It’s Not Easy Being Beautiful: the Beauty Industry in the Archeological Record

“How do I look?”  We’ve all said it.  Despite our knowledge that beauty is skin deep and that it’s what inside that matters, we all take measures to look our best.  Americans today are bombarded with advertisements for whiter teeth, younger looking skin, and shinier, healthier hair.  It turns out this is nothing new; throughout history, men and women have used various products and instruments to try to attain certain ideals of beauty.  Luckily for us, vestiges of these efforts turn up in the archeological record, and we can study them to better understand the mindsets of early Americans and the societal pressures and expectations they were faced with.  In this blog post, we highlight some of the artifacts we’ve come across in our lab that represent past Americans’ quest to be beautiful.

Before we begin, we must point out that most of the artifacts in this post were likely used by white women and represent 19th-century white Americans’ standards of beauty, which favored pale skin and European features instead of embracing the different types of beauty present in America’s diverse population.  (For further reading, check out Kathy Peiss’s fascinating book Hope in a Jar:  The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, which includes a thorough discussion of race in the context of 19th– and 20th-century cosmetics.)  In the latter part of the 20th century, the beauty industry finally took a multicultural turn.  Vogue magazine proclaimed: “Everybody’s all-American…The face of American beauty has changed to reflect the nation’s ethnic diversity.”  (Peiss p.263)  Archeology has the potential to reveal true, inclusive histories if we pay attention and do our research.  We’d love to hear about excavations that have yielded beauty products intended for or used by ALL Americans.


2016 Advertisement for L’Oreal True Match makeup.  Found online.


Wig Curler

This clay wig curler from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park is unique among the artifacts featured in this post in that it represents a fashion exclusive to men:  18th-century periwigs (also known as a perukes).  Wigs became popular among 17th-century French and English aristocrats when King Louis XIV began wearing them to hide his thinning hair.  The trend quickly spread throughout the general population, and remained fashionable until after the French and American Revolutions, when people began to favor more natural styles.  Wigs were made of human hair (the most expensive variety), goat hair, horsehair, or vegetable fibers, the most extravagant full-bottomed styles cascading down past the shoulders.  In the 18th century, wigs were powdered and sometimes even scented.  Women powdered their own hair, and added faux hair to their coiffures, but wigs were a male phenomenon.  In A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, Ivor Noel Hume described how wig curlers were used:  “The curls of a new wig, or of one being dressed, were rolled in strips of damp paper around the clay curlers, the weight of which served to pull the hair downward against the block over which the wig was seated.”  (p. 322)


Clay wig curlers from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park (coin for scale).  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.


Image of 18th-century wig-making from Diderot’s Encyclopedia. Image available through Wikimedia Commons.


Cosmetic Jar

In Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup, Lisa Eldridge states: “for a long time in the history of cosmetics throughout Europe and the Far East, the prevailing trend was, if not exactly the same, then a variation on one central theme:  pale skin.”  (p. 38)  In the aristocratic courts of 17th– and 18th-century Europe, men and women wore powder and rouge to attain the popular look of a white face with red cheeks and lips.


The Marquise de Pompadour, ca. 1750.  Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Charles E. Dunlap

After the French and American Revolutions of the late 18th century, a more natural look prevailed.  In the 19th century, a painted face (rouge on the cheeks or lips, kohl-darkened eyes) was associated with wantonness, vice, and prostitution.  Women were supposed to stay inside, at home, away from the stresses of public life and the exertions of outdoor activity.  A pale complexion symbolized this idea of a woman’s proper place.  For the American Victorian woman, the ideal was an unpainted, unblemished, pure white, natural complexion.  Of course, perfect porcelain skin is not natural, and women went to great measures to try to achieve it.

19th-century society frowned upon face paint, but cosmetics that claimed to improve the health of one’s skin and preserve a perfect complexion were considered acceptable.  Many women used skin-whitening creams in addition to powder meant to soak up sweat and reduce shine.  Perfumers often crossed over into cosmetic production, one being Guerlain, a French perfumery founded by Pierre-Francois-Pascal Guerlain in 1828.  In 1857, Guerlain introduced Blanc de Perle, a skin-whitening cream.  This earthenware cosmetic pot from the archeology collection at Gateway National Recreation Area marked “Guerlain, 15 Rue de la Paix” probably dates to the late 19th century and most likely contained a skin cream intended to preserve and enhance a lady’s pale complexion.


Guerlain cosmetic jar from the archeology collection at Gateway National Recreation Area.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.


