Sunday, March 7, 2021

Made in Chicago Museum, Edgewater Historical Society, interviews Maybelline Family descendant, and author of The Maybelline Story, Sharrie Williams


2021 marks the 106th anniversary of the very first Maybelline cake mascara, which was introduced—rather remarkably—by a 21 year-old Chicago kid named Thomas Lyle Williams in 1917. Williams would go on to pilot the Maybelline empire for the next fifty years, playing as big a role as anyone in defining the entire cosmetics industry of the 20th century. By any measure, he ought to be one of the revered business figures of his time—be it as an innovator, a Chicago industrialist, or, in retrospect, a pioneer within the gay community. And yet, compared to the people who put their own names on their products—Coco Chanel, Estee Lauder, Max Factor, etc.—Williams’ legacy has languished a bit in obscurity.

Fortunately, the tale of Tom Lyle and the entire Williams family was finally given a proper examination and celebration in 2010, when Tom’s own great-niece, Sharrie Williams, published her comprehensive book The Maybelline Story and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It. Far more than a simple company history, Sharrie’s account of the family-owned business—particularly its 50 years of independence in Chicago—reads more like a Hollywood noir or a romance novel, rife with intrigue, in-fighting, dashing gents and fast-talking dames.

Ms. Williams was kind enough to share her expertise and unique insights with the Made-In-Chicago Museum, and we started by asking her about the role of Chicago itself as a character in this colorful drama.

“Maybelline would never have exploded as it did if Tom Lyle were in another city,” she says. “After World War I, women got the vote, motion pictures were the rage, and the Jazz Age began. All of this excitement was centered in the heart of Chicago.”

Sharrie also notes that Chicago’s reputation as the heartbeat of American industry was the thing that had landed Tom Lyle Williams [pictured below] there in the first place.

“Tom left the family farm in Morganfield, Kentucky, and relocated to Chicago because there was opportunity,” she says, “industry, brilliant minds, exciting people, and jobs to be had. He patented his ‘Maybel Company’ and produced his first product, Lash-Brow-Ine, in 1915. Two years later he renamed his eye beautifier Maybelline in honor of his sister Mabel, who gave him the idea.”

There have been a few different origin stories over the years related to teenage Tom Lyle’s submersion into the world of women’s make-up. Like the vast majority of gay men during his era, he lived a closeted life, so any natural interest in such things (he enjoyed applying make-up to his own face in the style of silent film stars) was downplayed in corporate accounts. All versions of the story, though, do feature Tom getting a crash course in DIY cosmetics from his sister—watching her apply some strange formula of Vaseline, coal dust, and ash to her brows and eyelashes. According to Sharrie Williams, Mabel had actually singed her brows, and wowed her brother by using the hodge-podge of ingredients to essentially rebuild her best visage with a vanity mirror and a brush.

Impressed and inspired, Tom Lyle Williams found himself a chemistry set and adapted his sister’s concoction into a brand new type of cosmetic, the aforementioned Lash-Brow-Ine. It debuted as a mail-order product during the height of America’s mail-order fever, and proved a ridiculously successful one. Tom set up an office for “Maybell Laboratories” at 4008 Indiana Avenue and began buying ad space in various national magazines, immediately recognizing the promotional appeal of Lash-Brow-Ine as a "glamourizer" (incidentally, both Lash-Brow-Ine and Maybelline were plays on the brand name Vaseline). 

“You too can have luxuriant eyebrows and long sweeping lashes by applying Lash-Brow-Ine nightly,” read a 1915 ad in Motion Picture Classic. “Thousands of society women and actresses have used this harmless and guaranteed preparation to add charm to their eyes and beauty to the face.”

In those early days, Tom Lyle Williams relied on the help of his family to get his product off the ground, and that dynamic would carry forward for many years to come.

“The Williams were a tight knit clan,” Sharrie says, speaking from personal experience. “Family loyalty was what Tom Lyle stood for.”

