Welcoming spring with Sulwhasoo
Curator's Corner, March 2021

Speed reviews: makeup history reads

In an effort to condense a few posts I'm doing some quick reviews of recent additions to the Museum's library. Hopefully they'll be of use...I mean, they can't be any worse than my usual long-form reviews, right?

Up first is historian Cheryl Woodruff-Brooks's biography of Sara Spencer Washington, who established the Apex News and Hair Company in 1919. Over the years the company expanded to include 11 Apex Beauty Colleges in the U.S. (including one right here in Baltimore - more on that later!) and abroad, Apex Laboratories to manufacture hair care, cosmetics and even household goods, and Apex News, which produced publications for her estheticians and sales agents. The Apex empire, as it came to be known, employed roughly 45,000 sales agents at its peak. Madame Washington wasn’t just a savvy entrepreneur; she regularly gave back to the Black community by offering scholarships to Apex schools, establishing a golf course that welcomed people of all races and economic status, and even founded a nursing home, Apex Rest.  Golden Beauty Boss: The Story of Madame Sara Spencer-Washington and the Apex Empire is relatively short but incredibly informative.  I can only imagine how many hours the author spent digging through various archives.

Golden Beauty Boss by Cheryl Woodruff-Brooks

Quality research and an intriguing story about one of the most successful Black entrepreneurs in history is a must-have for well, anyone! You can buy it here.

Next we have Howard Melton's and Michael Mont's American Compacts of the Art Deco Era: The Art of Elgin American, J.M. Fisher, and Others. This isn't a collector's guide; it's more along the lines of Jean-Marie Martin Hattemberg's tomes on powder boxes and lipsticks in that there are many images of beautiful objects to drool over with some wonderful history along the way. It also includes a good amount of ads, which are very helpful in identifying compacts - of course, you can also see some Elgin compact catalogs over at the Elgin History Museum archives

American Compacts of the Art Deco Era

American Compacts of the Art Deco Era

What I love about American Compacts is that it focuses on the compacts of a particular era and country so it's not overwhelming, yet still provides useful information throughout. The story of Elgin's Bird in Hand compact is a particularly great highlight.  Overall, American Compacts is a necessity for the vintage makeup collector or anyone with an interest in Art Deco design. As for purchasing, you remember my interview with Andra of Lady-A Antiques, right? Well, she's offering this book at a reduced price at her store, so be sure to buy it there!

Moving along, I read Color Stories: Behind the Scenes of America's Billion Dollar Beauty Industry by journalist Mary Lisa Gavenas. It's a bit dated at this point since it was published in 2002, but still a good read as it provides a very fascinating behind-the-scenes, soup-to-nuts description of how makeup color stories were selected and marketed each season during the 1990s and early 2000s - essentially a full, unbiased story of the process. 

Color Stories by Mary Lisa Gavenas

It's very useful for anyone looking for cosmetic marketing history as well as '90s makeup history (ahem), but I think it would also be interesting for fashion or business historians more generally.  I would dearly love to see an update for the age of social media, Millennials/Gen Z'ers and the increased demand for diversity and inclusion among beauty consumers. So much has changed in 20 years!

Next up is another drool-worthy book I found on ebay. It's in Japanese so I can't actually read any of the text, but the photos are more than worth it. You'll find lots of vintage Shiseido and other Japanese brands along with a sprinkling of Western lines such as L.T. Piver packaged for the Japanese market. While powder boxes, skincare and perfume comprise most of the objects, there's also personal hygiene products like deodorant and tooth powder.

Japanese labels and packaging book

Japanese labels and packaging book

If you love vintage powder boxes, vintage design and typography, or Japanese culture in general, this belongs on your book shelf. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for an English version so I can read the history behind some of the brands that are covered.

Finally, there's Lucky Lips: Stories About Lipstick, written by René Koch (a.k.a. the founder of the Lipstick Museum.) When I purchased the book I mistakenly thought it had English text alongside the German. Oops. Still, it's a nice supplement to Jean-Marie Martin-Hattemberg's Lips of Luxury as it contains different vintage lipsticks, some of which I hadn't seen before.

Lucky Lips book by Rene Koch

Lucky Lips book by Rene Koch

I wish I could compare the information offered in both books, but at the very least I can tell that Lucky Lips has some tips on lipstick application and 20th century lipstick history organized by decade. Overall, it's good to have on hand and a quality addition to the vintage makeup collector's library, especially if you can read German. (I've said this before, but if I could have any superpower it would be fluency in all languages within a matter of minutes.) If you had to choose between this one and Lips of Luxury, however, I'd go with the latter as it's a bit more extensive.

Are you interested in any of these? What books, beauty-related or otherwise, have you finished recently?

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