Makeup and Beauty During the Great Depression

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Makeup and Beauty During the Great Depression


Makeup styles, sales, and use during the Great Depression, and the implicit significance of that information.


Makeup is inherently superficial, but can also give us a unique insight into the mindsets and motives of the people that bought and used it, regardless of time period.

In "Grapes of Wrath", the only mention made of makeup is made in reference to the "shitheels," the wealthy, unhappy women with "a thousand accoutrements: creams, oils to grease themselves, coloring matter in phials, black, pink, red, white, green, silver, to change the color of hair, eyes, lips, nails, brows, lashes, lids." Of course it makes sense for the women unaffected by the Great Depression to continue using makeup as liberally as they had during the Roaring 20s.

What I'm more interested in, however, is what the women who were affected by the Great Depression used as far as cosmetics, how they used them, and why.

This topic is sporadically documented at best, and I believe that that lack of readily available information on the subject is not due to a lack of data but a lack of perceived validity. It is all too easy to write off the subject of beauty, especially during times of duress, as a silly luxury indulged in only by the very rich and the very gullible. To do so would discredit the cultural and contextual significance of makeup, however, which is why I intend to examine it here not through the lens of Hollywood starlets of the same era but through the eyes of the real women who, for whatever conscious or subconscious reason, felt better struggling through an economic catastrophe with a ten cent bag of cosmetics purchased at the discount store than without.

As an addendum, I would like to note that the personal belongings of men enduring various hardships have been far more likely to garner the respect they deserve. Clothing items like blue Levi's jeans have become an iconic symbol of the noble American man, while large portions of books like "The Things They Carried" have painstakingly documented the belongings of soldiers at war. Of course I can see that a tube of lipstick carried in a jalopy is less poignant than an engraved lighter carried through the jungles of Vietnam, but I believe that both are important in their own way and deserve both respect and a proper inspection of their respective value.

Collection Items

The tendency for spending on cosmetics and other small luxuries to increase during times of economic hardship.

This phenomenon is brought to life when one recalls the used jalopy dealership inter-chapter of "Grapes of Wrath." While the Lipstick…

Maybelline Cream Mascara Advertisement, 1936
During the 1930s, Maybelline produced mascara which was extremely popular (enough so to allow the company not only to survive but to expand to Canada and Europe) and extremely affordable.

It's interesting to note that in this advertisement, the…

Cutex Liquid Polish Advertisement, 1934
The Great Depression was a great time for nail polish. In 1933, Cutex's advertising agent announced a 28% increase in sales since the onset of the Depression.

As someone who is very familiar with many different types of cosmetics, this doesn't…

This YouTube video contains the audio file for an original broadcast of "The Penthouse Serenade," a radio show created by the founder of Maybelline, Tom Lyle Williams.

In the show, Williams himself would speak, and would simulate the sound of an…

Maintaining Beauty While Joining the Workforce
This image from 1936 depicts a young woman in Minnesota learning to sew in order to be able to work in the textile industry and thus become better able to provide for her family.

According to the National Women's History Museum…

Although I've stated in my primary description that I'm uninterested in viewing 1930s beauty through the lens of Hollywood, I realized about halfway through my process of compiling exhibit items that it might underscore my examination of beauty for…
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