Beauty Products That Changed the World

You probably have a drawer full of beauty products. Some are brands you discovered on your own, others are probably old favorites women in your family have “sworn by” for generations. But have you ever stopped to wonder how all those creams and ointments came to be? Or why those “oldies but goodies” have withstood the test of time?

If not, you may be surprised – and thankful that you have so many easy, inexpensive, and SAFE options to choose from. If not for these landmark products, it would be a very different world.

Ancient EgyptiansSkin care and makeup have been around for thousands of years. We’ve all seen the kohl-rimmed eyes in Egyptian hieroglyphs, and have heard tales of Cleopatra bathing in warm milk. From bees wax to blueberries, soot to dung, women have used anything and everything at their disposal over the millennia to smooth their skin and enhance their features.

But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th Century – when science and technology merged with factories and transportation – that the modern cosmetic industry was born. Until them, makeup was usually a make-it-yourself-at-home proposition, with often hazardous results.

Here are some of the products that changed all that:


When America’s first oil rigs began pumping for kerosene in the late 1850’s, workers immediately noticed a thin, sticky, paraffin-like substance that formed on the rigs and caused them to malfunction. They had to continually scrape off the “rod wax,” as they called it, but discovered it did have an upside: it helped heal cuts and burns.

Vaseline 1880'sWhen profit-minded chemist Robert Chesebrough heard about this, he traveled to the oil fields in Western Pennsylvania and brought back the sticky black substance to his lab in New York. He distilled it, created a light-colored gel, and patented the process for making petroleum jelly (1872). Touting his new product as a way to heal cuts and burns, Chesebrough called his product “Vaseline.” He began mass producing it in 1870, and it immediately caught on.

Why it was landmark: Until Vaseline, skin care products were typically made from food extracts like vegetable oil or olive oil that would go rancid quickly. That’s why “cold creams” had to be kept cold while not in use in the ice box or root cellar – to keep them from spoiling so quickly. Vaseline was made from petroleum and did not spoil – which meant it could be boxed and shipped anywhere.

Rimmel Mascara

Ancient Egyptians outlined their eyes with kohl made of malachite, charcoal, or soot, and as trade increased throughout the ancient world, eyelining spread from Rome and Greece to Pakistan and India. The materials and application technique remained unchanged for nearly 5,000 years.

Rimmel Mascara, late 1800'sWith the discovery of petroleum jelly, however, London perfumer and cosmetic innovator Eugène Rimmel came up with an idea: mix coal dust with petroleum jelly and apply it to the eyelashes. He produced the first mascara using cakes of pressed coal dust in the 1870’s, and it was an immediate hit – even in Victoria England. Soon, the pressed powder found its way all over Europe, and to this day, the French/Spanish/Italian/Portuguese/Dutch/Persian/Romanian word for mascara is “rimmel.”

Unfortunately, Rimmel mascara wasn’t sold in the United States for decades. Nonetheless, in the spirit of “great minds think alike,” Miss Maybel Williams of New York also came up with the idea of combining petroleum jelly with burnt cork dust to create a coating to put on her lashes in 1915. Her brother, chemist Tom Lyle Williams, saw what she was doing and took it to his lab, where he came up with a pressed coal dust he called “Lash-Brow-Ine,” which he sold by mail order. It was a big hit in their local area, but no one really liked the awkward name.

MaybellineSo, in honor of his sister Maybel, and because the product used Vaseline, Tom renamed it Maybelline, and began marketing it as “the first modern eye cosmetic for everyday use” in 1917. It was an enormous success and helped spawn the black-rimmed eye trend of the 1920’s.

When was the first mascara wand introduced? By Helena Rubinstein in 1957.

Why it was landmark: While women have been darkening their eyes for thousands of years, the products they used – soot, ash, coal, dung – often had unexpected consequences, like allergic reactions, or even blindness. These pressed powders worked well for many women, making dark lashes easily achievable without all the associated risks.

The Marcel Iron

Curly hair and straight hair have fallen in and out of fashion for thousands of years. By the late 17th Century, elaborate, curly wigs were popular, pushing the advancement of hairstyling techniques. One of the most popular was boucles papillote (butterfly curls), which involved curling small sections of hair into tissue paper and warming them with a flat iron. It was very labor intensive – much like foil color application is today – but since it was done on wigs, most wearers didn’t care. Until wigs fell out of favor, that is. Once women had to spend hours sitting to get their hair done, they starting looking for a faster way to go about it.

