Story of Us, 1930-1940: Color by Clairol

What Coca-Cola is to soft drinks, Clairol is to hair color. A staple of the American beauty industry since the early 1930s, the company’s history is the stuff of Hollywood movies. When Lawrence Gelb and his family sailed for Europe in the summer of 1931, he was on the hunt for a new business venture. The stock-market crash had damaged his investment portfolio, and he was looking to break into the cosmetics or fragrance market because its products were disposable and required repeat use. In Paris, he came across a company called Mury, which made a product that grabbed his attention: Clairol hair dye. Unlike most dyes that coated the hair with color, Clairol produced more natural hues because it penetrated the shaft. Gelb and his fashion-conscious wife, Joan, visited Parisian salons to see how the product worked. Duly impressed, they brought $200 worth of product back home with them.

Once stateside, the Gelbs began showing the wonders of Clairol to salons in New York City, and the product quickly developed a cult following. They ordered more product, rented a loft on Broadway, staffed the new company with workers and did all of the labeling and packaging by hand.

Joan had observed that French women seemed to reach the height of their attractiveness and desirability at age 45. “Middle-aged was not in their vocabulary,” she said. “To me, they seemed ageless. I wondered why American women of the same age considered themselves past that stage.” Joan recognized immediately that Clairol might even the playing field, so-to-speak, rendering “middle-aged” women much younger than their years. “Here was a new idea just waiting to be developed,” she observed.

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The only fly in the ointment was the fact that while hundreds of thousands of women were using hair dyes, most refused to admit it. This is where Lawrence proved to be a marketing genius. He called his new product Instant Clairol Shampoo Tint, overcoming the vexing psychological barrier to hair coloring and removing the stigma attached to the world “dye.”

Fundamental to the couple’s success was their emphasis on education. “In order to sell hairdressers on an idea or a product,” Lawrence explained years later, “you first had to teach them to use it with good results.” Given the company’s remarkable success, it seems that Gelb knew what he was talking about.