Next time you smooth, brush, or spray on foundation makeup, take a moment to thank Max Factor. For without his obsession for makeup perfection in front of the camera – and all the women around the world wanting to look as glamorous as their favorite stars – he might never have created makeup for regular women, and the cosmetic industry might not exist as we now know it. Remember that for every brand and type of cosmetic you put on your face, there’s a history behind it. This is Max Factor’s.
Maximilian Faktorowicz was born in Lodz, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1877 to a hard-working grocer and his wife. His mother died when he was a baby and his father couldn’t afford to send him to school. By the age of 8 he was assisting the local pharmacist, and by 9 he was apprentice to the local wigmaker and cosmetician. At 14 he was so talented he moved to Moscow to work for Korpo, wigmaker and cosmetician to the Imperial Russian Grand Opera.
Max opened his own shop in Ryazan near Moscow in the late 1890’s. He came to the attention of the Russian nobility when a traveling theatrical troupe performed at the Imperial palace wearing Max’s makeup and wigs. Tsarina Alexandra called for him and he was quickly appointed the official cosmetic expert for the Imperial Royal Family. During this time, he married and had 3 kids.
By 1904, anti-Semitism was growing in Russia, and Max, being Jewish, felt it was time to go. Concerned he wouldn’t be released from royal service, he told the Imperial family that he was going for a restive stay in Carlsbad, a spa city near Prague. Instead, he moved his family to America. When he was processed through Ellis Island in February, 1904, he told the immigration agent his new, shortened “American” name: Max Faktor. The agent misspelled it as Max Factor; Max didn’t correct him.
The Factors moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and Max sold creams and rouges from a stall at the 1904 World’s Fair. After giving birth to another baby in 1904, his wife Esther collapsed and died of a brain hemorrhage in March 1906. Max quickly remarried in order to provide a mother for his children, but despite having another child with wife #2, their marriage quickly fizzled and they divorced within a year. Max married for the 3rd and last time in January, 1908.
He also moved his family to Los Angeles, California that year to see if he could use his talents in the growing film industry. He founded “Max Factor & Company” in 1909 and along with his creams and rouges, soon became the West Coast distributor for Leichner and Minor, the two leading theatrical makeup manufacturers. The greasepaint makeup they sold worked well on stage, but not so much on film. It came in stick form, had limited shades, and often cracked and caked.
Max knew he could do better. After lots of experimentation, he introduced a lighter product in 1914 that came in a cream and in 12 different shades. It was a major coup that made Max Factor THE makeup expert in Hollywood. He also invented false eye lashes, the eyebrow pencil, and lip gloss, and introduced color harmony in makeup, saying a woman’s hair color, eye color, and skin color dictated which colors of makeup she should wear (1920).
Max often applied the makeup himself to many of Hollywood’s most notable stars, custom-blending shades to show each woman in her best light. He created Clara Bow’s signature heart-shaped lips and exaggerated Joan Crawford lips. He did makeup for Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Claudette Colbert, and Jean Harlow – among others – and they were all such Max Factor fans that they regularly went to his beauty salon near Hollywood Boulevard. Max had numerous film credits and received an Honorary Academy Award in 1929 for his contributions to the film industry.
Meanwhile his two oldest sons, Davis and Frank, started working with their father while in their teens. Whenever Max created wigs for use in movies, he often asked the director to cast the boys as extras so they could keep an eye on the wigs. Soon, the Max Factor name started becoming widely known outside the industry. Max was content to stay only in films, but with both the stars wanting to look as glamorous in real life as they did in the movies and ordinary women wanting to look like stars, the boys convinced Max to sell Max Factor products to the public. He finally did so in 1927 using ads with starlets in them, thus creating the celebrity endorsement industry. Max Factor makeup was an immediate success.
After years of declining health, Max Factor died in Hollywood in 1938 at the age of 61.
Upon his death, Frank Factor changed his name to Max Factor, Jr., in order to keep continuity in the company. Davis and Max Jr. continued their father’s legacy, creating new products and improving the old as film technology changed. They had to create a new range of products when films began shooting in color, and after two years of testing, Max Jr. came up with pancake makeup, which was a solid cake of makeup you could apply with a damp sponge and control how much coverage you wanted. It was used exclusively on movie sets, but when starlets kept stealing it from the makeup department for use at home, the company added it to their public line of products in 1938. It became – and still is – one of Max Factor’s best-selling products.
The family continued to work in both the movie industry and the makeup industry with equal ease. They released a smear-proof red lipstick in 1939 – the same year they did the Wicked Witch’s green makeup and the Good Witch’s wig for The Wizard of Oz. They made camouflage face paint for the army in World War II. They added more variety to their product line in the 1950’s, including men’s personal grooming items – while at the same time developing makeup for the new medium of television, most notably for I Love Lucy.
The company ventured into fragrances and a new, upscale line sold exclusively in department stores before Max’s grandchildren lost interest and merged with Norton Simon in 1973. By 1976, no Factor family member still worked at the company. After a number of mergers and buyouts, the Max Factor company was sold to Proctor & Gamble in 1991. In their 101st anniversary year in 2010, Proctor & Gamble pulled Max Factor products from shelves in the United States due to poor sales; you can still find them online at Amazon and Overstock. But the makeup continues to be a bestseller overseas, most notably in Russia – where it all began – and in the United Kingdom.
So what became of the Factor family? Are any of them still in the beauty industry?
Two of Max’s great-grandsons, brothers Davis and Dean Factor, founded Smashbox Studios in 1990, a photo and film studio in Los Angeles. They later added a modeling agency and a clothing line, and in 1996, Smashbox Cosmetics (which they sold to Estee Lauder in 2010). They also began partnering with IMG in 2002 to host Los Angeles Fashion Week.
So…a long and illustrious company history of theatrical excellence that went from backstage in Imperial Russia to makeup drawers around the world. We should all have such amazing careers!