Powder Jar

In addition to skin-whitening creams, 19th-century American women also used powder to achieve the perfect complexion expected of them.  Face powders were commonly made of ground starch, rice, or chalk, and were sometimes scented or lightly tinted pink or blue.  This powder jar from the archeology collection at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DEWA) dates to the 1930s, when a pure white complexion was no longer the given standard of beauty, but women still used powder to absorb sweat and to make their skin look soft and clear.   During the 1930s, glass companies produced powder jars in stylish shapes and colors, hoping to entice consumers during tough financial times.  This gorgeous art deco example is called the “obelisk” shape.  Other surviving examples are marked “Taussaunt Glass” on the underside of the base, but this one from DEWA is unmarked.



As women moved increasingly into the public sphere around the turn of the 20th century, they needed their hygiene and beauty regimens to be able to move with them.  Loose powder and big puffs were not conducive to women on the go.  Carl Weeks invented long-wearing face powder – an adhesive mixture of dry cold cream and talc – in 1910.  He packaged his product in portable, closeable cases, allowing women to carry their powder with them and apply it anywhere.  (Hence the evolution of the “powder room,” a space outside of the home where women could freshen their appearance.)  Produced in stylish designs reminiscent of elegant French hatboxes or modern novelties like the telephone, compacts were not only functional, but also became a fashion accessory that women were proud to show off in public.

This compact (left) is from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park and was found during a 1986 excavation of the Boott Mills.  In the early 20th century, the boardinghouses at the Boott Mills housed mill employees and their families.  The buildings were torn down in 1934 and replaced by parking lots and coal yards.  This compact is rather simple compared to some of the fancy designs available in the 1920s and 30s.  We love to think of the hard-working woman who owned it, working long hours in a crowded factory, or toiling day in and day out as a busy homemaker, all while claiming her role as a fashionable, 20th-century woman.


Early 20th-century compact from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park (left, photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC), and a collection of ca. 1940s-50s novelty compacts pictured in “Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup” by Lisa Eldridge (right).


Lipstick experienced a similar transformation in the early 20th century from cumbersome pots and brushes to sleek, modern-looking cartridges that were portable, easy to use, and pleasing to the eye.  This early 20th-century Avon lipstick cartridge was excavated by the City of Boston Archaeology Program at the site of the Industrial School for Girls, which opened in 1859.  This lipstick, discovered at an institution that was created to instill morality and manners in young girls, surely has a fascinating story to tell.  (Anyone looking for a research project?)


Early 20th-century lipstick cartridge excavated at the site of the Industrial School for Girls, Boston.  City of Boston Archaeology Program.


Parasol Tip

Here in the NMSC archeology lab, we’re no strangers to the cataloging term “indeterminate metal object.”  Small, metal objects can be some of the most difficult to identify during processing.  Certain types of metal do not fare well in the archeological record (particularly ferrous metals), reducing to unrecognizable clumps or bits.  Other metal objects can be difficult to identify because they represent a small portion of a larger, composite item that did not survive intact.  Case in point:  this little copper alloy cone-shaped artifact from the archeological collection at Petersburg National Battlefield.  When our wonderful 2014 intern Meredith encountered this item during cataloging, we were stumped.  Another indeterminate metal object.  After some careful research, however, Meredith figured it out:  a parasol tip!  This object is one of what would have been several tips that attached the cover of a parasol to its frame.


Copper alloy parasol (or umbrella) tip from the archeology collection at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.



Parasol from the museum collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (left) and folded parasol from the museum collection at Colonial Williamsburg (right).  Arrows point to tip portion.  Images found online, see References.

Parasols and umbrellas were used by men and women in 18th-century America, and had become essential staples of fine ladies’ dress by the 19th century.  Their primary purpose was shielding one’s face from the sun to preserve the pale skin that was considered the aesthetic ideal in Victorian times.  Ironically, some fashion trends made their use impractical, causing women to carry them closed as a purely decorative accessory instead of a functional one.


Nail Polish

Nail polish as we know it is a fairly modern thing.  Until the 20th century, beautiful nails meant nails that were clean, shiny, free of blemishes, and shaped appropriately.  (I cringe as a catch a glimpse of my own nails right now…hey, I got the clean part down.)  In Victorian times, clean, soft hands and fingernails were another way to show status.  As Ruth Goodman points out in How to Be a Victorian, manual labor like scrubbing floors and washing laundry did a job on women’s hands, and “a pair of soft, lily-white hands with perfectly manicured nails was often a badge of idleness.”  (p. 107)  Women used lemon to bleach their nails, and would buff them soft and shiny with a leather buffer.  Nail polish was available by the early 20th century, but was transparent or light, translucent pink until Revlon introduced colored polish, and the trend of matching one’s lipstick and nail polish, in the 1930s.

