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A Brief History of Makeup

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Every woman, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not, has an innate desire to be desired. Even the staunchest of feminists want to be accepted by other feminists. It goes without saying that we, as human beings, don’t enjoy being disliked and we go to any measure to make ourselves more readily acceptable to others. For women, one of the easiest ways to improve confidence and self-image is makeup.

Ancient Egyptians used copper and lead ores in some of the most primitive forms of makeup, and in many cultures there are reports of women crushing berries to dye their lips, using burnt matches as eyeliners, and using leeches to drain their blood to make their complexions appear more pale. Even the highly poisonous element mercury was a popular cosmetic in ancient Rome and Egypt. Most of these practices are obviously not safe.  In some cultures, the use of cosmetics to enhance one’s appearance was limited only to the upper class.

During the Middle Ages, the Church began looking down on the use of cosmetics in all but the upper classes, probably because it nurtured vanity, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. In the 1800s, Queen Victoria publicly denounced makeup, calling it “vulgar,” and declared use of it acceptable only by actors.

However, after the turn of the century and the roaring twenties, makeup had become commonplace by the middle of the twentieth century. Discovering the marketplace for cosmetics, a few still well-known names emerged – Max Factor and Estée Lauder, just to name a two.

Max Factor was born Maximilian Factorowicz in what is now Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1877 and began creating his own makeup, fragrances, and wigs to sell out of a shop. Factorowicz became well known when a traveling troupe wore some of his fragrances to a performance for Russian nobility. The royal family soon named him the cosmetic expert for themselves and the Imperial Russian Grand Opera.

In 1904, Factorowicz and his family migrated to the United States. After changing his last name to Factor, he began selling his cosmetics at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. The family again moved in 1908, this time to Los Angeles, which allowed Factor to get a start in Hollywood.

Realizing that the commonly used grease paint of the stage could not be applied thinly enough to be used for motion pictures, Factor set about perfecting a grease paint in cream form that went on thinner and, unlike theatrical grease paint, would not crack. The new makeup caught on, and soon Factor was receiving calls from Hollywood stars eager to try the new flexible makeup.

Factor is also credited for coining the term “makeup” to refer to cosmetics. He based his new word on the verb phrase “to make one’s self up.”

After his success in Hollywood, Factor’s business only continued to grow, and in 1920 the Color Harmony principles of makeup were developed, stating that certain aspects of women’s faces were better accented by certain makeup shades. Factor continued to break boundaries and create new products, including liquid nail enamel in 1925, lip-gloss in 1930, and the first waterproof makeup in 1971.

Max Factor died in 1938 at the age of 59. His son, Max Factor Jr., expanded the family business, which merged with Norton-Simon industries in 1976. In 1983, Esmark took over Norton-Simon and then merged with Beatrice Foods, placing Max Factor into the Playtex division. Revlon bought Playtex in 1986, and in 1991, Revlon sold the company to Procter and Gamble. In 2010, Procter and Gamble will discontinue Max Factor in the United State to focus on the more successful CoverGirl brand.

Estée Lauder was born in Queens, New York, to a Hungarian mother and a Czechoslovakian father. She later married Joseph Lauder and in 1946 the two created and began selling cosmetics in New York. Starting with only four products, the Lauders sold independently for two years before establishing their first department store contract with Saks Fifth Avenue.

For fifteen years, the Lauders worked on spreading their brand across the United States. Finally in 1960, the business went international, with a contract with Harrod’s department store in London. The company would later open an office in Hong Kong as well.

Estée Lauder stands out as a company because its Clinique brand became the first dermatologist-guided, allergy-free skin system. Clinique also made headlines when it became the first cosmetic company to introduce a line for men.

Estée Lauder is comprised of several brands.  Some of the most recognizable are Tommy Hilfiger, Kate Spade, Coach, and MAC Cosmetics.

While Max Factor and Estée Lauder are two of the best known American cosmetic companies, the biggest in the world in headquartered in Clichy, France. L’Oréal was founded in 1907 by French chemist Eugène Schueller, who developed a hair-color formula. Schueller manufactured his own products and then sold them to French hairdressers. In 1909, Schueller registered his company and began growing the brand.

Although L’Oréal got its start in hair color, the company has expanded over the years to include cosmetics, body and skin care, and fragrances.

As part of its Luxury Products division, L’Oréal owns and operates Lancôme, which began in 1935 and focused mainly on fragrances. Lancôme debuted its five fragrances at the World’s Fair in Brussels. Today, the company manufactures over 50 fragrances. In 1936, only a year after its premiere, the company had expanded its offerings to include makeup and skin care products.

It has been a long time since the ancient Egyptians used poisons to make themselves look pretty, and it can definitely be said that we’ve come a long way. Makeup now endures rigorous testing before it finds its way onto department store shelves and makeup brushes across the country. No matter how shallow the act of making one’s self up may be, the truth remains that as human beings, we always strive to be accepted. And if that means using beauty products to do so, count me in.

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About Meghan Partain

  • klondikekitty

    thank you so much for this fascinating glimpse into the history of makeup, hair color and fragrance . . . wow, i had no idea how many years us women have been searching for the ideal look through the use of cosmetics!! Very cool story!!

  • I’m a huge Max Factor fan. More so now than ever. Funny how age changes our view on vanity.

    Very interesting article.

  • Thank you for this very interesting article. I’m fascinated by the way we women want to be desired even as we want to be valued for more than our desirability. It’s a very delicate balance, particularly for the woman who identifies as a feminist.

  • Jennifer

    Wow! Love maxfactor, love the article.

  • Disha Communications

    Need some more information on the same