Cookie banner

This site uses cookies. Select "Block all non-essential cookies" to only allow cookies necessary to display content and enable core site features. Select "Accept all cookies" to also personalize your experience on the site with ads and partner content tailored to your interests, and to allow us to measure the effectiveness of our service.

To learn more, review our Cookie Policy, Privacy Notice and Terms of Use.

clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Smithsonian Is Archiving All Our Beauty Concerns

New, 1 comment
Photo: National Museum of American History

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

In a small, climate-controlled room on the top floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, curators have set out a table full of historic objects. Not Abraham Lincoln's top hat or Betsy Ross's flag — more like shampoo with Farrah Fawcett's face on the label and bottles of Noxzema suntan lotion.

The Smithsonian has been collecting cosmetic and personal care products since the 1880s, snapping up stock in the late 1970s from family-run pharmacies that were going out of business. Collected in the Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections, most of the goods date back as far as the turn of the 20th century (with some products from circa 1860, as well as products produced as late as 2015). You can't find the majority of the items in the museum's typical galleries: Since the products were designed to be consumed and thrown away, their packaging is delicate and stored out of sight.

Now, thanks to support from Kiehl's, the Smithsonian has digitizing its collection of more than 2,000 beauty and personal care products to make this history accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Kiehl's also donated more than 100 products to the collection, including modern-day products like its Creamy Eye Treatment with Avocado.

The historical value of these artifacts is real, according to Associate Curator Diane Wendt and Research and Project Assistant Rachel Anderson. Americans have long perceived connections between beauty and health, making these items at home in the museum's division of medicine and science. The products Americans gravitate towards also reflect the beauty ideals of the time.

"It certainly tells you quite a lot about what people were willing to spend their money on, and it tells you what they were trying to obtain personally, how they wanted to present themselves to the world, or maybe how they felt like they had to present themselves to the world," Anderson says.

Most importantly, it also highlights how much has not changed over the decades when it comes to our beauty priorities.

Face powder endorsed by star and "eternal flapper" Edna Wallace Hopper

Celebrities have been slapping their names on products for over 100 years.

Think it's so 2016 for every celeb, starlet, and reality show mogul from Kylie Jenner to Victoria Beckham to push their own beauty line to fans? This has been going on since the turn of the century, when people wanted to look like their favorite theatre actors and entrepreneurs started selling theatrical face powder to regular people for everyday use.

"Even these early stars of the theatre had products associated with their names. Now, we think every celebrity has to have products, but it's actually an older idea," Wendt says. "You look at the beginnings of theatrical powder, and this idea that you want to mimic the look of the star of the stage, which becomes the Hollywood star."

Razor, circa 1920s

Beauty products have evolved along with our clothing choices.

One of the items is an oddly-shaped razor that’s made for one specific purpose. "Looking at these products, you see hints about what is happening at this particular time in American history," Anderson says. "This is for shaving armpits, and it's being produced when women are starting to show their armpits, when dresses are becoming sleeveless in the 1920s."

Flash forward to 2016, when the drugstore aisles are stocked with razors made specifically for bikini lines.

Liquid stockings, made by Langlois, circa 1942

The beauty industry reflects societal upheaval — including war.

Even beauty products bear the signs of World War II, as packaging changed to conserve materials. Colgate tooth powder switched from tins to paper packaging. And leg makeup rose in popularity due to the scarcity of nylons. Women would even draw seams on their legs with eyebrow pencils to make it look like they were wearing nylons.

Noxzema's Greaseless Suntan Lotion, circa 1930s-1940s

Tanning always cycles in and out of fashion.

One fad Smithsonian curators see cycling in and out of history is tanning. "If you're looking at say the 1850s to 1910, a conception of beauty is based on white skin. That's just the way it was, in the dominant manufacturing culture," Anderson says. Homemade serums were concocted to try to make skin suitably pale and to rid skin of freckles, ruddiness, and acne.

But in the 1920s, being tan became the "in" thing, as a sign of health and vigor from exercising outdoors. So tanning products popped up, along with bronzer-like products for a temporary tan that could be removed. This all predated concerns about skin cancer, obviously — although by the 1950s there was already scientific and medical suspicion that sun damage might be linked to skin cancer. This Noxzema suntan lotion from the 1940s was estimated to have an SPF 4 or SPF 2, based on a study by Consumer Reports, and it was one of the best out there at the time.

"Most of them were utterly and totally ineffective," Anderson says.

Today, tanning is a dirty word and we're expected to slather on sunscreen whenever we’re in the sun. "There’s this cycle of putting on a healthy tan, then we get to a point where we're like having a tan isn't so healthy, in fact, maybe it's cancerous," Anderson says.

Arsenic Complexion Wafers, circa 1890

If we think beauty products are toxic now, just compare it to 80 years ago.

Looking at all these decades-old tinctures, powders, and lotions makes you wonder what kind of ingredients they contained. The most notorious beauty products include "arsenic complexion wafers," which contained a low dose of arsenic to make you look pale. Tooth whiteners used hydrochloric acid, which stripped tooth enamel. In the 1930s, an eyelash dye called Lash-Lure led to one case of blindness and federal regulation of beaut products.

All of which puts into some perspective our modern fears that the ingredients in our drugstore lipsticks and shampoos are going to kill us — although we're not necessarily in the clear.

"A lot of the time, it seems like when we're talking about what we consider to be reckless or foolish medicine or product from the past, well it's not necessarily any more reckless than what we have going on now — we just learned a little more," Anderson says.

Mineralava Beauty Clay facial cleanser

No matter what, women have always wanted to look younger.

The Smithsonian’s cosmetics and personal care collection is still evolving, and eventually Wendt and Anderson would like to make the site open to crowdsourcing. They’d also like to add different items to the collection, products related to feminine hygiene, or beauty products for women of color, and anti-aging products. After all, anti-aging has always been one of the most popular impulses driving our beauty shopping.

"A consistent story throughout our collection are products that keep promising to make you look younger," says Anderson. "As much as other things might change, that's a really consistent message."