Sharrie Williams, author of The Maybelline Story, is an original descendant of the Maybelline family. Her Great uncle, Tom Lyle Williams, founded the Maybelline Co in 1915 and sold it in 1967. Sharrie shares her family's photos, stories and vintage Maybelline ads.
The rise of Maybelline from a small mail-order firm to a global cosmetics business is impressive. Despite the fact that the company is now called Maybelline New York, its early fortunes, like those of Max Factor and the Westmore Brothers, were tied with the growing motion picture business in California.
Tom Lyle Williams
Known by those close to him as Tom Lyle, the founder of Maybelline was entrepreneurial, hard working, prepared to take advice and loyal to friends and family. His good looks and ability to get on with people were undoubtedly of great assistance. In 1912, aged 16, he moved from Morganfield, Illinois to Chicago and got a job with Montgomery Ward, a long running mail-order catalogue business. After experimenting on his own with a variety of mail-order ventures he left Montgomery Ward in 1914 to concentrate on his own business. By then he had already met and started a long-term relationship with Emery Shaver [1903-1964] who joined him in the venture. The following year he wired his sister Mabel to come to Chicago to help with the business.
In 1915 Tom Lyle watched his sister Mabel fix her singed eyebrows using a mixture of Vaseline, ash and coal dust, a trick she apparently got from ‘Photoplay’ magazine. Seeing an opportunity for a product to sell through his mail-order business he used a chemistry set to produce a mixture containing petrolatum (Vaseline), carbon black, cottonseed oil, and safflower oil that he hoped he could sell. Unfortunately, when Mabel applied it to her lashes it ran into her eyes and stung them badly.
Undaunted, Tom Lyle sought professional advice and commissioned Parke-Davis, a wholesale drug manufacturer, to make a suitable product for sale. The result was a scented cream consisting of refined white petrolatum along with several oils to add sheen. It did not contain any colouring agent but it seemed to ‘brighten the eyes’ (Williams & Youngs, 2010, p. 22). He called the product ‘Lash-Brow-Ine’, selecting the name partly because of its similarity with other eyelash and eyebrow products already on the market; a decision that would result in difficulties later.
Lash-Brow-Ine was to be packed into small aluminium containers and sold through mail-order in two sizes, at fifty cents and one dollar. Using money he got from his brother Noel to get this new venture off the ground, Tom Lyle acquired product and packaging and placed an advertisement for Lash-Brow-Ine in ‘Photoplay’ in 1916. As cash came in, it was used to place advertisements in other magazines such as the ‘Pictorial Review’, the ‘Deliniator’, and the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ and so the business grew (Williams & Youngs, 2010, p. 25).
Right: 1916 The first advertisement placed for Lash-Brow-Ine in Photoplay magazine.
Advertising for the Lash-Brow-Ine claimed that it ‘nourished and promoted the growth of eyelashes and eyebrows’. Tom Lyle was canny enough to suggest that you needed to use “two to three small boxes before any marked improvement is noted”, thereby ensuring a number of sales before dissatisfaction might set in. Pamphlet material that came with the product also suggested it could be used to cure baldness. Although we would now consider these claims to be untrue, at the time it was commonly believed that substances like Vaseline, olive oil and lanolin would stimulate hair growth.
How to use “LASH-BROW-INE” Take a little “LASH-BROW-INE” on the tip of the finger and rub gently over the Brows and Lashes, always rubbing in the direction in which the hair grows. Be sure to rub well into the roots, and then take a soft cloth and wipe around the Brows and Lashes, leaving the “LASH-BROW-INE” only where you wish the hair to grow. To produce the very best results the very tip end of the Lashes should be clipped every two months. The clipping should be done by another person, using small manicure scissors, so as only to clip the tip ends. The Eyebrows should never be clipped.
Following the success of Lash-Brow-Ine, Tom Lyle commissioned other products from Parke-Davis including ‘Odor-Ine’ Toilet Lotion (a deodorant), ‘Maybell Coloring’ (an eyebrow and eyelash dye), ‘Lily of the Valley Face Powder’, ‘Maybell Beauty Cream’, rouge and lipstick. None of these additional products produced remarkable sales and were eventually dropped.
In 1917, again with the assistance of Parke-Davis, Maybell Laboratories began production and sale of a cake eyelash and eyebrow beautifier. The exact composition of this product is unknown but it was most likely a sodium stearate based cake mascara known earlier also as ‘water cosmetique’ or ‘mascaro’.
