History repeats? Looking at America’s cosmetics archive

History repeats? Looking at America’s cosmetics archive

This week we reported that The National Museum of American History has digitized its 2,200-strong collection of historic cosmetics and toiletries, providing a fascinating insight into the social mores and wider trends that have shaped today’s cosmetics industry.

What struck me, as I browsed the collection, was how little has changed in the last century in terms of consumer motivation. We want to look good, smell good and fit in, and we’re prepared to spend in order to do that. While hair removal is no longer principally motivated by lice, and sure, the ‘look’ has changed – since the 1920s, a tan is prized over a pale complexion, for example –  our needs and wants are remarkably similar.

Consequently, the marketing messages from the days of yore aren’t as different as you might expect. Granted, today’s ads largely exclude the casual racism and patronising tone, but check out the wording on this vintage Lifebouy ad, “Pores are constantly giving off odor-causing waste – a quart daily. We don’t notice this odor in ourselves, but others detect carelessness at once.” Remind you of anything? Nivea’s Nose app spiel says much the same thing, “Our nose is so used to our own body odor that we can’t smell our own sweat.”

And while formulations have become decidedly more sophisticated, it’s interesting that we’re seeing a revival of all things ‘natural’. With organic products now mainstream, and the wellness movement driving home the connection between what we put on and in our bodies, and health, we’ve almost turned a full circle to the foundations of the drugstore industry – when health and hygiene were so strongly linked to physical beauty that it was a natural step for pharmacies to sell the ingredients for cosmetics preparations too.

Perhaps this is the biggest difference between then and now. While the link between health and beauty continues to be strong, today ‘health’ is less about medicine and more about a holistic-based approach to wellness that makes food and cosmetics more natural bedfellows. You only have to look at the lengths drugstores now have to go to in order to be seen as ‘beauty destinations’ to understand that, whether by increased regulatory controls or public perception, pharmaceuticals and make-up no longer occupy the same mind space. It’s no accident that Whole Foods does a roaring trade in beauty products, to the extent that the retailer’s Global Whole Body Executive Coordinator, Maren Giuliano, was named as one of the ’50 Most Powerful Women in Beauty’ by WWD in 2015.

If you get a chance, head to the archive and take a look – it’s worth it.