Whilst some cosmetics seem to pride themselves on their futuristic scientific credentials and their baffling talk of polypetides and liposomes, there are some vintage formulas and products that remain so popular that they continue to be manufactured, used and loved years after their original creation. From wonder balms to miracle creams, Frances Ambler salutes decades of classic beauty products.

Keeping lips kissable since the 19th century, Smith’s Rosebud Salve and its pretty tin is a staple for every vintage dressing table. Originally created by pharmacist G.F. Smith in 1895, it is a wonder salve suitable for use as a lip balm, but it can also be used on cuts and grazes and even for smoothing down flyway hairs.

Still owned by the family company based in Maryland, USA, other suggested uses are as an eyebrow groomer, to enhance pretty cheekbones or a collarbone, or as an eye shadow base.

All this and it still smells divine.

Moving across to Europe at the turn of the 20th century where it was the fashion for ladies to dye their hair. In 1907 Eugène Schueller came up with the first synthetic hair dye, which he then sold onto hair salons. His business would eventually become L’Oréal. From these humble beginnings, L’Oréal has of course since become a massive global industry and now owns many of the companies featured in this article.

1914 saw the introduction of Ponds Cold Cream Cleanser still used to deep cleanse skin and as a night cream. It was originally marketed alongside Pond’s Vanishing Cream – now since discontinued – which was intended as a moisturizer. An advert of the period reads ‘every normal skin needs these two creams’.

With one of the primary ingredients being water, the cream is suitable for dry and sensitive skin, soothing skin and leaving it cool (hence the name). There is also something very soothing about the ritual of gently tissuing the cream from your face, as millions of women have done before you. The idea has been adopted by more contemporary firms including MAC who now manufacture their own Cold Cream.
‘As if it were the first time’ reads the current advertising campaign for the legendary Chanel No. 5 fragrance, first introduced in the Twenties. Its exotic combination that includes notes of Ylang Ylang, Neroli, jasmine, sandalwood and vanilla still enchants: apparently a bottle is sold somewhere worldwide every 55 seconds.

Coco Chanel’s claims for the perfume were typical of the ambitions of the modern age: “I want to give women an artificial perfume. Yes I really do mean artificial, like a dress, something that has been made. I didn’t want any rose or lily of the valley; I want a perfume that is a composition.”

The new mood was also reflected in the modernist bottle, designed by Chanel herself, which has become a classic in its own right. It is part of the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and has been immortalized in work by Andy Warhol.

Another product with an almighty reputation is Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream, created in the Thirties. The cream was apparently originally formulated to treat the legs of Arden’s racehorses and contains one of the first uses of skin-soothing beta-hydroxy (since a staple of cosmetics) and vitamin E. The name supposedly came from a client who used it on her child’s scraped knee and found it healed within eight hours, but frankly the apricot balm is too good for either kids and animals.

Like Smith’s Rosebud salve, this wonder product works on rough and chapped skins but also can be used as a lip balm or an eye gloss. The development of Arden’s cosmetic and skincare range reflected a wider beauty shift towards the clean and fresh skin associated with a healthy outdoors lifestyle.

Also key to the advancement of cosmetics in this period is Helena Rubenstein and anyone interested should read War Paint, by Lindy Woodhead to discover the fearsome rivalry between these two beauty queens.

The magic of the movies was also extremely influential on the beauty industry. Max Factor still bills itself as ‘The Make-Up of Make-Up Artists’. The original Max Factor was behind several key looks in Hollywood, including false eyelashes for the silent star Phyllis Haver and Hunter Bow lips for Joan Crawford.

Pan-Stik was created in response to change lightening on set and was first seen on Greer Garson for That Forsyte Womanin 1949. It continues to be sold today. It’s a maximum coverage foundation in a stick that’s had a glittering array of users including legends like Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. Simply dab it onto your face and use your fingers to blend. You’re now ready for your close-up.

Lipcote is also a surprisingly long player in the make-up bag, having been around for over 50 years. The lip sealant was an essential step to maintaining a lady-like visage at all times with the advert claiming it meant ‘clean kisses and collars’, a cleanly collar probably vital in the days when the women were still responsible for all the laundry.

The brand is extremely proud of its heritage, using David Downton, whose vintage inspired fashion illustrations were used on the V&A’s Golden Age of Couture exhibition poster, to design the lips logo used on all of their packaging.

1961 saw the introduction into the UK of another make-up artist stable: Elnett hairspray. It was the first lacquer-free hairspray and was vital in holding up beehives or maintaining that immaculate mod look. It has managed to endure subsequent decades of Fawcett flicks, poodle perms and Rachel cuts with its pride intact.

Within its gold bottle, adorned with an illustration of a lovely retro lady, the lightweight formula works because it holds the hair without making it too sticky. And because it’s been used for so many years, the scent alone is bottled nostalgia.

Although Maybelline created their first mascara in 1917, it wasn’t until 1971 that Great Lash Mascara was unleashed on the world. It remains a bestseller, with one sold every 1.5 seconds. Remarkably the formulation of this water-based mascara hasn’t changed since its creation.

Acolytes of the product praise its flake-free formulation, suitable for everyday use, as well as its gentle thickening effect.


Finally, if this sweep through the history of beauty products has left you exhausted, why not try one of the Eighties kindest gifts to the world of beauty: Clarin’s Beauty Flash Balm? Dubbed both ‘Cinderella in a bottle’ and ‘the facelift in a tube’ it acts as the perfect skin pep-me up, lifting, tightening and illuminating.

Its simple ingredients include witch hazel, rice starch and olive tree extracts and its classic, restrained packing is a world away from Eighties’ brash and bling.

So, what beauty invention of the 21st century does the crystal ball predict will still be sitting on dressing tables in the next twenty, thirty and even hundred years? The reason these timeless products seem to have lived on is their simplicity, both in content and usage, and because they seem to have stayed true to the vision of their creators.

Will the next cosmetic classic come courtesy of an inspired individual, rather than from a lab rat? I’d like to think so.

One Response

  1. Lisa Prest

    Great list.

    …and not to forget Coty Airspun loose powder (as recommended to me by a particularly gorgeous vintage friend)

    It smells like your nana’s makeup, has been around since the 30’s and makes your skin flawless, or as close to flawless as I’m ever going to get.