Like other products of its type the colouring agents were suspended in a base of sodium stearate soap. The soap and pigments were mixed together, extruded into strips, stamped and dried. The product was applied by first wetting the block, then using a small brush to lift and apply the colouring to the eyebrows and eyelashes. Early versions could irritate the eye but later versions made with triethanolamine stearate were non-smarting.
Above: Maybelline eyelash beautifier with block, brush and instructions in a cardboard box. There is a mirror almost completely hidden behind the instructions. The product form is almost identical to earlier French eye cosmetics.
The new product named ‘Maybelline’ came in two shades, black (containing lampblack) and brown (containing iron oxides) and was sold for seventy-five cents in a small box with a picture of the Maybell Girl on the top. The box included a rectangular block of product stamped with the name Maybelline, a small bristle brush and had a mirror attached to the inside of the lid. It was advertised as being an “ideal, harmless preparation for darkening eyelashes and eyebrows”.
In 1920 Tom Lyle’s decision to use the name Lash-Brow-Ine came back to haunt him. In that year he lost an appeal over a trademark dispute with Benjamin Ansehl of St. Louis, Misssouri. The loss meant that the business could no longer use the name Lash-Brow-Ine and cemented the use of Maybelline in all advertising after that date.
In 1924 the growing business was relocated to larger headquarters in North Ridge Avenue, Chicago. The new headquarters came with a new business name as Maybell Laboratories had been renamed as Maybelline in the previous year.
Growth and development continued for the remainder of the decade. A water-proof liquid version, applied with a paint brush built into the lid, was introduced in 1925 and Maybelline was promoted, in both its solid and water-proof liquid forms, in black and brown colours. In 1929 eyebrow pencils and eye shadow were added to the product line-up. The eyebrow pencils were also sold in black and brown but the eye shadows came in blue, black, brown and green, with violet added the following year.
Promotion continued to play an important role in the success of the company with Maybelline spending over one million dollars on advertising between 1915 and 1929 (Williams & Youngs, 2010, p. 99). A lot of advertising featured actresses including Phyllis Haver, Ethel Clayton, Viola Dana, and Natalie Moorhead. Cross-promotion of this sort was of critical to the success of Maybelline but was also important to the actresses and the movies they appeared in.
Both stage and screen had helped promote the use of eye make-up in the 1920s. The Ballets Russes, who toured the US in 1916 and 1917, demonstrated an exotic glamour that relied, in part, on make-up to accentuate their eyes. In the movies, the vamp look used by actresses such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri created a demand for eye make-up from women who wanted to look like them. Unfortunately, the vamp look was also associated with risqué costumes and suggested a certain looseness of character. This led to an association between eye make-up and immorality, a state of affairs that lasted well into the 1950s.
Maybelline introduced eye shadow and eyeliner to their product lines in 1929. This meant that the original Maybelline was now only for eyelashes and it was renamed ‘Maybelline Eyelash Darkener’ and then reformulated in 1931. In 1933 ‘eyelash darkener’ began to be referred to as mascara, a process that was completed by 1935. This was rather late in the day as Helena Rubinstein, Dorothy Gray, Marie Earle and others had been using the term for years. The adoption of mascara by Maybelline may have been to help separate its products from those associated with the ‘Lash Lure’ dye scandal of 1933.
For absolute safety in darkening your lashes use genuine, harmless Maybelline. Non-smarting, tear-proof Maybelline is NOT a DYE, but a pure and highly refined mascara for instantly darkening and beautifying the eyelashes. For over sixteen years millions of women have used Maybelline mascara with perfect safety and most gratifying results
The early 1930s was a difficult time for Maybelline but from adversity came strength. American production of toiletries and cosmetics declined from $193 million in 1929 to $97 million in 1933 and the number of companies almost halved from 815 to 490 (Jones, 2010, p. 109). The companies most at risk were those at the lower, mass-market end, which included Maybelline. As well as the general economic difficulties caused by the depression, eye make-up came under attack because of its associations with flappers and the perceived immorality of the movie industry of the 1920s. Then in 1933 the Lash Lure scandal caused a temporary sales drop in all mascaras.
