I was fortunate to hear this story firsthand from Maybelline heiress Sharrie Williams at the Brandeis National Committee Phoenix Chapter’s annual luncheon on April 25 at the Orange Tree Golf Resort in Scottsdale. And because she was gracious enough to give every attendee a copy of her book, “The Maybelline Story and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It,” I’ve been learning even more while reading it over the weekend.
Williams, the grand-niece of Maybelline founder Tom Lyle Williams, said during her talk, “To you, Maybelline is a corporate name. To me, it means family.” It was a reminder that although there are many businesses that are now household names, many originated in the mind of one person in one household.
Maybelline – which was originally a family business, named after Williams’ sister, Mabel – had its share of family “scandals” (children born out of wedlock, marital affairs, an intimate relationship between two men – things that have become mainstream in American society since Maybelline’s founding in 1915). In fact, Maybelline’s main mission was considered scandalous in its early days – it was founded at a time when women who wore eye makeup were primarily “performers and prostitutes,” according to the book.
“Those attitudes are changing,” Tom Lyle told his brother, Noel, at age 20. “Women are done being plain and submissive. … The age of cosmetics has begun.”
Maybelline started as a mail order business and went through its share of ups and downs – through the Depression and World War II, the family approached bankruptcy more than once but then prospered again each time. In the 1930s, the company moved away from mail order and moved to working with owners of retail chains.
According to Williams, Maybelline was at the forefront of advertising elements that are still popular today, such as celebrity endorsements and “before and after” photographs. The focus of the ads and the business changed to reflect the decades: glamorous actresses featured through the 20s, less expensive “purse-size” versions during the Depression, pin-up type ads for soldiers overseas during wartime, bride-focused ads after soldiers returned home and glamour focused on young mothers during the baby boom of the 1950s.
So far, I’m only halfway through the book, but I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about America’s history and society in the past century through the story of one business.