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Chemical Reaction: When Looking Back is Looking Forward

Steve Herman

“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.

Rubinstein began her business with Kraków Cream, made using a secret recipe by a local chemist, Dr. Jacob Lykusky—who may or may not have been a real person. It contained, as its magic ingredient, the bark of an evergreen tree from the Carpathian forests outside Kraków. The pine bark in fact contains flavonoids, which are potent water-soluble antioxidants that help repair connective tissue and boost the immune system. Thus, we have a perfectly reasonable “cosmeceutical,” provided to Rubinstein’s customers a century ago.

During her passage from Europe to Australia in 1896, Rubinstein stopped in India—where she discovered fragrant mixes, the water lily, kohl and ayurvedic massage (her affection for honey and mint treatment was a known ayurvedic remedy, and water lily would remain a favorite through her career). Her Valaze Cream, originally a cold cream and barrier cream, soon expanded into a range of products. Claims included the removal of freckles, and this was, perhaps, due to the presence of hydrogen peroxide or citric acid. Valaze cream also contained essential oils of rose, orange, lily and lavender. These allowedfor healing claims, as well as a pleasing smell, and Rubinstein—as well as Arden—always sought to fulfill the promise of youth with a pleasant scent.

The natural and green movement has pushed our industry into every forest and pond looking for exotic actives, and we tend to think of this as a new venture. However, serving this “trend” was among Rubinstein’s early efforts. In 1900–1901, she worked in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia, near sub-tropical forests rich in plant ingredients. Many materials were used for their healing properties by the Aboriginal tribes.

World War I was a turning point for many social and economic forces that paved the way for the modern cosmetic industry. After the war, American soldiers brought back perfume from Paris—Coty perfumes. It was the foundation for Coty to create the first European cosmetic company to conquer the American market. This change, along with evolving cultural standards and the advent of more liberal wardrobes, fostered a growth in advertising and publicity directed at female consumers.

In 1915, Vogue was packed with beauty product ads. Arden, her own copywriter, and Rubinstein battled in public with their advertising. Rubinstein modestly claimed to be “the greatest living beauty exponent,” while her rival had “given her life to the study of the subject in America, Paris, London and Berlin.”

And the products, too, were developing from fairly simple parts of a regimen. Rubinstein’s early beauty line consisted of cold cream to cleanse the face, astringent to close the pores, and vanishing cream to moisturize and protect the skin. By 1918, both women had established laboratories for product development. Arden’s lab produced Ardena Orange Skin Food, Ardena Astringent Cream, Ardena Healing Cream and Ardena Anti-Wrinkle Cream. Yes, the age-defying products of 2008 have a very long lineage.

There were additional foresights into product trends and development opportunities that may have seemed out of step at the time but have proved to be long-term winners. Stepping off the Duke of Westminster’s yacht with a deep tan in 1923, Coco Chanel sparked a craze in sunbathing on the Riviera. Rubinstein recognized an opportunity, and offered the first sun protection products in the 1930s. Both Arden and Rubinstein made further connections when spotting a trend, and married products and treatments. The new bathing suits of the day revealed unwanted flab, and Rubinstein and Arden salons offered eurhythmic exercise classes.

Consumer groups and market research arose in the 1920s, along with experts armed with statistics and product critiques. An exposé published in 1934, Skin Deep by M.C. Philips, attacked product contents, the cost-to-profit ratio and the selling of illusions. A board of doctors insisted that no “allergy-free” claims could be made for cosmetics. This was among the outcries that led to FDA’s Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938. Subsequently, out went Arden’s Orange Skin Food (which really didn’t feed the skin anyway), and Rubinstein’s Valaze Skin Food transformed into Wake Up Cream; both of their lines, along with everyone else’s, were remodeled by these new standards and the industry moved on.

On they went, these two women locked in perpetual competition through the Depression and World War II, right to their passing a year apart in the mid-1960s. Their companies no longer exist as independent enterprises, but their names remain potent. Unilever sold Arden in 2003 to FFI, a New York company that quickly changed its name to Elizabeth Arden. Even Arden’s famous Red Door, always a fixture of her salons, lives on in a signature fragrance. By 1988, L’Oréal had acquired the worldwide rights to Helena Rubinstein’s business.

In an industry with an insatiable craving for innovation, it is sobering to realize how much of what seems new was anticipated a century ago. It is not a criticism of the present, but recognition of the genius possessed by the founders of the beauty business. We see farther because we stand on their shoulders, and it is an achievement of our current science that we have rediscovered the best ideas of these extraordinary individuals.


  1.  L Woodhead, War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry, John Wiley & Sons (2003)
  2. A Tobias, Fire and Ice: The Story of Charles Revson, the Man Who Built the Revlon Empire, William Morrow (1976)
  3. S Herman, “Cosmetics: The Lost Years,” GCI 166 54 (2000)
  4. K Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, Henry Holt (1998)

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