In 1931, in an attempt to improve sales, Maybelline introduced a ten-cent trial ‘purse size’ that could be ordered through a mail-coupon. This was so successful that it was eventually made available through point of sale outlets as well. Moves were also made to improve sales distribution, particularly outside of the Chicago area, and packaging and display cartons were redesigned to make them more visible.
The use of movie stars remained an important part of the Maybelline advertising strategy but, in the 1930s, endorsements were more sober in tone and there was an increased use of models rather than actresses in the before and after shots. This reflected the position of the motion picture industry which adopted self-censorship in 1934 in the form of the Production Code. In that year Maybelline added radio to its advertising arsenal when ‘The Maybelline Hour’ began broadcasting on WFNT out of Chicago (Williams & Youngs, 2010, p. 134).
Maybelline, along with a number of other mascaras, received favourable reports in the widely read book ‘Skin deep: The truth about beauty aids‘ published in 1934. However, given that the Lash Lure scare of 1933 had hurt sales, Maybelline sought to protect itself from questions regarding the quality of its products by obtaining the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ which was placed prominently in most advertisements for the rest of the decade. Phrases like ‘contains no dye’, ‘absolutely harmless’ and ‘perfect safety’ were also inserted liberally in advertising copy.
Product packaging was also upgraded as part of the drive towards associating Maybelline with quality. Gold metal vanity cases were introduced for the solid mascara and in 1936 a new cream mascara was introduced in dainty zipper bags; the liquid mascara seems to have disappeared from the product line at the same time. These upgrades in products and packaging and the more sober tone in advertising were to make Maybelline products more acceptable to middle America and the department stores in which many of them now made their cosmetic purchases. Given that the 1934 cosmetic survey by ‘Woman’s Home Companion’ did not include eyeshadow, mascara and eye pencil as they were not considered important, anything that fostered sales to middle America would be to the company’s benefit.
Maybelline’s fortunes were dramatically improved when Harold Ragland joined the company in 1933 and assumed control of sales and promotion. Under his more professional direction the company closed down the mail-order business, fixed many of its distribution problems and opened up new avenues for sales through chain and department stores. Ragland also made the ten-cent ‘purse size’ more widely available and introduced a new form of display card that could be hung prominently to attract the customer’s attention. The original cards used an image of the Maybell Girl but these were soon replaced thereby closing the last symbolic links with the old Maybell Laboratories.
Above: One of the original display cards introduced by Harold Ragland. The Maybell girl was soon replaced with a more contemporary image. The eye shadow product is missing.
By 1934 the cash flow was strong enough to allow Tom Lyle to start buying up other mascara businesses as they came on the market, thereby solidifying Maybelline‘s dominance in eye make-up in the American market. The 1930s also saw Maybelline expand into Canada and Europe (Williams & Youngs, 2010, p. 260). South America was added after the war and other countries followed giving Maybelline a global reach. At home, although there was increased competition from the majors, figures indicated that Maybelline still had about 75% of the American mascara market in 1947.
Corporatisation and sale
After its incorporation in 1954 the company saw two decades of continuous growth and expansion, with sales reaching $25 million in 1966 (Williams & Young, 2010, p. 304). During this time the company remained firmly fixed on eye products, including mascara, eyeliner, eyeshadow, eyebrow pencils, eyelash curlers and eyebrow tweezers.
In 1958, following Helena Rubinstein’s introduction of ‘Mascara-matic’, Maybelline introduced its own wand mascara with a spiral brush, ‘Magic Mascara’. Also introduced were new self-sharpening eyeliner/eyebrow pencils and stick eye shadow. The new mascara wands would result in the decline of cake and cream forms and in 1963 Maybelline released ‘Ultra-lash’ mascara, followed soon after by ‘Ultra-Brow’, ‘Ultra-Line’, and ‘Ultra-Shadow’.
In 1967 Tom Lyle reached the age of seventy and was ready to sell. After turning down bids by Revlon and Schick he sold the company to Plough for just over $130 million in stock. The business remained named Maybelline through the merger of Plough with Scherling and the sale of Maybelline to the Wasserstein Perella investor group but it was renamed ‘Maybelline New York’ in 2001 by its current owners L’Oréal, USA.
Maybell Laboratories founded to make Lash-Brow-Ine.
Advertising in Photoplay magazine begins.
First real model used in advertising.
Maybelline Cake eyelash and eyebrow make-up released.
Maybell Laboratories renamed Maybelline.
Maybelline moves to new headquarters in North Ridge Avenue Chicago.