Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Brief History of Mascara

I had a wonderful time researching 18th century makeup tips and tricks for a modern lady, and so I wanted to do a few more pieces on makeup through the ages.The first on my list is mascara.

What makes mascara so interesting? Well, it is one of the most recent beauty products. Both men and women had been emphasizing their eyes for thousands of years, but eyeliner and eye shadow seemed to have prevailed through history. There is some evidence that in Ancient Egypt people used a substance known as kohl to line the eyes, darken the eyebrows and possibly even the eyelashes. This trend was picked up by fashionable ladies of Babylon, Greece and Rome. Women in Roman Empire used burnt cork to thicken their eyelashes.

The Middle Ages had a very bleak outlook on makeup in general; and mascara, like so many other cosmetics, was ignored. In fact, between 14th and 16th centuries in Renaissance Europe eyelashes were considered unattractive and many women who were cursed with dark and thick lashes would pluck them out to achieve the blank look.       

Agnolo Bronzino - Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi, c. 1540
Up until early Victorian period eyelashes, and eyes in general, were mostly ignored. It was not a very prominent age for eyelashes, though ladies on the stage would use eyeliner to make their eyes more expressive.

Big prominent eyes came back into vogue in early Victorian times. Ladies would concoct mascara at home by heating a mix of ash or lampblack and elderberry juice and applying the mixture to their lashes.

Victorian ideal of feminine beauty "The First Lady of the Silent Screen," Lillian Gish
The first non-toxic and commercially produced mascara was invented by a Victorian named Eugène Rimmel in the mid-19th century. This mascara consisted of petroleum jelly and coal. It was incredibly messy and many women did not know what to do with it preferring to use the true and tried eyeliner instead. However, the invention was immortalized in languages of a few countries as 'rimmel'  means 'mascara' in French, Italian and Portuguese.

A box of Rimmel Cosmetique with the standard block, brush and mirror
And on the other side of the Atlantic another gentleman, T.L. Williams, was working on a very similar product for his sister Maybel. He later started a mail-order business which grew into a company known    
as Maybelline. This was still a pretty messy substance and an improvement soon followed. Mascara was now sold as a hard block containing soap and black dye. A dampened brush had to be rubbed against it and then applied to the lashes. An improvement, but still pretty messy.

Maybelline, 1917  
With the development of photography and motion pictures mascara became very prominent. The great stars of the silver screen were known for their sultry looks and glamorous eyelashes. Women flocked to get products that would help them look like these sirens and femme fatales.

Bette Davis 
A great leap for mascara was made by a shrewd business lady and the empress of cosmetics Helena Rubinstein. In 1957 she turned the hard cake mascara into a lotion based cream that was sold with a brush. It was still a bit messy, but a great improvement.

Mascara Matic by Helena Rubinstein, 1957
And so it went on. The 1960s embraced long eyelashes including false lashes and mascara has remained in good graces ever since.
Jean Shrimpton, 1960s
Today ladies enjoy a wide range of brands; and there are mascaras that promise to make lashes thicker, longer or fuller and some that offer a myriad of colors from the mundane blacks and browns to blue, yellow and pink. By all accounts, mascara is here to stay.  


  1. oh this is really interesting, i could´t imagine to live without mascara so no wonder that women in all times feel so ;)

    1. Mascara does seem to be the #1 choice for many ladies. It's a little thing that can make quite a bit of a difference :)


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