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A Brief History of Makeup

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.

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!!

  • A Geek Girl

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

    Very interesting article.

  • Caroline Hagood

    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