Our modern understanding of makeup starts with a chemist and businessman named Maksymilian Faktorowicz. This name might not ring any bells, but his company will. He is the founder of Max Factor. As strange as it may seem, he worked in the beauty industry, such as it was in nineteenth century Poland, from the time he was nine years old. His first role in this sphere was as an apprentice to a wigmaker and cosmetician. By the time he was a teenager, he was no longer an apprentice and was applying his skills to the performers in the Imperial Russian Grand Opera.
After a brief military stint, Maksymilian Faktorowicz continued to hone his craft and grow his budding beauty empire. He had started making his own creams, fragrances, color cosmetics and wigs, drawing on his theater experience. He had actually performed for Russian nobility, so he had a sense of elegance and aspiration that helped him develop his products. In 1904, just as his business was gaining traction, Faktorowicz and his wife decided to move to America due to rising anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe and Russia. A spelling error at Ellis Island left him with the last name Factor, and from then on he was known as Max Factor.
Factor hoped that the growing Hollywood film industry would provide the same success that he experienced in the Russian theater world, so he decided to move his family to Los Angeles. He started with cosmetics and wigs, his old standards. His big break occurred when he developed a grease paint that didn’t cake up or show cracks after long days of wear on film sets. This paint naturally became very popular with actresses, and Max Factor capitalized on this popularity with products for lips and eyebrows. Perhaps his biggest stroke of genius occurred when he decided to market his makeup to “normal” women. His advertising suggested that his makeup could make anyone look like her favorite film actress.
Max Factor’s story is an incredible tale of ingenuity and entrepreneurship. It is also familiar. If we go back even further in time, we start to see beauty trends and early cosmetic items that strike modern readers as bizarre and even dangerous. It starts simply enough with ancient Egyptians applying scented oils to their faces and bodies as far back as 10,000 BC. By 4000 BC, Egyptian women had started experimenting with applying crushed minerals to their faces and lining their eyes with kohl. Around the same time in China, women were beginning to paint their nails. Interestingly, certain colors were only allowed to be worn by women of the upper classes, and lower class women were not allowed to wear nail polish at all. it is a very early example of cosmetics being used as a status symbol.
By 3000 BC, the ancient Greeks had started to lighten their complexions with lead paint, adding strategic color to their cheeks with crushed berries. Lightening powders were popular in Asian countries in 1500 BC, as was, oddly, teeth painting. The Romans of this era were experimenting with complexion enhancers and nail polish.
These methods remained in use until the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when there were significant advances in production and application techniques. Merchants brought new ingredients and fragrance oils back from their travels, and people experimented with them. At this time, the emphasis was on a pale complexion that appeared to have very little sun exposure. This was achieved with seemingly strange items like egg whites or incredibly toxic ones like lead. The emphasis on youth is relatively recent, originating in the early twentieth century. This is when women of all social classes started wearing makeup daily. As makeup became more affordable and accessible, it became more essential in the eyes of society.
It is incredible to think about how thousands of years of history came to rest on the back of one Polish man, Max Factor, who decided to sell elite European beauty to American film stars and then share those secrets with everyone else. Makeup existed for a long time before Max Factor traveled to Hollywood, but he is the one who democratized it.