This lesson is based on viewing the Elizabeth Arden biography from The Canadians series. Arden made millions with her cosmetics company, but she was ruthless and mercurial with both her staff and competitors. Few mourned her death in 1966. This lesson explores her accomplishments and her character.
Students will use Elizabeth Arden's life as the starting point to research cosmetics companies, question notions of beauty, and examine the role of advertising in the industry.
Boulton, Marsha, Just Another Minute: More Glimpses of Our Great Canadian Heritage Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1997.
Mulvey, Kate and Melissa Richards, Decades of Beauty: The Changing Image of Women: 1890s to 1990s. New York: Reed Consumer Books Ltd., 1998.
Peiss, Kathy, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture. New York: Holt, Henry & Co., 1998.
Elizabeth Arden was born Florence Nightingale Graham to a poor farmer in Woodbridge, Ontario, on December 31, 1878. At age six, her mother's death taught her that love was something you lost, and that money, wealth, and looks were more enduring. She determined to have none of the former and set off in relentless pursuit of the latter, abandoning anything she deemed "useless" in her wake.
Flogging farm produce from the back of a wagon taught her the shrewd art of the sell. High school was useless and so was a nursing course; sick people were unattractive. Combining her desire to see only beauty and her pretensions of possessing healing hands, she tempted chemistry by mixing up a noxious beauty cream concoction. The church minister was summoned to speak to her. The upshot? Her father told her to get married or get a job. She chose the latter and left for Toronto.
From a stint as a dental assistant, writing letters to clients warning that neglect of the bite meant a gummy grin, she moved on to New York. Though she had no typing and math skills, she nonetheless landed a job as a bookkeeper. It seemed all she needed was what she did have: the willingness to work hard, a fine figure, and good looks. Not wasting a minute, she stuck to her cream agenda, spending her free time at a drug company sniffing out secret ingredients. A job as a cashier at a beauty salon came next, and with a step-up to a treatment girl with loyal customers, she was ready for her own shop.
In 1909 she partnered with a Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard in a 5th Avenue salon, then took over the shop along with her partner's first name. She gave the place a facelift with $6000 borrowed from her brother, added hair treatments and hired her first staff. As fast as her customers came in, her employees went. She belittled them, screamed at them, and physically abused them.
Elizabeth hated being alone, at any time, from dinner to business trips. Her staff had to travel with her on demand. Mercurial, volcanic, and always ruthless, she could fire a close friend one minute and coddle her pet dog the next. Sentiment rarely visited her for long. Her brother's death was briefly acknowledged during a business day.
Arden copied others' products but cried foul if she suspected others were doing the same to her. She preened in front of men, but was ruthless to women all the while sweetly declaring that her only desire was to make them beautiful. Cold, calculating and incapable of true warmth, Elizabeth was terrific at milking business relationships that led to opportunity: hers.
She fooled many, including the educated. She was granted an Honorary Law Degree from Syracuse University for "enriching American standards." Her three-cent ingredients were packaged and sold for $2.50. Only one of her more than 100 products were actually beneficial. She married a banker and used his business acumen to build her profits. He had an affair and she booted him out with only $25,000 in exchange for his agreement to keep his hands out of the cosmetic industry and not contest the divorce. She married a Prince and kicked him out after the honeymoon.
Nothing stopped her: neither World War I, the Depression, nor World War II. Her profits soared.
Arden was an innovator, making exercise records and introducing yoga exercise (specifically her head stand) into her salons. She even convinced Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to do it when she dined with him.
By the 1920's, make-up had made its pilgrim's progress from the brothels and dance halls into the hands of the ordinary woman, where it was embraced by flapper and matron alike. Arden's flamboyant additions to the colour choice made her product line a front runner in profits. By 1930 she was making $9 million beautifying the world. She started dining with the famous. Even the Queen often invited her over for tea.
Elizabeth had little love for people, but she adored the horses who were rubbed down, free of charge, with the same creams as her clients. Her staff was judged and hired by the same beauty standard as a horse: legs, head, and backside. She never blamed herself for a business mistake, or her horses for a lost race. It was always her staff or her jockeys that were "stupid fools." And her horses rewarded her love. When "Pilot" won the 1947 Kentucky Derby, Elizabeth Arden got her face on the cover of Time Magazine.
Tireless, she would play cards late into the night and then phone her friends to talk business. She looked 60 when she was 80 and danced on her birthday until after midnight. In October 1966, Elizabeth died. Her legion of employees did not step up willingly to paint her death mask. They considered her a tyrant who was a caricature of the feminine. Her back taxes totaled more than was received with the sale of her business. If it had been sold when she was alive, she would have been $10 million in debt.
Those who knew her would say, "If she says come, you come. If she says go, you go." When she finally went, few cared.
Time Allowance: 1 - 4 hours
Investigate women's conceptions of "beauty" during Victorian times. What was the dilemma faced by women in this period in terms of maintaining natural "beauty"?
Investigate the concept of "beauty" in post-Victorian times and explain how Elizabeth Arden filled a niche for women.
Research the events of the Kentucky Derby of 1947 and prepare your own newspaper article on the events surrounding the outcome of this race. Explain why you think Elizabeth Arden had such a love of horses.
Elizabeth Arden appeared on the front cover of Time magazine. Using this issue, summarize the contents of article and write a critical analysis of the story. Do you think that she was fairly represented in the article?
1. Prepare a timeline of the period in which Elizabeth Arden lived (1907-1966). Use a roll of kraft paper to make the timeline and make sure that the years are marked along the top edge of the kraft paper. Beneath the dates write world events and beneath this write achievements and activities of Elizabeth Arden. Paste cosmetics illustrations from popular magazines beneath this information to illustrate the milestones of her cosmetics empire.
2. Design posters that advertise a single cosmetic product. Use design, colour, and writing to promote your product and give the product a name. Use a catchy slogan for your product. The class will have the opportunity to buy shares in your company based on the successful advertising of your product. Each student receives 10 coupon dollars and each share costs one coupon dollar. Have students buy and sell shares by exchanging the coupon dollars for a printed share note. The three posters that receive the most coupon dollars are then recognized by the class for being the most successful advertisements.
3. Examine cosmetics advertisements found in popular fashion magazines (targeted toward male and female readers). Cut out several illustrations from the magazines that you feel represents highly successful advertisements for a particular cosmetic product. Include one advertisement for a product sold by Elizabeth Arden. Identify the target audience of each selected advertisement and state how you think it ties into the concept of "beauty" within today's society.
To illustrate the seductive power of advertising and success in marketing, have the class research the profits of 4 major cosmetics companies represented in their magazine advertisements including Elizabeth Arden. While the illustrations are still posted in the classroom have students verbally report their research findings to the entire class.
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