“In the Little Pink and White Box”: The Rise and Fall of Carl Weeks’ Cosmetics Empire

“It was built on women’s vanity,” Carl Weeks frequently remarked when he discussed the fortune he made in business. More specifically, Weeks amassed his riches in the early twentieth century by selling cosmetics. His million-dollar idea originated in a combination of cold cream, face power, and perfume. Voila! Foundation makeup. By 1915, Weeks began selling his products under the Armand Company label.

Sales quickly took off. Armand skyrocketed in value from a few thousand dollars in the mid-nineteen-teens to over two million dollars in the late 1920s. Marketing and advertising – nascent in the early twentieth century – played a key role in Armand’s success. Alongside other cosmetics manufacturers, such as Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, and Helena Rubinstein, Weeks’ business, according to historian Kathy Peiss in her indispensable Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, “highlight[s] the decisive turn of the cosmetics industry toward national advertising and media-based marketing in the 1920s.”

6.15.1918June 1918 

Weeks advertised Armand widely, from full-page, color ads in Vogue and Ladies Home Journal, to more specialized publications, as Peiss points out, such as the Jewish Daily Forward. Another key component in Armand’s advertising arsenal was Better Homes & Gardens, a magazine – like Armand – founded in Des Moines, Iowa. This periodical was established by Edwin Thomas Meredith in 1922. Meredith had embarked upon his career in publishing two decades before by founding Successful Farming in 1902; the company he built continues to figure prominently in today’s publishing landscape.

Better Homes & Gardens was originally called Fruit, Garden & Home: an ingot of publishing arcane that we on the Salisbury House staff discovered on a  recent research trip to Meredith’s headquarters in downtown Des Moines.

The excursion to Meredith’s offices will go down in this historian’s memory as a wondrous moment when the gods smiled as the gates to archival heaven parted. My colleague, Erica, and I planned to comb through old magazine issues to determine whether or not Weeks had, in fact, advertised in the Meredith publication. “Surely he did – he must have!” we agreed, but then again, one never knows. We sat down at a table and pulled out an early issue from 1924.

I nearly had a heart attack.

May 1924

There it was! Inside the front cover! A full-page, color Armand advertisement. It was a momentous occasion. The remainder of the research trip was spent discovering additional ads, tucked away like Easter eggs, among the tissue-paper folds of ninety-year old magazines.

This first Armand advertisement we found came from the May 1924 issue of Fruit, Garden & Home (the name was changed to Better Homes & Gardens in late 1924). We now knew that Car Weeks’ Armand Co. had advertised in the magazine from its earliest years – but what about its first year? Indeed, what about the very first issue?

And there it was: July, 1922, page 51.

July 1922

Both ads included the type of marketing that typified Armand advertising for most of the 1920s. The ads assured customers that, “Armand Cold Cream Powder is the only dry face powder with a base of exquisite cold cream!” Furthermore, the product “was created to bring increasing loveliness to every woman who wants her complexion to express her best self.” The allure of  “The Little Pink & White Boxes,” Weeks and his New York advertising team at N.W. Ayer hoped, would entice women away from the increasing variety of cosmetics on the market. And, for a time, it did.

By the late 1920s, a shift in the style of Armand advertisements became apparent. The New Woman required a different message, and Weeks’ company changed tack. An ad that appeared in May 1928 suggested this transition towards a more modern sensibility.

May 1928

“This one distinctive face powder meets the changed conditions of your active modern life,” the advertisement declared. The ad’s graphics also portrayed a woman of decidedly modern tastes, though her shadow, of course, maintained the traditional Armand silhouette.  At this point, the company’s cosmetics remained generally unchanged. Soon, however, significant alterations extended beyond Armand’s advertising and into its product line.

Here too, Carl Week’s Armand Co. reflected the broader historical moment. Historian Kathy Peiss notes that during the 1920s and 1930s, “Manufacturers and consumers alike increasingly perceived the face as a style, subject to fashion trends and fads.” With its introduction of the Symphonie face powder in 1929, Armand was situated squarely within the changing cosmetics industry.

Advertisements for Symphonie from 1930 illustrated this effort to twin fashion and cosmetics. Armand and other companies seemingly, in the parlance of our times, trended towards planned obsolescence. The ads urged women to think about their cosmetics in the same way in which they thought about their clothing fashions: changeable with both the seasons and the latest styles.

A June 1930 ad made connection explicit: “A ‘love-affair’ chiffon by Bergdorf & Goodman. A cinderella [sic] sandal by I. Miller, Inc. A charming complexion by Armand!”

June 1930June, 1930

 From August of the same year: “Clothes are more alluring now…complexions must be too!”

August 1930August, 1930

 By October, ad copy read, “A fair skin with your new furs – it’s the first note in the autumn Symphonie!”

October 1930October, 1930

Despite the massive overhaul of Armand product and advertising, the Symphonie brand proved unpopular. Historian Peiss indicates that consumers’ attention typically focused more on the clothing styles and the women in the advertisements and less on Armand Cosmetics. Moreover, lagging sales signaled that women who did purchase the new Symphonie powder generally did not find it to their liking. Ultimately, Peiss suggests, the lackluster response to Symphonie revealed, “to Weeks’ despair, that modern marketing methods could not overcome the product’s limitations.”

Other factors also led to a decline in Armand sales. Though Weeks embraced new advertising, his insistence on selling product only through pharmacies and drugstores and not department stores – to which cosmetic brands like Max Factor and Maybelline increasingly shifted – negatively affected the company as well. By the second half of the twentieth century, Armand Cosmetics had all but disappeared. What remains, however, offers arresting images that illustrate the rise and fall of an early twentieth-century cosmetics empire.

4.1.1918April, 1918

Better Homes & Gardens magazine covers reused with permission.

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