Charles of the Ritz Powder Bars


Like many other cosmetic companies in the 1930s, Charles of the Ritz was looking for an advertising hook to counter the ‘Bite Test’ campaign being run by Lady Esther, then the top selling face powder in the United States.

See also: The Bite Test

In 1939, Charles of the Ritz bought the Doraldina company and so acquired the ‘Powder Blender’ technique Doraldina had just put on the market.

Automatic Powder Blender
A machine for blending powder in three minutes. … The blender is intended for use in the toilet goods department for the blending of powder to individual customer’s needs and is offered as a means of stimulating sales.

(From a note about Doraldina in AP&EOR, 1938)

After acquiring Doraldina, Charles of the Ritz began to set up powder bars in department stores across the United States and overseas. These were staffed with ‘blending experts’ who could make up face powder to match the skin tone of any customer with the money to pay for the privilege.

Charles of the Ritz training

Above: Women training to operate a Charles of the Ritz powder bar in the U.K. in the 1960s.

Although there were some changes to the ‘Ritz Individual Powder Blending Service’ over the years, their operation remained essentially the same until they disappeared in 1970s – possibly as the result of the rationalisation that occurred after the company was acquired by Squibb-Beech-Nut in 1971.

Made true to your best skin tones by the blending expert. Charles of the Ritz individually blended face powder. Quickly, this expert detects your skin’s best color values. Deftly, before your eyes, she blends tints chosen from a rainbow array of basic powder colors, fusing them into your own powder shade which enhances your skin’s loveliest tones. Yours alone … to be altered seasonally as your complexion and new-season-colors may dictate.

(Charles of the Ritz advertisement, 1939)

The company made a number of claims for their individually blended powder.

1. Individually blended powder meets the challenge that no two women have exactly the same shade of skin. Your skin is as individual as your personality.
2. Individually blended powder enhances the naturally good values of your skin tones.
3. Individually blended powder, by subtle mixing, disguises any defects in your skin tones.
4. Individually blended powder enables you to wear many fashion colors which hitherto have been unbecoming by “toning up”—or “toning down” your complexion.
5. Individually blended powder, because it blends so perfectly with your natural color values, does not make constant re-powdering a tiresome necessity through the day.
6. Individually blended powder brings the effect of new life to your skin, for it complements rather than covers the natural beauty of your skin.
7. Individually blended powder gives you the same assurance of personalized beauty as does having a hat, a dress, a jewel made especially for your own personality.
8. Individually blended powder brings you the artistry used by great portrait painters in depicting skin tones which individualize each subject.
9. Individually blended powder is economical in that, because if belongs to you, and you alone, it does not go out of fashion.
10. Individually blended powder permits you to have your own formula altered as you wish it, by your Charles of the Ritz consultant, to meet seasonal changes in your complexion, without discarding a half-empty box.

(Charles of the Ritz brochure, date unknown)

Despite the obvious appeal of a custom-blended powder, achieving it does not appear to be an easy trick to pull off. Given the possible variations in skin tone it would seem to be very difficult to mix a correct shade on the spot. When you add the problems of powder streaking and colour changes caused by differences in lighting, it looks like an almost impossible task. Fortunately the process could be simplified in a number of ways and here is my suggestion as to how it was done.

Selecting colours

The ‘blending expert’ could first select a base powder she thought was a good match and test this on the client’s skin, probably on the jawline. She could then select colours to adjust the base so that it more closely matched the client’s colouring. The powders used are not primary colours so it is likely that consultants memorised colour combinations for a range of blends that would cover a most skin tones. The consultant would use one of these remembered recipes to mix the blend she thought would give the closest match. This required skill and a good memory but would not have been markedly more difficult than selling manufactured face powders with a large colour range. In essence a consultant is not trying to make up a face powder to match a skin tone, but rather make up one blend (from a set) that she thought would best suit the client. Of course, it is possible that really experienced consultants could make adjustments to the standard recipes.

