Review: Hope in a Jar

Hope in a Jar by Kathy Peiss

I have a much different relationship with cosmetics than most women do. As an ace girl, I’ve never used cosmetics to make myself more conventionally attractive. Despite owning far too much nail polish, I haven’t a single red or pink. Cosmetics, for me, is just pretty paints–take ‘em or leave ‘em. Beauty culture, then, has always escaped me, especially the concept of “putting on your face”. (I am told putting on red lipstick is called “putting on your lady face” in Texas, and that’s just neat.) That’s where Hope in a Jar comes in. In fact, I stumbled across the recommendation for it during a discussion of that very subject.

Hope in a Jar covers the evolution of America’s beauty culture, from the equation of physical beauty with one’s morality and the shunning of visible cosmetics to the near-requirement of it these days. Hope in a Jar focuses mainly on the crucial turning point that occurred during the 1900s to the 1930s, and the brief window of opportunity it afforded for women in such conservative and repressive times, especially black women.

Peiss starts out with an anecdote where she deflects an aunt’s suggestion that she wear different makeup, which sets the tone as far as Peiss treats cosmetics. Peiss doesn’t judge cosmetics, their users, or their producers, letting their own remarks and the facts stand on their own. Her personal stance, as far as I can tell, is mostly neutral. This is refreshing, since cosmetic use can be a very touchy issue.

While I knew that cosmetics were for “painted women” (i.e., prostitutes) during the last gasp of the Victorians, I didn’t realize how much of that was tied into ideas of morality, racial supremacy, and even class. Painting your face was considered as “taking the pencill out of God’s hand”, as one critic of the time beautifully put it. Women poisoned from unsafe cosmetics would not confess to cosmetic use until the last minute, and doctors advised that cosmetic use would ultimately result in death. You can see how taboo they were!  Cosmetics were a way for women to demand public space, blur class lines, and explore and change their identity, Peiss claims.

But the impact of the industry was much more than providing a way for women to fake an “upper-class” complexion–it provided women with respectful and lucrative jobs. A great deal of women who dreamed about becoming doctors found their way into the cosmetic industry when their dreams were thwarted, one of the many stories that Peiss glances over. Most inspiring was how black women used the cosmetic industry to forge new lives for themselves. Working in the cosmetic industry offered a wonderful alternative to low-paying and often undignified work. Cosmetics were immediately seen as political in the black community as they emerged; Madame Walker refused to produce skin lightener and hair straightener, and publications decried cosmetic companies aimed towards blacks but run by white men. I had no idea that women dominated the cosmetic industry in the beginning.

Unfortunately, it was only a brief window of opportunity. As cosmetic companies grew larger and larger, it become more and more difficult for women, many of them without the necessary business education needed, to run them. Several companies became joint ventures between women and their husbands or their male relatives. The prevalence of women in the cosmetic industry slowly dwindled, and cosmetics became what they are now.  It’s astonishing to me how quickly cosmetics became standard–during World War II, cosmetics were considered downright necessary for women to retain their femininity while doing “men’s” work. But I’ll look at cosmetics differently now that I know how it all started.

Weirdly, Peiss occasionally references compelling stories and glosses over them completely. A woman bitterly writes that she would use more cosmetics if she weren’t under the control of her abusive husband, but we never know if she escaped that marriage. Peiss mentions in passing that Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s family had her committed to an asylum in order to wrest control of her cosmetic company from her–but never mentions it again! Ayer, luckily, got herself released and reconciled, but you’d never know from Peiss. Peiss also races through the development of cosmetics from the 1930s on in the last chapter, which could have taken at least two more.

Bottom line: An interesting and refreshingly neutral look at the surprisingly empowering origins of America’s beauty culture from the turn of the century to the 1930s.

I rented this book from the public library.

2 thoughts on “Review: Hope in a Jar

  1. Sounds like a very interesting book – I learned a lot just from reading your review.

    I am fascinated by cosmetics. Most people think I don’t wear any make-up, but I am actually wearing quite a few products – just none that are showy. No red lipstick for me!

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