During the Chicago era, which stretched all the way into the late 1960s, Tom Lyle would keep Maybelline a family business, operating for decades out a central office in the Edgewater neighborhood (briefly at 4750 N. Sheridan, then the permanent location at 5900 N. Ridge Avenue). He worked at different points over the years with his siblings Noel, Preston, Mabel and Eva, along with his sisters’ husbands (the similarly named Chester Hewes and Ches Haines) and eventually his own son Tom Lyle Williams Jr., who was born back in Kentucky when Tom Sr. was briefly married at the age of 16. By 19, Tom Sr. had already begun a lifelong partnership with a man named Emery Shaver, who would also become Maybelline’s advertising man. The company’s other marketing guru, Rags Ragland, was the only non-family member to become an executive.

“Everyone worked together,” says Sharrie Williams, “first out of their kitchen, where they poured the original Lash-Brow-Ine into little tins at the table and carried bags of mail in wheel barrels from the train station. Later, as the Maybelline Company expanded, employees were hired. Tom Lyle's partner, Emery Shaver, worked with him in Hollywood on Maybelline advertising, contracting the biggest Stars of the era. Tom Lyle and Emery became bi-coastal, traveling from California to Chicago, keeping an apartment on Sheridan Road. Noel J. Williams ran the Company as Vice President.”

Sharrie Williams has admitted that not every member of her family was pleased when her book was published. While some saw it as a long overdue profile on Tom Lyle Williams (1896-1976)—a truly admired and beloved person within the family—others questioned the decision to share details of his personal life. Up to that point, he’d somehow remained an absolute mystery man to the outside world, to the point where Maybelline’s own Wikipedia page used to identify its founder as a “New York chemist”—wrong on both counts.

Now, thanks to Sharrie, Tom Lyle Williams’ true business savvy—as well as his potentially inspiring place in the LGBT community’s often hidden history—are far better understood. During a time when being open about his sexuality would have spelled the undoing of his business, T.L. Williams found ways to survive and endure while staying true to himself.

“During the 1920s, in Chicago, Tom Lyle and Emery blended into the Chicago culture,” Sharrie Williams explains. “It was a flamboyant time for young people—music, theater, movie palaces, parties, and private clubs. They didn't stand out driving Tom Lyle's custom-made Packards, wearing full length llama skin coats, and enhancing their features with a little Maybelline eyebrow pencil and a touch of mascara on their lashes. However, once the Great Depression hit during the 1930s, they began to stand out. They blended in far better in Hollywood. So Tom Lyle bought Rudolph Valentino's home in the Hollywood Hills, where they cloistered themselves behind the gates to protect the Maybelline name and the family from unwanted scrutiny.”

Tom Lyle Williams with his partner of 50 years, Emery Shaver

“Gays in the 1930s were not allowed to have any influence on women,” Sharrie adds, noting that the government had actual programs in place to crackdown on homosexual elements in the cosmetics industry. “It was a witch burning. The Government tried to break up the Maybelline Company by calling it a monopoly. Tom Lyle never was allowed to use his face on his products, like Max Factor or Charles Revson. Instead, he used the biggest Stars in Hollywood to represent Maybelline. Tom Lyle never let anything stop him and he never gave up believing in himself and his company. A positive thinker, he would say. ‘It's easy to be happy when things are going your way, the true test of character is staying positive during the hard times.’”

Maybelline faced no shortage of bumps in the road during its first few decades, but they generally zigged successfully when other zagged, using innovative strategies in both product development and marketing. During the Depression, the company added eyeshadow, pencil, and an eyelash grower to its growing line of cosmetics, and also introduced the miniature style of mascara boxes like the one in our museum collection.

“It was a smaller version of the original 75-cent box of mascara,” Sharrie Williams says. “The new Depression size sold for 10 cents. Tom Lyle took Maybelline out of the classifieds and put it into dime stores so the average American girl could have easy access and it was affordable. He found that women would rather spend their dimes on his cosmetics than buy food for the table. It's still that way today. During economic downturns, cosmetic sales go up while other products go down. Women have to have their beautiful eyes no matter what.”

