The Way We Were

The Beauty Biz Grows Up

Much like today, hairdressers a century ago turned to trade magazines to keep up on the latest technology and services. Here's what they were reading about.

Back in ye olde days, American Salon went by the name The American Hairdresser, beauty salons were sometimes called toilet parlors, and a shampoo and style cost $1.25. By 1900, the beauty industry was the business of choice for entrepreneurs and innovators looking to make a quick buck. The American Hairdresser, which had been around since 1878, played a pivotal role in publicizing these new products and services to the thousands of beauty establishments that were cropping up around the country. Technology set the tone for the first decade of the 20th century. Electricity gave rise to heavy-duty hair dryers that weighed in at around two pounds (today the average professional dryer is less than one). Some dryers were handheld; others rested on rotating pedestals. Hair-removing machines and vibrating-facial massagers also featured the wonders of electricity. Technology promised clients something that was simultaneously scientific and mystical. While women didn't really understand the technical nuances of these machines, they believed wholeheartedly in the science behind them. Many of these inventions, such as the hairdryer and the Marcel iron, were European born. The iron, which required a good deal of practice and patience, debuted in France in 1872, but didn't reach the United States until 1897. The iron had not been a huge success with European hairdressers who shied away from such technology, but American stylists were much more accepting. Of course the soft, wavy effect of the iron went hand-in-hand with the big hair of the turn-of-the-century era. Advancements in chemistry also drastically altered the beauty biz and The American Hairdresser featured dozens of ads for the many hair dyes to hit the market. In 1907, French chemist and founder of L'Oreal, Eugene Schueller, invented the first synthetic hair dye, which he named Aureole. Around the same time, advertisements for products called "hair regenerators" or "restorers" began appearing in the magazine and copy promised uniform and natural-looking color. From its inception, hair color attracted clients. One company called Imperial Hair Regenerator claimed that its product was "so largely advertised and so well endorsed, it draws to hairdressers the very best class of trade." Much like today, hair-care companies relied on national advertising campaigns to create enough buzz to send clients looking for salons that carried their particular products.

Other innovative services were bringing money into salons. Skin-care services were increasingly popular throughout the decade as facial steamers, tonics and massages all claimed to keep one looking young. As the standard of beauty was lily-white skin, skin bleaches for the face and scalp were in high demand. Manicures became the staple of any self-respecting salon. The magazine featured advertisements for all the kinds of essentials we use today-nail scissors, buffers, tweezers, manicure boards and disinfectants. Foot care came in the form of chiropody, the forerunner of podiatry. Pedicurists called themselves "chiropodists" and offered corn and callus removal. The practice required a range of bizarre tools, such as a toe expander that was like a mini vice that propped open toes to allow for easy access to corns.

All these new services required new equipment. During the first decade of the 20th century manicurists got specially designed tables, estheticians got reclining seats and hairdressers got adjustable chairs. Remarkably, much of the salon environment looked somewhat similar to what it does today. The coming decade would force the industry to standardize. With the passage of the first Food and Drug Act in 1906, the beauty industry began to regulate its products and many patent medicines were either run out of business or made to tone down their over-the-top claims. Despite the government's intervention, however, the beauty business grew with leaps and bounds, thus proving that you can't stop Americans' desire for self-improvement.

Deirdre Clemente is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at Carnegie-Mellon University. She specializes in American cultural history and the interplay between fashion and social change. For more information on her work, visit her Web site,

Ga-Ga for Gibson

Long before Lindsay Lohen, there was the Gibson girl. Tall, athletic and a bit silly, the Gibson girl was the turn-of-the-century cultural standard for women. More than just a fashion icon, she heralded the arrival of the "new woman."

Evelyn Nesbitt, the celebrated Gibson girl of New York Society in 1902, was the mistress of noted architect Sanford White, who was shot in a jealous rage by her husband, Harry K. Thaw.
Evelyn Nesbitt, the celebrated Gibson girl of New York Society in 1902, was the mistress of noted architect Sanford White, who was shot in a jealous rage by her husband, Harry K. Thaw.

