UMass Amherst Professor Explores History of American Cosmetics Industry and Beauty Culture

May 26, 1998

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AMHERST, Mass. - A book by University of Massachusetts history professor Kathy Peiss titled "Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture," has just been published (Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company). A social history of the cosmetics industry and its role in the creation of contemporary standards of beauty, the book continues Peiss’s ongoing research into modern American women’s history.

The book draws on a wealth of archival sources, including beauty guides, advice manuals, and advertisements. Among the topics it addresses are: how "powder and paint," once scorned as immoral, became indispensable to millions; how homemade cosmetics grew into a multibillion dollar industry; and how men took over important roles once held by women in the cosmetics industry.

"Today, cosmetics are often considered synonymous with the exploitation of women’s anxieties, but that wasn’t always the case," says Peiss. "Looking back, I found a vivid history in which women often used makeup to declare their sense of modern identity, their autonomy, and even their sexual desires." Peiss examines many different layers of society to tell her story, including immigrant shopgirls who looked to cosmetics to make them more "American," working-class girls who "made up to move up," and African-American women whose encounters with beauty culture were intimately bound up with racial stereotypes and accusations of white emulation.

Peiss also highlights the uniquely female and multiracial nature of the business in its early period. Focusing on white women such as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, and black women such as Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C. J. Walker, she shows how they were all instrumental in shaping an industry then unique in the business world.

"Relying less on advertising than on women’s customs of visiting and conversation, these beauty entrepreneurs wove their trade into the fabric of women’s everyday lives," says Peiss. "In doing so, they created a kind of sociable commerce in which salesmanship blended with ‘women helping women.’"

Peiss has written widely on women’s history and culture over the years, and is the author of "Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York" (Temple University Press, 1986). She also contributed to the book "Love Across the Color Line," an exploration of a turn-of-the-century interracial romance told through letters. She has taught at the University since 1986.