Blog note: farewell to Couture Monday
Curator's Corner, 5/22/2016

Spotlight on the Smithsonian's cosmetics and personal care collection

Well, this is embarrassing.  The Curator is quite ashamed to be learning just now of the Smithsonian's collection of vintage cosmetic and personal care items.  Thanks to an email newsletter from Cosmetics Design a few days ago, I learned that the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has a collection of over 2,200 beauty and health items that will soon be digitized with support from Kiehl's.  (Um, hello, Kiehl's?  I know my museum isn't the Smithsonian but I'd sure appreciate some money to fund it.  Please and thank you.)  So there's an excellent selection of cosmetic objects right here in the U.S., a mere 45 minutes away from the Makeup Museum!  Since I can't get down there within the next couple of weeks I thought I'd take a peek at their collection online.  I was not disappointed - tons of good makeup, skincare and hair care items abound.  I picked out a few items I had never seen before and thought I'd share them here.

Collecting Vintage Compacts has an informative post on the Norida company.

Norida Fleur Savage powder, ca. 1924

Encharma powder, ca. 1930s

Once again, Collecting Vintage Compacts has a thorough history of the Edna Wallace Hopper company, among the first to use the name and image of an actress to sell beauty products.

Edna Wallace Hopper powder, early 1920s

I wish more companies did 3D embellishments like on this powder.  That red ornament survived remarkably well.

Piquante powder

I was so pleasantly surprised to see a little lady peering into a mirror rather than a spider in the middle of those webs!

Glebias powder, 1925

Don Juan lipstick - love the name and the cameo detail is great.

Don Juan lipstick, ca. 1946

Don Juan lipstick box, 1946

I'm really surprised most companies today haven't seized on the lipstick tissue gap in the market.  We have facial blotting sheets but not a lot for lips.  I think they're highly unnecessary but just the thing a company would invent to make money off of (and I'd buy it in a heartbeat if it had a graphic of a cool, cave-painting-esque huntress on it like this package.)

Kleenex lipstick tissues

I always think of multi-use products as a modern invention, but this eyelash and brow pomade from 1920 proves me wrong.

Lash and brow pomade, 1920

So. Pretty.

Magda Toilet Cream

Despite the box's claim of being "absolutely safe and harmless to anybody", the phrase "safe arsenic" seems like an oxymoron to me.

Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers, ca. 1890

Totally misread the name as cocaine, but it's not.  This hair treatment is made from coconut oil.

Cocoaine hair treatment, 1906-1908

Here are the more health-related items.  I wouldn't necessarily include them in my own collection (well, maybe the bath items/soaps since I collect those too currently) but they're pretty interesting nonetheless.

Queen Beauty Toilet Soap, ca. 1908-1918

For a kid in the '60s I bet bathtime was a blast, what with all this fun packaging.

Crazy Foam monkey bottle, 1965

Crazy Bubbles bubble bath, 1966

More harmful ingredients...we think aluminum in deodorant is bad, what about formaldehyde?!

Thymoform deodorant, ca. 1940

Toothbrushes in the 1890s were usually carved from bone or wood and had pig bristles.  Thankfully most were made from nylon by the 1930s.

Toothbrush, ca. 1894

Who wants to see an old douche?  No, I'm not referring to Donald Trump.  The collection has a whole section of "feminine hygiene" products.  Apparently you were supposed to shove one of these "cones" in, um, yourself and leave it in overnight!  I can't imagine the irritation from the salicylic acid.  *shudder*

Sanite cones

The name "Dr. Shoop" cracks me up.  Also, I learned that a "chilblain" is an inflammation of the skin caused by an abnormal reaction to cold.  #themoreyouknow

Dr. Shoop's Green Salve, ca. 1920

Doesn't matter if you're a horse or a cow or a man - Taylor's Oil of Life can soothe what ails ya.

Taylor's Oil of Life Liniment, ca. 1900

They also had very early versions both Smith's Rosebud Salve and Tiger Balm, brands that are still around today and whose packaging has hardly changed.

What I really appreciated about the Smithsonian collection is that they seemed to have made an effort to ensure that beauty items for people of color were represented, especially in the hair items.  And in the brief histories of skincare, hair care and makeup, the museum included descriptions of beauty practices for women of color and resources on the topic in their bibliography - so many short beauty histories and timelines that I've seen mostly exclude non-white folks.

Walker's Glossine

Afro Sheen treatment

Mr. Puff hair oil

Pro Line Kiddie Kit Hair Relaxer, ca. 1979
(all images from

I found it odd that Kiehl's did not have much in the way of vintage items.  It looked like the earliest objects were from the 1980s or so but as the Kiehl's name says, the company goes back to 1851.  I think it's rather telling that they included the 2010 Jeff Koons lotion - see, I told you current artist collaborations with beauty brands belong in a museum!  I'm happy that the Smithsonian agrees with me on that.  The only sad part is that so many of these aren't on display, which I guess is why digitization of the collection is all the more important.  But I think it also begs the question of why not put at least some of this stuff out?  Beauty items don't take up much room, after all.  Maybe Kiehl's should fund a special exhibition of collection highlights.

What do you think?  What's your favorite item I've shown here?


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