This bottle of Miraglo nail polish from the archeology collection at Roger Williams National Memorial (ROWI) dates to about the 1930s.  (We can’t find much information about Miraglo; what can you tell us about this company?)  The cap for this bottle imitates a popular fashion in nails in the 1930s:  the “moon manicure,” in which the half-moon at the base of the fingernail (and often the tip portion as well) was left unpainted.


While I was working on this blog post in our lab one day, I was listening to a series of StoryCorps podcasts offered by NPR.  I had just decided to include the bottle of nail polish from ROWI when I heard an episode of StoryCorps that changed the way I will look at nail polish for the rest of my life.  The story was told by Mary Ellen Noone, whose great-grandmother grew up on an Alabama plantation in the early 1900s.  Mary Ellen recounts a story her great-grandmother, Pinky, told her when she was young.  Pinky was black, and worked for a white woman in Lowndes County, Alabama, washing and ironing her clothes.  One day, Pinky found that her employer had discarded a bottle of nail polish, and took the bottle out of the trash to bring home with her.  I can only imagine how modern and pretty she must have felt, walking into church days later with beautiful, polished nails.  She then visited a general store, where the white store owner accused her of trying to act like a white woman by painting her nails.  The abuse Pinky suffered at his hands was devastating to listen to.  Mary Ellen concluded her story by sharing, “I still have that anger inside of me that someone would have that control over one person just because they wanted to feel like a woman.”

This story continues to haunt me, and I will never look at a bottle of nail polish the same way.  I am so thankful to Mary Ellen Noone for sharing this story, and for reminding all of us that for so many Americans throughout history, something as simple as a bottle of nail polish represented pain, hardship, inequity, and injustice.  These are the stories that we must seek out, and share, if we are to come to a full understanding of our nation’s past.

In Hope in a Jar:  the Making of America’s Beauty Culture, Kathy Peiss writes, “the public debate over cosmetics today veers noisily between the poles of victimization and self-invention, between the prison of beauty and the play of makeup.”  (p. 268-9)   Some people decry makeup as a means through which women are objectified and held to unattainable physical standards.  Others applaud makeup as a tool women can use to reflect their individual styles and personalities.  Whatever criticisms it faces, the beauty industry in America has allowed women the opportunity to express themselves and to feel good about their appearance.  It has also empowered many women by creating jobs and opportunities for economic advancement and self-sufficiency.  (Think of your local Avon or Mary Kay representative!)  The inspiring story of Sara Breedlove Walker is a perfect example:  an African-American woman who was born into poverty and became a successful businesswoman and philanthropist by starting her own line of beauty products (Mme. C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company) specifically for black women in the early 20th century.  Walker’s business created jobs for African-American women and sent the message to black women that they too deserved to look and feel beautiful.


1903 photograph of Sarah Breedlove Walker.  Found online (wikipedia).

However you feel about the beauty industry, I leave you with this thought-provoking sentiment, expressed by Lisa Eldridge in Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup: “Ultimately, nothing empowers a woman more than the right to a good education, and the freedom to wear a red lip and a smoky eye… or not.”  (p. 227)


Eldridge, Lisa.  Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup.  New York:  Abrams Image, 2015.

Goodman, Ruth.  How to be a Victorian:  A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life.  New York:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013.

Goodman, Ruth.  How to be a Tudor:  A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life.  New York:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

Lasky, Kathryn.  Vision of Beauty:  the Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker.  Cambridge:  Candlewick Press, 2000.

Laver, James.  Costume and Fashion:  A Concise History.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 1969.

Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry.  Living on the Boott:  Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts.  Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Peiss, Kathy.  Hope in a Jar:  The Making of America’s Beauty Culture.  New York:  Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Whitmyer, Margaret and Kenn.  Bedroom and Bathroom Glassware of the Depression Years.  Collector Books, 1989.




Parasol images:,

The episode of StoryCorps referenced in this post can be found at  and originally aired March 21, 2008, on NPR’s Morning Edition.



About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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2 Responses to It’s Not Easy Being Beautiful: the Beauty Industry in the Archeological Record

  1. Archaeological Analytics says:

    Reblogged this on American Artifacts and commented:
    Historic Beauty Products from the Northeast Museum Services Center, MA

  2. Heather Wagner says:

    Sometimes I wish I lived back in the 19th century…I would have fit right in with my pasty complexion! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

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