With the recent political climate there's been a lot of talk about immigrants' place in this country, and how immigrants contribute to America. President Trump has moved to end DACA, as well as endorsed an immigration bill called the RAISE Act, which would cut immigration by 50 percent over the next decade. Green card applicants would be ranked by “points” based on things like their skill sets, ability to support themselves financially, and their ability to speak English. To some, this might seem like common sense — why would you be permitted to move to a country if you can't make rent or buy groceries using the predominant language?
But that way of thinking is shortsighted. Part of the reason America is so successful is because of innovations that immigrants have brought forth while standing on American soil and allowing the country to claim the credit. And one of those particular innovations was makeup. You probably wouldn't have a bathroom crammed with cosmetics right now if it wasn't for immigrants.
The original three who brought makeup to the U.S. in the early 20th-century were Elizabeth Arden, who came broke from Canada; Helena Rubinstein, a Polish refugee fleeing World War I; and Max Factor, a Polish immigrant escaping Jewish persecution. Once they set up the beauty industry as we know it, Russian Charles Revson of Revlon entered the game, followed by Eastern European Estee Lauder. The only original makeup tycoon who was neither an immigrant nor first-generation was Tom Lyle Williams of Maybelline. While it's impossible to prove a false negative, these facts are still food for thought. If the country was run on an immigration policy like the RAISE Act from the get-go, there's a possibility we wouldn't be the super power we are now today. Let us explore.
Before Elizabeth Arden was the woman behind the red door, she was Florence Nightingale Graham, daughter of a poor farmer in Canada. Her family was too poor to let her finish high school, and she instead worked minimum wage jobs, bouncing from being a dental assistant to stenographer to cashier up to her thirties. It wasn't until her brother bought a bus ticket heading to New York in 1908 that she decided to follow, and once she stepped off in Manhattan, she replied to a newspaper ad looking for a receptionist at a beauty salon.
Fast-forward a decade later and Florence Nightingale Graham is Elizabeth Arden, ruthless businesswoman, millionaire, and one of the sole reasons cosmetics in America moved from being the mark of a fallen woman to an everyday indulgence. So what can you thank this penniless, first-generation Canadian for? Arden didn't just invent fancy creams and pampered beauty routines. She was also the first to introduce eye makeup to the women of America, was the one to invent in-store makeovers, and was the mastermind behind well-loved beauty staples like travel-size products. But if she was barred at the border because she was a poor farmer's daughter who might or might not make rent, all that might have been invented somewhere else.
Before Helena Rubinstein owned Parisian salons and slept in mother-of-pearl beds, she was just known as Chaja Rubinstein, the eldest daughter of a Kerosene dealer living in the Jewish ghettos of Krakow, Poland. Unlike Arden, Chaja's rags-to-riches story didn't first start in America. She started her business in Australia and then London, and could have kept expanding her empire if it wasn't for the First World War. Grabbing her husband and two young sons, she fled to America as a refugee in 1915.
But Europe's loss was America's gain, where, thanks to Rubinstein's rivalry with Arden, she was pushed to create a beauty empire that would eventually employ 30,000 people, create a whole new industry (remember, makeup wasn't socially acceptable!), and change the way the world saw beauty aids. Not only was she one of the founding mothers of commercial cosmetics, but she was the first innovator of dry, normal, and oily skin, as well as waterproof mascara.
But even though Rubinstein was already a successful entrepreneur, that didn't overshadow the fact that many Americans were against opening their gates to refugees like her trying to escape the war. Immigrants were seen as taking all from the country and giving nothing back, lowering wages, and increasing crime and immorality. What was interesting about this panic, though, was that immigration effectively slowed down during the war, not increased.
But the type of immigrants coming over changed, which was what led to this unease — most of them were Italians, Poles, Russians, and Hebrews, and were predominantly poor and poorly educated. Popular opinion believed they wouldn't add much to the country in terms of revenue or culture, and only be a burden because of their poverty levels. On top of that, it wasn't believed they would be able to assimilate, seeing how they had a tendency to hold onto their culture and language. (Sound familiar?)
This clearly wasn't just about economic anxiety, and this kind of shortsighted prejudice was aimed at people like Rubinstein, who later turned out to be one of the country's leading trailblazers.
Max Factor was the pioneer of Hollywood makeup and was responsible for some of the most memorable looks in Tinsel Town — he was the immigrant behind Clara Bow's iconic heart-shaped lips, Jean Harlow's platinum hair, and Joan Crawford's full-mouthed pout. But before he was making the most iconic looks in Hollywood history, he was just Maksymilian Faktorowicz from Lodz, Russia (which is now Poland.) With the help of a friend who was high in the military, his family was smuggled out of the country and onto a boat headed to America in order to escape anti-Jewish persecution. Czar Nicholas II feared a rise in Jewish power at the time, causing his family to flee. "In 1903 he ordered a siege on the Jews he so feared and hated, and burned down their villages. It was only the beginning," wrote Fred E. Basten, author of Max Factor: The Man Who Changed the Faces of the World. Factor was another refugee looking to America for help and safety.
