and television advertising were popular mediums that pushed cosmetics use into the mainstream of American culture during the first half of the 20th century.
Post–World War II Decades
By the mid-20th century, the targets of cosmetic marketing widened further. Cosmetic advertisements began to appear in new periodicals such as Seventeen and Charm; these were directed toward female adolescents and girls. The postwar era also saw increased marketing of cosmetic products to American men. However, while cosmetics use grew during the second half of the 20th century, its acceptance was never universal. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, many American women rejected makeup use outright. Opponents of the cosmetic industry argued that producers and advertisers encouraged women to adopt unattainable standards of beauty. Indeed, many feminists cited cosmetics as a troublesome part of the larger male-dominated economy that manipulated women into a passive consumer role. The cosmetics industry, they argued, focused women’s attention on making themselves into perennial objects of male desire.
Despite these critiques, the sale and use of cosmetics continued to increase during the second half of the 20th century. Between 1955 and 1965, U.S. retail sales for all cosmetic and toiletry items rose from $1.2 billion to $2.9 billion and the market came to be dominated by a handful of large international corporations. An early industry leader, Estée Lauder is exemplary of this trend. Between 1958 and 1965, the company’s sales rose from $1 million to $14 million dollars. To expand their markets further during the later decades of the 20th century, Estée Lauder and other major cosmetic companies targeted multiple consumer groups simultaneously. For example, in 1968, Estée Lauder introduced its Clinique brand, a line the company developed to court women in their 20s who were interested in medically sound cosmetic preparations. Just over a decade later, in 1979, the company created its Prescriptives brand, which was marketed as a high-tech line of skin care treatments. Prescriptives was aimed at consumers who were older than the Clinique buyer but younger than the purchasers of traditional Estée Lauder products. Again sensing an opening in the market, Estée Lauder introduced its Origins brand of cosmetics in 1990, a line of botanical-based products for both women and men. In this way, Estée Lauder and like-minded cosmetic companies sought to saturate the market with competing brands during the second half of the 20th century. Started as small enterprise created by a first-generation American woman in the 1920s, Estée Lauder, Inc., had grown into a four-billion-dollar corporation in 1990 and employed over 15,000 people. Indeed, the mass scale of the cosmetics industry was one of its defining features at the century’s end. By the late 1990s, seven global corporations, including L’Oréal, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, Shiseido, Estée Lauder, Avon, and Johnson & Johnson accounted for almost half of all cosmetics revenues in the world.