Measuring

The consultant used a set of scales to measure out the amount of each colour to be used. This would have been crude at best but would have been necessary for her to make up a set recipe and to measure out appropriate amounts of powder for boxes of different sizes. The original double-pan balances were later replaced with single-pan models which meant that weights did not have to be used.

Bar scale

Above: A single-pan beam balance with a base made of lucite. This replaced earlier double-pan models.

Mixing

Mixing the powder to avoid streaking would require some skill. It was done on a piece of clean paper where repeated heaping, subdividing and spreading to blend the powder into an homogeneous colour. Although this would not mix the powder as well as a mechanical blender, in skilled hands the result would be good enough.

Client cards

As it is more difficult to correct a shade once the colours are selected and mixed, consultants would need to be careful when making up the initial diagnosis. Although more finicky than making up a fresh batch, consultants did offer to adjust the colour of an existing powder if the skin colour of the client changed, as for example, if they acquired a tan. Once a colour had been determined it would be entered on a client card so that further batches could be made up quickly when the client returned for a refill or requested further batches by post. Other information – such as recommended colours for rouge and lipstick – was also noted. Charles of the Ritz client cards also indicate that different formulations were made up for day and evening wear, altered seasonally to allow for changes in skin colour affected by sunlight, or mixed to suit current fashion colours.

Powder press

In 1956 presses were introduced into the powder bars that took the made-to-order powder and compressed it into a compact. The press had a hand pump that enabled the operator to generate enough force to compress the powder, and a guage at the top to let her know when enough pressure had been generated. The thin wafer that was produced was then placed into a Charles of the Ritz compact and a puff added before it was handed to the client.

1957 Powder bar

Above: 1956 A Charles of the Ritz powder bar in action in the United States. The ‘blending expert’ on the left is checking a powder match. She is working in ideal conditions for this, as there is ample sunlight streaming in from the window to her right. The other consultant is using a powder press (first used in 1956 and only partly visible) to make up a compact while giving instructions, answering questions or making further sales. At the back a woman is viewing the effect of her made-to-order powder in the mirror of her compact.

Mixing face powder

Above: A 1958 British Pathé film which provides some insights into the Charles of the Ritz mixing process and the production of a compact. The beauty specialist featured in the film is Mary Sanders, the fashion model is Isabelle Babianska.

A set of equipment associated with a Charles of the Ritz powder bar that came up for sale included two metal cylinders along with the usual jars, scales and press. It is possible that these were used for additional mixing of the powder before it was placed in the press as they seem to be about the same diameter as a compact; however, this is just speculation.

Charles of the Ritz equipment

Above: Two images from set of Charles of the Ritz Powder Bar equipment. Left: The cylinders to the left and right of the press suggest that they have been used to further mix the powder or to settle it in the pan before it was compressed. Right: A close-up of the top of the press showing the pressure gauge and the open and close switch.

Gift boxes

Charles of the Ritz leveraged the idea of the powder bar by running advertising campaigns to sell empty gift-wrapped powder boxes. The idea was that the recipient would take the box to their nearest powder bar to be filled with a custom-blended powder. Advertisements for these boxes were often aimed at men – particularly at Christmas – as they could buy the box without knowing what powder shade or weight their wife or girlfriend used.

Worry about sizes, colors, styles? Not me! For Xmas I give her an empty powder box by Charles of the Ritz. What a cinch! No shopping to do … no worrying whether she’ll like it. She’ll love it! Especially the way the Ritz expert studies her … fusses over her … fills the empty gift powder box (she brings back) with her own face powder made-to-order right before her eyes exclusively for her—from me!

(Charles of the Ritz advertisement, 1947)

As well as making it easier for a man to buy a cosmetic for his wife or girlfriend, the tactic also brought new customers to the Charles of the Ritz counter and established a personal contact with them through the intitial interview. This created an opportunity to establish a long and profitable relationship with a new client, a useful tactic in the competitive space of the department store.

Updated: 8th September 2015

Sources

The American perfumer & essential oil review. (1939). New York: Robbins Perfumer Co.