You've likely seen her, but you might not know her name. She has a snub nose, the perfect pout, bedroom eyes and a signature mound of wispy hair pulled up in a knot on the top of her head. Her standard uniform? A fitted skirt and a blouse with billowing sleeves. She could have been seen driving her bicycle into a haystack or slipping on the ice and falling into the arms of a random passerby, who was usually well dressed and handsome. She has inspired plays, clothing trends and dances. She was the Gibson girl.

The brainchild of artist Charles Dana Gibson, the Gibson girl was first featured in his illustrations for Life magazine around 1890; five years later she was a national phenomenon. She was often portrayed in comical situations, making a fool of herself or just having fun. Gibson himself became a minor celebrity. Aside from cutting a dashing figure, he married a well-known Southern belle and hobnobbed with New York's elite, many of whom he sketched for a hefty fee. Gibson was a talented artist, but the era had many. Why did his girl have such mass appeal?

The reasons range from accessibility to good old scandal. First of all, the Gibson girl was claimed by women from all walks of life. The upper crust associated her with her charming and good-looking creator and took delight in her many adventures. Those with more progressive attitudes about the role of women in society saw her as a trailblazer. She participated in sports, bypassed ultra-fussy Edwardian fashion for a simple shirtwaist and long skirt, and did very much as she pleased. Working-class women identified with her unconventionality, her ability to stir up trouble and her reluctance to "put on airs." The image of the Gibson girl cut across class and ethnic boundaries, divisions that still carried significant weight in the early 20th century.

The second reason the Gibson girl had such staying power was that her inspiration was quite mysterious. Gibson claimed he had not used a model, but invented her from thin air. The public, of course, refused to believe the claim, and newspaper reporters went on the hunt to discover the "real" Gibson girl. The first option was a well-known model named Minnie Clark, who hailed from an Irish working-class family. The second possibility was the personal assistant to the famed dancer Loie Fuller. This woman was born of a French father and a Cuban mother, and her blended ethnicity, said the reporters, accounted for the Gibson girl's unique looks.

But don't expect to see an E! True Hollywood Story on the origins of the Gibson girl anytime soon. Most Americans are more familiar with the next American beauty to emerge from fashion illustrations-the unforgettable flapper whose image was crafted by John Held, Jr. in the late 1910s.

Before the Blouse

Call it a chemise. Call it a top. Call it a blouse. Women at the turn of the century called it a shirtwaist, and it was a controversial piece of clothing.

Girl in boat wearing the infamous shirtwaist
Girl in boat wearing the infamous shirtwaist

Move over, miniskirts. The shirtwaist is one of history's most hotly debated garments. It was associated with a horrific fire and countless labor protests. It was called "immoral" and "unwomanly" by its many critics. It was credited with causing women to become prostitutes. Despite all of the hubbub, it was one turn-of-the-century fashion trend that women just did not want to give up.

Two-piece ensembles were not new to fashion, but most were sets of matching tops and bottoms made to be worn together. Tailored suits, for example, became popular in the 1880s with the rise of British fashion houses such as Redfern and Creed, and a long-sleeved shirt was worn underneath.

The shirtwaist was born when women decided they wanted to open their suit jackets, or (gasp!) take them off. The style was inspired by menswear of the day, accounting perhaps for much of the controversy around it. Fuddy-duddies of the time felt that the garment was an affront to femininity and encouraged radical behavior in women. It didn't help that many of the first women to take to the garment were suffragettes and other reformers.

Many shirtwaists buttoned up the front, and most were tailored around the waist for a well-fitted look. The sleeves were commonly tapered or buttoned at the cuff. As the garment shook off some of its negative associations and became more popular, it was worn alone with a long-fitted skirt that flared at the bottom. To add a feminine touch, women added bows, lace and oversized cravats.

While the 1890s saw the popularization of the shirtwaist, it became the signature garment of the first decade of the 20th century, representing a new spirit of dress for American women. Shirtwaists enabled women to mix and match their shirts with their skirts, creating an entirely new way of looking at one's wardrobe. Also, shirtwaists allowed women to be physically mobile and fashion forward, a combination that today is taken for granted.

Super-Size Me

At the turn of the century, hair was huge-both figuratively and literally. The signature style of that era? The pompadour.

When it comes to describing the hairstyles that were in fashion during the first decade of the 20th century, one word comes to mind: big. Curiously, as hair got bigger, clothing got smaller. By 1905, women were balancing their well-fitted ensembles with massive mounds of hair.

