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Chemical Reaction: When Looking Back is Looking Forward

By: Steve Herman
Posted: April 2, 2008, from the April 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

“History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
—David C. McCullough

Chaja Rubinstein of Kraków, Poland, and Florence Nightingale Graham of Ontario, Canada, understood everything about the current beauty industry. What is remarkable is that they understood it 100 years ago. To us, they are more familiar by the professional names they adopted: Helena Rubinstein (“Madame” was enough!) and Elizabeth Arden. An understanding of the modern beauty industry is congruous with appreciating their contributions.

There were, of course, others who came before and after who’ve made their mark on the industry—and they did have contemporaries not to be underestimated.

Earlier, François Coty created an empire by controlling all aspects of the cosmetic and fragrance business, from flower fields to manufacturing to the delivery trucks. Annie Turno Malone and Madame C. J. Walker became millionaires—they overcame both prejudice against women in the workplace and, as black women, racial prejudices. Charles Revson, the “nail man” to Madame Rubinstein, was a direct contemporary. Estée Lauder (née Josephine Esther Mentzer of Queens, New York) and Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kathlyn Wagner of Texas) came later, and were the last of the giants.

But Rubinstein and Arden—the focus of a joint biography, War Paint—touched on many “trends” that the industry continues to address today, and their advancements were often fueled by a personal rivalry. The biography title is appropriate, both for the connotations toward their respective approaches to business and rivalry, and because “war paint” was common slang for makeup from the 1930s through the 1950s. Makeup had been a forbidden tool in the seduction process, and before the 1920s, the public use of makeup was limited to entertainers and those on the onskirts of refined society. Rubinstein and Arden’s legacy included makeup, but stands on forward thinking beauty treatments and a progressive promotion of how to think about what these treatments could offer.