Before the days of false eyelashes, many actresses, dancers or others working in show business beaded their eyelashes to make them appear darker, fuller and longer. How far back the practice extends is unknown but it probably started after the introduction of greasepaint in the later part of the nineteenth century.
Even after false eyelashes arrived, beading persisted and spread from the stage to the growing film industry. Beading was much cheaper than false eyelashes and easier to maintain. It was particularly popular with chorus dancers who were generally not well paid and so always on a budget. This is not to say that it was only practiced by those of limited means; when done with skill it could look very effective.
Eyelash beading requires a steady hand and it would have needed more than a little practice to achieve a good result. You need eyelash beading make-up, usually black or brown, a pan to melt it in, a heating element and an applicator. A small amount of the make-up was placed in the pan and heated until molten. Using small amounts at a time, it was applied with the flat end of an orange stick or something similar to the lashes so that a little bead hung on each tip.
There were a number of theatrical suppliers that made beading make-up including Paramount, Mehron, Stein, Leichner and Max Factor using the names ‘Beadex’ (Mehron), ‘Alpine Cosmetic’ (Stein), ‘Heating Cosmetic’ (Leichner), ‘Eyelash Beading’ (Max Factor) and ‘Black Cosmetique’ (Roger & Gallet).
The cash strapped did not even need to spend money on a specialised pan, heating apparatus or applicator, as a spoon, candle and matchstick would do the trick just as well.
All the time Rachel was trying experiments with my face, Miss Fay, still ignoring us completely, proceeded to “make-up” her eyes. This was a most fascinating process. First, she held a battered-looking spoon filled with black cosmetic over the gas jet. As the cosmetic melted, it filled the room with a sickly odor of cheap perfume or burning grease. When it was melted to the consistency of a thick soup, she scouped [sic] it up on a short, pointed stick and applied it to her lashes in such a way that when it cooled it left a large lump of cosmetic at the end of each lash, and made her look as if she had strung black beads around her eyes. While she decorated her right eye she stretched down the left corner of her lower lip,[sic] and vice-versa, as if to balance her face, for, of course, any movement of the eye-lids would cause the hot cosmetic to splash down on her cheek and ruin her make-up. I made up my mind to do my eyes like this the first chance I had.
The practice was also used by some early film stars such as Viola Dana.
Last came her eyes, and I watched closely, for Viola Dana’s eyes are most fascinating both on and off the screen. First she brushed the lashes upward and darkened her lids slightly. Taking a match stick, she lit it and burned the tip off till it was pointed. Then she melted some cosmetic on the end of it and held it downward until it formed into a little bead. When it was cool she applied it to her lashes and then with a hairpin separated each lash.
The finished work was most satisfactory to the beholder. Her eyes looked marvelous! Her lashes are extraordinarily long and curly, and when beaded they turned back and up until they touched her eyebrows—honestly!
Beading was not without its critics.
Leichner makes a special “Heating Cosmetic” for adding glamour to the lashes, in blue, brown and black, which has to be melted in a spoon or tin lid held over a candle flame, and can then be applied with a fine brush or matchstick. There is also an Eye Cosmetic (mascara) for darkening the lashes, which will not smear and does not smart, if by chance any gets into the eyes.
Each lash should be treated separately, on the under side only, and it is not always necessary to carry the colour right to the roots, unless the lashes are naturally very fair, nor should they be clogged with paint, and large lumps or ‘beads’ of grease-paint on the ends of the lashes (another temptation!) should be avoided, as they sometimes give the eyes a cross-eyed effect.
The presence of a naked flame in a theatre is always a risk. In 1937, Joan Bergere, a member of the Cole Brothers – Clyde Beatty Circus, received first-degree burns after her tulle netting ballet skirt caught fire on an eyelash beading candle. Theatre safety officers were supposed to insist on eye beading candles being placed in a container such as a cosmetic stove to minimise the risk of fire but this must have been difficult to police when large casts and numerous dressing rooms were involved.
In this place we are going to tell you how to bead the eyelashes, but unless you are a professional actress and your part will be decidedly enhanced by having the eyes very much in evidence, we advise against your undertaking it. It is not a necessary stage in the makeup process, but it comes into the story of makeup naturally and we give it here for the benefit of those who may wish to make use of it. Beading the lashes consists in placing a small bead of cosmetique on the extreme tip of each lash. This is best done on the upper lashes only, leaving the lower ones free. The Lockwood Cosmetic Stove is a small affair that holds a piece of candle and a baby-size frying-pan, or skillet, and is one device for its purpose that has the approval of fire insurance companies and so will not be objected to by the theatre fireman.
Eventually the practice moved beyond show business and was picked up by some more adventurous members of the general public. Dancers would go on elsewhere after shows, and many of them still had their faces made up, so their make-up would be seen, discussed and often emulated. The practice must have had some general following, as its use was still being discouraged by beauty advisors as late as the 1960s.
Mascara should be applied to the upper and lower eyelashes if they need it. The fine comb should always be used top separate the hairs after the coloring dries. The application should never be conspicuously heavy; beading the eyelashes is not to be done except in theatrical make-up.
There is no need to repeat this advice today. Cheaper, better quality false eyelashes and greatly improved mascaras have made the practice redundant. However, if you are looking for that ‘genuine call-girl look’, it might be worth the effort. For safety sake, I would follow Alida Valli and do it on a set of false eyelashes before you apply them.
Updated: 9th July 2013
Corson, R. (1967). Stage Makeup (4th ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Melvill, H. (1957). Magic of make-up. London: Rockliff.
Sands, E. (1922). A fan’s adventures in Hollywood. Picture-Play. New York: Street & Smith Corporation.
Wall, F. E. (1961). The principles and practice of beauty culture (4th ed.). New York: Keystone Publications.
Wayburn, N. (1925). The art of stage dancing. New York: The Ned Wayburn Studios of Stage Dancing Inc.
Wemple, J. (1904). Confessions of a stage struck girl. The Theatre: An illustrated magazine of theatrical and musical life. 4(38) 103-106.