Milliners raved that the prevailing styles could not be properly fitted except with the Hairlight Crown, an adjustable puff that sold for $2 per dozen
Milliners raved that the prevailing styles could not be properly fitted except with the Hairlight Crown, an adjustable puff that sold for $2 per dozen

The signature style of the era was the pompadour. How did these styles take their shape? The first method of achieving volume was described by one magazine writer as "roughing up the hair" in order to give it fullness. Today, we call this teasing. The second method was filling the style with pads and false hair. Most pads were made of horse hair or fabric, and by the end of the decade, synthetic hair had gained popularity due to advancements in chemistry.

The cover of a supplement to The American Hairdresser.
The cover of a supplement to The American Hairdresser.

The popularity of the pompadour also fueled the craze for hair dying. Beauty writers agreed that dark hair should be worn smooth and flat against the head. Lighter hair, however, was to be worn more loosely, complete with soft waves and curls. Hence, many women tried to lighten their hair using natural products like herbs and lemons (yes, that old trick has been around for centuries) or with some of the new hair dyes hitting the market.

An ad for the Patent Pompadour ran in our magazine.
An ad for the Patent Pompadour ran in our magazine.

Hair combs were key to keeping the 'do in place. These pronged accessories had been in vogue for decades but took on renewed popularity during this era. This was due in part to innovations in the production of celluloid, one of the earliest plastics. The process of creating a bendable material from reconstituted pulverized wood and paper (cellulose) had taken dozens of time-consuming steps. The manufacturing process was streamlined around this time, production soared and prices dropped. Best of all, celluloid could be made in a variety of colors and decorated with faux gems.

By 1910, hair began to deflate once more. It would only be a few decades, however, that fashion could manage to keep over-sized hairstyles down.

Consumers and Citizens

With the dawn of a new era came bigger department stores, looser morals and stronger women. Ah, yes . . . the 20 thcentury!

Most of us think that frivolous spending, booze-soaked soirees and improper behavior started after World War I. They were called the Roaring '20s, right? Wrong. Most historians agree that a relaxing of the rules of decorum started around the turn of the century. During the first decade of the 20th century, Americans were redefining codes of conduct, as women asserted themselves as consumers and citizens.

Lord & Taylor in New York City was one of the first department stores.
Lord & Taylor in New York City was one of the first department stores.

By 1900, the modern department store had emerged as an economic, social and cultural institution, and most cities had more than one. Stores weren't simply places to shop, but also places to socialize, to work and to see the vast array of mass-produced goods now available. Some larger stores offered everything from pet stores and hair salons to bakeries and tailoring services. Women were the target audience, and they actively embraced their new role as consumers. While urbanization was a key theme of the era, most women still lived in small towns or rural environments. For these women, mail-order catalogs from Montgomery Ward or Sears enabled them to participate in all of the material promises of the 20th century.

Newspaper editors and religious leaders feared for the morality of these consuming women. They most often complained that department stores allowed women to run amok and encouraged them to abandon all financial constraint. Truthfully, the rise of the department store did give women a unique space that catered to their wants and needs. By purchasing—or not purchasing—women exercised power in a way they never had before. As the economy changed from one focused on producing goods to one focused on consuming goods, women were in control.

But the department store wasn't the only place women were pushing boundaries. To many, modernity meant the machine age—faster machines, futuristic art and rapid communication. To others, modernity meant urban sprawl, poverty and crime. Women of the era were quick to call upon their image as protectors of the hearth and home to join in crusades for pressing social issues. Women served as important voices in the fight for accessible education, government-sponsored medical care for children and, of course, the right to vote. While women from a range of social classes and ethnicities participated in these issues, most reformers were white and middle class.

As women stepped into the public eye, they also began to shed many long-held conventions about "proper" and "improper" behavior. Makeup became more common. By the end of the decade, suggestive dances, such as the tango, were popular. Women also asserted their power as workers and took to the streets en masse to protest unsafe factory conditions, low wages and lack of workplace mobility.

As both consumers and citizens, women began to redefine their positions in American society. In doing so, they set the stage for the monumental changes that would come with the 20th century.