 [1934 Maybelline ad with the Before and After effect and Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval]

Among the other cosmetic industry standards that Maybelline helped launch:
  • Before & After advertisements showcasing glamorous transformations
  • First cosmetics company to do radio advertising
  • “Carded Merchandising,” developed by the marketing genius Rags Ragland, showcased the little red Maybelline boxes in an upright display rather than stacked in a pile on the counter
  • Film Star Faces - From the flappers of the silent film era to the likes of Joan Crawford and Betty Grable in the 1940s, Maybelline was all Hollywood from the get-go
  • Using the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to communicate “trust, purity and perfection”
“This might seem silly by today's standards,” Sharrie says, “but in 1917 trying to convince a young girl to darken her eyelashes and brows with Maybelline was near impossible. Only prostitutes and actresses would dare be seen in public with made up eyes! But by the late 1930s, with a generation of women now wearing Maybelline and with Good Housekeeping's Stamp of Approval, it was a different story.”

Maybelline was an international juggernaut by the mid-century, and Tom Lyle Williams, in semi-retirement, was way out in L.A. Nonetheless, the company headquarters remained in Chicago at 5900 N. Ridge Ave., still recognizable today for the stylish “M” above the doorway.

In most other respects, it’s a pretty nondescript building—although one that Sharrie Williams remembers vividly from her youth when she visited the family business.

“It was a handsome building, but nothing unusual,” she says. “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.

“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."

Maybelline's former Ridge Avenue offices, circa 1934 (above) and 2017 (below)]

“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.”

Sharrie also remembers just one docking station for all shipping and receiving by truck, and one freight elevator, which led to a warehouse and storage area.

“And that was the Maybelline footprint,” she says, “part of three levels of the building. Also, there was a line of active retail store space along the Clark Street frontage. 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.

“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!”

The company was still in Edgewater in the mid ‘60s and doing well, but the death of Tom Lyle’s partner Emery Shaver in 1964 set the wheels in motion for major changes.

“Tom Lyle was now 70, and was not well,” says Sharrie Williams. “The loss of his partner was devastating. He began looking for a buyer.”

In 1967, Plough Inc. dropped a $136 million bid in cash and stock (about a billion dollars in today’s money), and just like that, the Williams family surrendered its control of the company they’d built.

“Tom Lyle had incorporated Maybelline in 1954,” Sharrie says, “but the stock was only divided among the family and the employees who had been loyal to Maybelline since the beginning. Even the stock boy received one million dollars. A large portion was given to The Good Will and CARE.”

Initially, the bittersweet emotions around Maybelline’s sale were eased by promises from Abe Plough that the company would remain in Chicago. It was only when that promise went out the window (the company relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas, then later New York City) that the elderly Tom Lyle came to regret things.

“He regretted that he hadn't groomed the younger generation to take over the company,” Sharrie explains. “He was heartbroken. . . The employees that were promised that their jobs would remain in Chicago were given letters of dismissal. It was painful for Tom Lyle to see his baby now being run without him at he helm."

Today Maybelline is owned by L'Oreal and based in New York. Long since severed from any connection to the Williams family, the company doesn’t spend much time promoting its history. Every facet of its marketing and operation, however, still owes a debt to those slightly more humble beginnings.

“You can take the company out of Chicago, but you can't take Chicago out of its roots,” Sharrie Williams says. “You can't take the history out of the name.”

We certainly encourage you to check out Sharrie Williams’ book The Maybelline Story and her related, regularly updated website at

[1959 Maybelline TV advertisements]

Every Artifact in Your Attic Tells a Tale, and the Ones that Say "MFG in Chicago, ILL" Tell Ours.  The Made-in-Chicago Museum, est. 2015, is a thoroughly unsolicited historical research project focused on collecting, documenting, and celebrating the “everyday objects” produced during Chicago’s 20th century industrial heyday. What started out as a small collection of rusty metal knick-knacks in my Uptown apartment has since evolved into this website (which I humbly dubbed a digital “museum") and now an honest-to-gosh, real-life exhibition at the Edgewater Historical Society on Chicago’s North Side.  Read More click link

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