Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture

Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture

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by Kathy Lee Peiss, Kathy Lee Peiss

The first social history of American beauty culture, Hope in a Jar presents a richly textured account of how women created the cosmetics industry and how cosmetics have created the modern woman.  See more details below


The first social history of American beauty culture, Hope in a Jar presents a richly textured account of how women created the cosmetics industry and how cosmetics have created the modern woman.

Editorial Reviews

BUST Magazine
Finally, an intelligent history of that most contested of female rituals: making up. And what a history it is. Hope in a Jar is enlightening at every turn, and it busts plenty of myths. If you thought that the entire cosmetics industry was one big patriarchal plot—nothing but an opiate for the Misses—this book will make you change your mind.
Alexandra Jacobs
...Peiss holds your hand through the history of America's beauty culture with the gentle patience of an Avon sales rep. . . -- Entertainment Weekly
Michelle Goldberg

Kathy Peiss' history of American beauty culture tells much the same story as Joan Jacobs Brumberg's vastly superior The Body Project, though with an entirely different spin. The Body Project was largely about how our culture's increasing emphasis on physical beauty created new anxieties for women. Hope in a Jar is about how beauty culture created new freedoms. Though there are traces of ambivalence in the book, mostly Peiss takes the same tack as contemporary postfeminist 'zines like Maxi, arguing that consumer culture has been a valuable source of female bonding and self-expression.

Peiss explains how women working in the beauty industry -- especially African-American women -- developed mail order, door-to-door sales and multilevel marketing schemes because most commercial outlets were closed to them. "Although unrecognized by business historians, women entrepreneurs were in the vanguard of modern franchising methods that would take off more generally after World War II," she writes. She also details the arguments in black communities over hair straightening and skin bleaching, and the idea that beauty would lead to racial progress. An ad for hair pomade, Peiss reports, exhorted, "Look your best ... you owe it to your race."

Other sections of Hope in a Jar resemble Tom Frank's The Conquest of Cool, a book about how ad men in the 1960s conflated consumerism and political liberation. Peiss quotes '20s beauty writer Nell Vinick, "Cosmetics were merely the symbols of the social revolution that has gone on; the spiritual and mental forces that women have used to break away from conventions and to forward the cause of women's freedom."

Unfortunately, Peiss is herself prey to that argument. It's a popular strategy among Cultural Studies academics to read subversion into mainstream patterns of consumption, but Peiss does so even more than most. Take this bit of analysis: "By promoting the idea of improving nature, women entrepreneurs validated beauty culture for a broad range of women. 'Women may be divided into two classes, those who have good complexions and those who have not,' Madame Yale observed with her usual aplomb, capsizing a social structure based on wealth, occupation and ethnicity." Who but someone drowning in theory could see a bold statement of democracy in such a bald sales pitch? In another chapter, Peiss celebrates working women's revolutionary use of powder: "In the workplace as well, women powdered their noses through the day, halting the company's work to indulge momentarily their desire for beauty and, doubtless, to take a break. As they put on a feminine face, these women briefly claimed a public space, stopping the action, in a sense, by making a spectacle of themselves."

She gives us pages of utterly obvious observations told in the detached, fascinated tone of an anthropologist studying an exotic new culture. Hundreds of words are used explaining that poor women were less likely to use expensive brands than were rich women. Or, as Peiss puts it, women "engaged consumer culture selectively." Another paragraph informs us that many women didn't wear makeup while doing housework, instead putting it on to go shopping or socializing.