But that's not to say these political refugees were welcomed, even though they were admitted. There was a wave of unease over the shifting population. "Whereas our immigrants used to come from Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia, the invaders of these early days of the twentieth century are coming chiefly from Italy, Russia and Austro-Hungary. Which change, at least at first glance, would seem of doubtful benefit to the nation," wrote Calisle Evening Herald, a Pennsylvania newspaper, in 1903. "The Germans, British and Scandinavians we have found most helpful in developing the country; they have proved themselves good, hardy, substantial citizens, readily assimilating without conditions and with ourselves. But these queer, little, dark Italians; these driven, pauper Jews, what can we do with them. What will they do to us? Time alone can answer this question." But as one can see with Factor, that was more fear-mongering than truth.
Factor is credited as creating "Pan-Cake," the first ever flexible foundation. Before, stars used stage makeup which would dry into a hard mask and crack every time they moved their faces. While that might have been fine for theater, it looked awful when a camera zoomed in close, so Factor made a vegetable oil based foundation that would go on smooth. But pretty soon it wasn't just A-listers that were dabbing on the paint for takes — regular women wanted to beautify with it, too!
But Factor's contributions to your makeup bag didn't stop with foundation — he also created the first-ever lip gloss in 1930, the first smear-proof lipstick dubbed "Tru-Color," as well as being one of the first to use celebrities as brand ambassadors in his ads.
Charles Revson was the son of a cigar packer who had emigrated from Russia, and was raised in the rundown apartment tenements of New England. Revson created his company with his brother in 1932, when they met Charles Lachman (the L in Revlon), a chemist who had tinkered over a Bunsen burner and created the first nonstreak, creamy nail polish. The three tapped into their savings, pooled $300, and went into the cut-throat beauty business in Manhattan.
You would think quitting your job and starting a business in the middle of the Great Depression wouldn't be the most advisable of moves, but they made it work. Beginning in 1932, they first made their money by selling nail polishes to beauty parlors, which didn't hit the same business slump as the rest of America thanks to the booming popularity of the permanent wave. They then expanded their small range of colors to drugstores and department stores, then by 1940 threw lipstick into the mix, and by WWII they were listed as one of America's top five cosmetic brands. So what can you thank Jewish-Russian Revson for? When they first started their business, nail polish was only restricted to the color red, and Revson and company introduced a series of fun new shades that stepped outside of the traditional.
He also pushed the idea that makeup came in seasons, just like fashion. Before women would use up a whole lipstick tube or nail polish bottle before going back to the beauty counter to buy a new one, so to encourage ladies to open their purses a little wider, he introduced the idea that each season brought in new colors — like pastels during the spring, and moody, vampy hues during the fall. He made it his business to make makeup more fun.
The name "Estée Lauder" might sound Parisian-born, but the infamous beauty queen was actually born Josephine Esther Mentzer in Queens, New York to Jewish immigrants from Hungray and the Czech Republic. Lauder came from a modest, working-class background, where her parents maneuvered through New York with heavy accents, and they lived above the hardware store her father owned. It wasn't until her chemist uncle came to live with the family shortly after World War I erupted in Europe that Lauder got interested in cosmetics. (Are you seeing a refugee pattern?) Her uncle had a penchant for making his own skin care products, and he often created them with Lauder observing at his side.
When she started her own business in 1946, she would make her skin care using the kitchen of a former restaurant, and then sell the makings to local salons and hotels — so suffice it to say, it was a modest enterprise. But two years later she got her first big break when she landed her first department store order. The prestigious Saks Fifth Avenue ordered $800 in her products, which barely had a moment to sit on their counters when the batch sold out in two days. At that moment a new beauty brand was born, and would be enjoyed well into the next millennium.
We owe Lauder for a bevvy of amazing things, where she was the first person to tempt customers by offering them samples, invented the "Gift with Purchase" promotion, and introduced the first makeup color collection — AKA your beloved palettes! If it wasn't for her parents trying to find a better life in New York and her uncle trying to find safety during a war, department stores wouldn't be the same.
Our nation is a nation built on immigrants, and it's no coincidence that a country as diverse and eclectic as ours has become the leading super power in the world. Whether it's lipstick or medicine, night creams or engineering, it's important not to forget a diverse group of people are credited to these successes. And not all of them have started their journey in the States as middle-class, fluent, western Europeans, or welcomed in with open arms. But we owe them anyway.