Tuesday, May 14, 2013

50 years of Maybelline-Magic took place in a simple nondescript building in Chicago

By Harris A. Niel Jr.

The beige brick building that housed the Maybelline Company in the 1960s was handsome, but nothing unusual. It took on the shape of an arrowhead pointing northward, between two major Chicago streets, Clark and Ridge. The rear, or base, of the arrowhead was bound by a couple of alleyways, forming an irregular base line
Entering at the company entrance at 5900 North Ridge Avenue, there was a main-floor foyer with a terrazzo floor and paneled walls. A semi-circular stair with curved brass rail rose out of sight to a second-floor office and reception area. Behind the receptionist window was a general office area where about a dozen people worked. Opposite the receptionist was a door leading to a group of four executive offices. That was it.

Back to the lower-level foyer, another door led to the main-floor operating areas. First, the Traffic and Shipping Departments were in adjoining spaces, convenient to a “dumb-waiter” device that dropped orders from the general office above to the lower area. Further into the plant, the “Assembly Room” came along, where maybe 50 ladies at individual work desks assembled thousands of packages of Maybelline products by hand daily. The room was set up with a supervisor’s desk in front, with assemblers in rows across the room, similar to a school classroom or study hall. Hazel Peterson, the supervisor, stopped any chit-chat if it got anywhere near disruptive.

An arrowhead pointing North
In addition to the Assembly Room, machine packaging was beginning to emerge. There were two smaller rooms, former retail store spaces, that were set up to produce this new packaging. One room packaged the medium-sized cake and cream mascaras and pencils onto gold cards, putting them first into blisters or “bubbles,” then stapling them to the card.

The second store-front room contained a machine that sealed products in blisters to cards by a dielectric sealing process. Several newer products went to market from this room, including the “Brush ‘N Comb,” automatic self-sharpening pencil and refill, and the brand new liquid “Magic Mascara” and refill. The latter was proving to be a smash hit in the marketplace, and we were still running behind to keep pace with demand when I started.

To the rear of these operating areas, there was a small warehouse and staging area for materials in and out of the shipping and assembly operations, and the sole truck dock. This dock was the connecting point for all in-and-out movement, all of it by truck.

Moving into the building from the dock, a freight elevator led to the basement warehouse and storage area. Most of the basement was Maybelline territory, except for the building utilities and storage cubicles for the apartment tenants. To call this space a “warehouse” gives the wrong picture, because it was a low-ceiling basement throughout. This limited storage on pallets to about six-foot height. Even at that, the space was randomly cut into smaller spaces by walls that may have made sense in some earlier time, but no longer did.

And that was the Maybelline “footprint,” part of three levels of the building. Also, there was a line of active retail store space along the Clark Street frontage. Starting with the “arrowhead,” a Rexall drug store occupied the point of the building, wrapping around to the Ridge Avenue frontage. Also, in no order, there was a barber shop, a short-order restaurant, an ice cream store, a hardware store and finally a “currency exchange,” a sort of check-cashing service.

Elsewhere, there were several dozen apartments on the upper two floors of the building. Many of the residents were also Maybelline employees, so they only had to go downstairs to go to work!
Over the years leading up to the merger with Plough in 1967, Maybelline edged into more of both the retail and residential space in the building as growth dictated. Finally, there were no retail spaces, Maybelline had moved into the whole main level of the building. In addition, Maybelline had expanded the office space to create a new Advertising Department, and expanded the Sales Department to provide offices for two Assistant Sales Managers. In the final years it also expanded to include the Computer Department, an IBM main frame computer with input punch-card equipment and a staff of three.

As Magic Mascara came along early in this period, the company hired a cosmetic chemist named Julius Wagman to formulate and refine the new product, with the plan to set up manufacturing and filling facilities on site. In fact, Julius did exactly that, with a specialized facility carved out of one of the old retail store spaces. That is, until the City of Chicago fire inspector paid a visit one day. They determined that, while the liquid product was harmless in a small package, it was volatile and taboo in manufacturing and storage quantities. 

Magic Mascara
We were operating against city code in that location. That was the end of that, and immediately Julius and John had to line up an outside source to supply us on a “private label” basis. This was a setback, but it only put Magic Mascara into the same orbit as every other Maybelline formulated product: An outside source would supply us, leaving Maybelline as a packager and distributor of its own products, but not a manufacturer. 

Harris A. Neil Jr. with a friend, in Maui
This little exercise has been both a joy and a challenge, but in any event it wouldn't couldn't--have happened without your book as a compass. The Maybelline book gave me a perspective that I’d lived without for all these 50-plus years, and that helped me immensely as I gathered both the thoughts and the materials that sit ready to head your way. Thanks, your book is the unseen hand guiding mine in whatever you see written here.

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