In 1872, French hairdresser Marcel Grateau developed the Marcel Iron, a precursor to the modern day curling and flat irons. The process involved heat drying the hair while also using heated tongs, which created a wavy effect that lasted until the next shampoo. It had be done in a salon by a trained professional, but women loved the look, and Marcel curls were popular for the next 50 years.

Marcel Iron

Marcel Iron, 1880’s

Marcel Waves

Marcel Waves, c. 1915

Photos courtesy of 

Why it was landmark: This was the first in a series of breakthrough hair care techniques that came about quickly as a result of customer demand. Within the next 50 years, permanent waves, permanent hair color, straightening tonics, and hair growth solutions were being sold, as well as hair dryers, curling irons, flat irons, etc. The creation of the Marcel iron was kind of like breaking the 4 minute mile; once it was invented, other beauty technologies quickly followed suit.

Ivory Soap

Ivory SoapSoaps had been around for centuries and by the late 1800’s, thick perfumed soaps were particularly popular. They were also expensive. So when brothers-in-law William Procter and James Gamble turned their attention to making a simple soap that the “average man” could afford, they struck gold with Ivory Soap, which they introduced in 1879. It was made with simple, pure ingredients – 99 and 44/100% pure – and was an immediate success. Another bonus? It floated!

Why it was landmark: Inexpensive with no perfume, it was particularly popular for babies, children, and men. It also became THE soap for people with sensitive skin or allergies. That it floated was also a boon for people who didn’t have indoor plumbing. Why? If they bathed in a river or pond, they could easily find the soap. Or, if each member of the household took a bath one right after the other, using the same washtub water (as was often the case), they could still find the soap at the end of the night. (Ewww, right? See what we take for granted?)

Max Factor Products

I’ve written about Max Factor before, calling him the “Creator of the Modern Cosmetic Industry,” because he created more breakthrough beauty products than anyone else. He started as a wig maker in Poland in the 1890’s, and after jobs with both the Imperial Russian Grand Opera and the Imperial Royal Family, he came to the United States in 1904. By 1909 he was in Hollywood, making wigs and makeup for the movie industry.

Barbara Stanwyck in Max Factor Ad 1947Over the next 30 years, the Max Factor Company produced many firsts, both for the movie industry and the general public, including:

  • False Eyelashes
  • The Eyebrow Pencil
  • Pan-Cake Makeup
  • Makeup for Women With Different Hair Colors

Because he worked with so many of Hollywood’s leading ladies, Max was also able to convince several of them to appear in his ads in exchange for publicity for their next film. This marked the first widespread use of celebrity endorsements, and became part of the blueprint for modern film promotion.

Why it was landmark: Cosmetics have fallen in and out of popularity throughout history, and during the Victorian Era, they were definitely “out.” Only actresses and prostitutes wore obvious makeup. But film changed all that. The women onscreen looked so beautiful, so glamorous that the “average” woman wanted to look like them. Max Factor made it happen. Not only did he do away with the thick stage greasepaint makeup film actors used by creating a lighter formulation that looked and felt natural, he also make his cosmetics available to the general public AND taught women how to use them. It sparked a revolution.

Now you probably have these products or some variation of them in your house right now, and you probably don’t give them a second thought. That’s how technology is: once mastered, it’s forgotten. But I encourage you to stretch your mind a little bit by Googling “history of + your favorite product” sometime and learn about its origins – because you may be surprised by what you discover.

You know what surprised me in researching this article?

How blatantly marketers once preyed on our mothers’ and grandmothers’ insecurities. If you think seeing a tall, thin, twenty-something in expensive clothes is obnoxious, take a look at some of these:

Daggett and Ramsdell Ad, 1922

 Daggett & Ramsdell Ad, 1922

Pond's Ad 1951

 Pond’s Cold Cream Ad, 1951

So…beauty products that changed world.

Do you agree?  Disagree?  Sound off below!


Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes shows women how to use their appearance to attract the income, the mate, and the life of their dreams.  If this article inspired you to upgrade your beauty routine, grab a copy of Beauty at Any Age to see how easy look great at any age can be.


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