In a small, climate-controlled room on the top floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, curators have set out a table full of historic objects. Not Abraham Lincoln’s top hat or Betsy Ross’s flag — more like shampoo with Farrah Fawcett’s face on the label and bottles of Noxzema suntan lotion.
The Smithsonian has been collecting cosmetic and personal care products since the 1880s, snapping up stock in the late 1970s from family-run pharmacies that were going out of business. Collected in the Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections, most of the goods date back as far as the turn of the 20th century (with some products from circa 1860, as well as products produced as late as 2015). You can’t find the majority of the items in the museum’s typical galleries: Since the products were designed to be consumed and thrown away, their packaging is delicate and stored out of sight.
Now, thanks to support from Kiehl’s, the Smithsonian has digitizing its collection of more than 2,000 beauty and personal care products to make this history accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Kiehl’s also donated more than 100 products to the collection, including modern-day products like its Creamy Eye Treatment with Avocado.
The historical value of these artifacts is real, according to Associate Curator Diane Wendt and Research and Project Assistant Rachel Anderson. Americans have long perceived connections between beauty and health, making these items at home in the museum’s division of medicine and science. The products Americans gravitate towards also reflect the beauty ideals of the time.
“It certainly tells you quite a lot about what people were willing to spend their money on, and it tells you what they were trying to obtain personally, how they wanted to present themselves to the world, or maybe how they felt like they had to present themselves to the world,” Anderson says.
Most importantly, it also highlights how much has not changed over the decades when it comes to our beauty priorities.
Celebrities have been slapping their names on products for over 100 years.
Think it’s so 2016 for every celeb, starlet, and reality show mogul from Kylie Jenner to Victoria Beckham to push their own beauty line to fans? This has been going on since the turn of the century, when people wanted to look like their favorite theatre actors and entrepreneurs started selling theatrical face powder to regular people for everyday use.
“Even these early stars of the theatre had products associated with their names. Now, we think every celebrity has to have products, but it’s actually an older idea,” Wendt says. “You look at the beginnings of theatrical powder, and this idea that you want to mimic the look of the star of the stage, which becomes the Hollywood star.”
For more: Curated