What's most frustrating is that when Peiss does include provocative information, she fails to really grapple with it. For instance, she tells us that "Guidance counselors at Smith College routinely noted graduating students' 'attractiveness' in their records," then drops the issue, never telling us what effect such scrutiny had on young women. What makes The Body Project such a superior book is that Brumberg used real women's diaries in her research, while Peiss relies on a shallow semiotic analysis of advertisements and magazine articles. For all her statistics and critical maneuvering, Hope in a Jar ultimately only goes skin-deep. -- Salon

New York Times Book Review
. . .Peiss has given a strong structural framework to the story of why women. . .have been drawn to makeup, to the power of illusion, the possibility of transformation. . .They were -- and are -- all prey to hope in a jar. . .
Joan Jacobs Brumberg
I find Hope in a Jar insufficiently critical of the psychological, emotional and social consequences that grow out of making artifice. . .integral to our identities as women. . . .I could not help but muse on the complex meanings and consequences of 'putting on a face.' — The Women's Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this lively social history of America's beauty culture, freelance writer Peiss traces the background and growth of the billion-dollar U.S. cosmetics industry over the past century. Relating cultural changes at the end of the 19th century, she observes that using makeup, heretofore forbidden for 'nice' women, became a lightning rod for larger conflicts over female autonomy and social roles. The burgeoning industry provided opportunity for entrepreneurial women who eventually played a key role in its development. Among the early titans were Elizabeth Arden, a Canadian immigrant who learned to speak with proper diction to project an upper-class image, and Polish-born Helena Rubenstein, another powerful, self-created woman. They also had their counterparts in the black community: Annie Turnbo Malone and Madame C.J. Walker, who developed hair-care products, recruited women as agents as they traveled the country; Malone rewarded them with cash, diamond rings and even low-interest mortgages, a forerunner of today's direct-sales incentive programs. According to a study in the late 1980s, quoted here, feminist politics of recent years have done little to diminish women's use of makeup.

This is a delicious and serious look at a glamorous industry. Illustrations of cosmetics advertising offer a history of their own.

Library Journal
Drawing upon a rich array of archival sources, the author has produced a comprehensive social history of the origin and development of the U.S. cosmetics industry. In a refreshing challenge to feminist critiques that have focused on the victimization of women fostered by the American obsession with youth, appearance, and thinness, Peiss explores the role played by women themselves in the development of this process. Beginning in the 1890s, the beauty schools, correspondence courses, and mail-order companies founded by numerous pioneers-immigrant, working-class, and black women among them-made the pursuit of beauty respectable as they ingeniously used the very traditions of female culture to market their products. While Peiss clearly highlights the political debates at the heart of this topic, she deftly demonstrates the ways in which women use and have used cosmetics to explore and proclaim their own sense of self-identity.

An engrossing, highly readable book that should be welcomed by scholars and general readers alike; highly recommended. -- Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell College, New Jersey

Explores the origins of the beauty culture and its central role in the creation of modern American womanhood, highlighting the leading role of black and white women in shaping an industry unique in the business world. Material is rich with the voices of ordinary women, from immigrant shopgirls who used cosmetics to appear more American, to African-American women for whom racial stereotypes and white emulation were tied to beauty culture. Includes b&w illustrations and photos. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the power of the beauty culture to control women's behavior is impressively illustrated in this study of the growth of America's beauty industry. A history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Peiss (Cheap Amusements) chronicles the use of cosmetics over time and their economic, sociological, and psychological impact through the ages. She begins in the late 19th century, when cosmetics, often filled with such toxic substances as lead, were mostly the stuff of hussies and fallen women. She details the gradual acceptance of cosmetics, including their very important role in establishing women as entrepreneurs in business. Still, the frustrating standards created by make-up and its manufacturers (in idealizing blondes, for instance) have done damage to countless women's self-esteem for long decades. Peiss does a particularly good job in tracing the impact of various standard WASP beauty fantasies on people, such as African-Americans, who could never hope to fulfill the fantasies. She does not succumb, though, to the seductions of militant feminism. While noting the paradoxical messages sent frequently to women from employers, who may focus to an absurd degree on physical appearance as a measure of professional value and achievement, Peiss also recognizes the positive roles played by the beauty culture in a woman's private, social, and imaginative life. She concludes that cosmetics, if used sagely, can even serve to make a declaration of selfhood as one of many tools used by women "to announce their adult status, sexual allure, youthful spirit, political beliefs and even to proclaim their right to self-definition."

Acompelling look at beauty as a lightning rod for the bigger conflicts surrounding women's still-evolving social place.

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.35(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

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