Cake Mascara

Until the 1960s, the most popular form of mascara in the twentieth century was the cake or block type. In the nineteenth century it had been known as ‘water cosmetique’ or ‘mascaro’ and it was only after 1900 that its name began to change to the mascara we are familiar with today.

See also: Water Cosmetique (Mascaro)

Like its precursors – water cosmetique and mascaro – cake mascara was normally packed in a small cardboard and/or metal box, with a mirror and tiny brush, that looked like a moustache brush or small tooth brush.

Best Super mascara

Above: Best Super Mascara in a cardboard container with a block of cake mascara, a mirror and a small brush. This type of packaging was modeled on French water cosmetiques/mascaros of the nineteenth century.

Early cake mascaras

Water cosmetiques, mascaros and early cake mascaras were all made the same way, by mixing black or brown pigments into sodium stearate soap chips. Given that early mascaras were basically a black soap, it is not surprising that after milling, the mixture was extruded from a plodder into strips which were then cut to length, using a process similar to that used to make cakes of soap.

Carbon black50%
Coconut oil sodium soap25%
Palm oil sodium soap25%

Procedure: Carefully sift the pigment and combine with the soap chips; pass the mixture several times through a mill and then through a plodder; finally press into cakes.

(Wetterhahn & Slade, 1957, p. 292)

The product was cheap to make and was generally sold at outlets catering to the lower end of the cosmetic market. This reflected the status of mascara which did not achieve the status accorded to lipstick until after the Second World War.

Using cake mascara

To apply the mascara, a wet brush was scrubbed across the cake to pick up the colour, which was then brushed onto the lashes. Unfortunately, water was not always available so many women used saliva instead – either by putting the brush into their mouth or by spitting directly onto the cake – giving this cosmetic the dubious name of ‘spit black’.

The cosmetic is applied by means of a small brush which is previously moistened. (Licking the brush, a habit into which we fear some ladies have fallen, is not to be commended—soap does not taste nice, nor do tongues with blackened ends look pretty!)

(Redgrove & Foan, 1930, pp. 72-73)

Applying the mascara required a little effort to achieve a good result but with practice a reasonable outcome could be achieved. Skillful use of the brush could add curl to the lashes adding to the pleasing effect.

[A] special cosmetic is prepared and is applied to the lashes with a tiny brush. The little bar of cosmetic is moistened, and the lashes are then brushed with an upward and outward movement from the roots. The upward movement induces the “curl,” and the outward movement prevents their sticking together. This operation requires great skill and practice. When first experimented with, traces are apt to find their way into the eye with painful results.

(Poucher, 1926, p. 58)

Companies usually included instructions in the box. These ranged from the very brief to more the detailed, as with those shown below:

To Apply Maybelline—Wet brush thoroughly, shake out excess water and rub over Maybelline until edge of brush is well covered. Tilt head back and apply to upper lashes, stroking from base to tips. Hold brush against lashes for a second to make them curl. If Maybelline on lower lashes is becoming to you apply with a down or cross-wise stroke of the brush with the head tilted forward. When Maybelline has set on the lashes, brush them gently with a soft dry brush for a soft natural effect.
Keep Brush Clean—Rinse in warm water when through.
To Remove Maybelline—Close eyes tightly and wash gently with soap and warm water, finishing with cold rinse, or any good cleansing or face cream will remove Maybelline.

(Maybelline instruction booklet, n.d.)


Like water cosmetique/mascaro before it, mascara was also used by women to colour their eyebrows – a practice that lasted at least until the Second World War, after which the use of eyebrow pencils became the norm.


Although early cake mascaras were serviceable they had a number of problems. The sodium soaps used to make them were very alkaline, which meant that the mascara stung if it got in the eyes; they were inclined to flake off the eyelashes; and, being made almost entirely from soap, they would smudge when wet.

The first improvement to the basic formula occurred in the nineteenth century, when a little acacia or tragacanth gum was added to help the cosmetic adhere to the lashes. Then, in the 1920s, the sodium stearate was replaced with less alkaline soaps, like triethanolamine stearate or oleate, diglycol stearate and glyceryl monostearate; with triethanolamine proving the most popular with formulators. These ‘soap substitutes’ made the mascara less likely to sting when it got into the eyes. When mascaras using them were first introduced they were often advertised with the line “contains no soap” which, although not strictly correct, signaled to the consumer that they were less likely to smart.

Other improvements included the addition of oils and fats – such as mineral oil, castor oil or lanolin – to help reduce the problem of flaking, and the inclusion of waxes – such as hard paraffin, carnauba, ceresin and beeswax – to make the mascara more water-resistant, improve adherence of the mascara to the hair and give added gloss. The added wax also enabled the mascara to be made in specialist moulds rather than by the earlier extrusion method.

Triethanolamine stearate30 parts
Paraffin wax (high m.-p.) 40 parts
Beeswax12 parts
Lanolin8 parts
Lampblack10 parts

The method is to melt, mix and mill the ingredients—and afterwards cast or extrude them in stick or tablet form.
This gives the usual black type of mascara. Where a dark brown mascara is desired, the following formula will serve. The triethanolamine soap being formed in situ:

White beeswax300
Montan wax100
Stearic acid300
Burnt umber150

Melt the waxes and grind in the color in a warm mill. Stir in the ethanolamine and pour into molds.

(D&CI, 1945, p. 102)

Adding oils and fats to the formulation enabled the triethanolamine stearate to create an oil-in-water emulsion when the cake was scrubbed with the wet brush. After the emulsion containing the colourants and the rest of the materials was applied the eyelashes, the water evaporated while the colour – protected by the other materials in the mixture – remained on the now dry lashes.

Using a good balance of materials was critically important to producing a satisfactory cake mascara. Increasing the amount of triethanolamine mades it easier to create an emulsion, but also mades the mascara less water-resistant. Adding more wax made the mascara easier to pour into moulds and more water-resistant, but too much impeded the formation of a suitable emulsion and made the mascara brittler and more likely to flake. Cosmetic chemists of the time engaged in a lot of trial and error in their quest to produce a better result.

 Parts by weight
Triethanolamine stearate15-30
Paraffin 57°C15-30
Yellow beeswax10
Carnauba wax5-10
Inorganic pigments10-15

(Rutkin, 1975, p. 712)


Cake mascara was made in two main ways. The first way was to only use oils, waxes, emulsifier and pigment. The second method was to add a small quantity of water to enable the mass to form an emulsion. Using the second method improved the mixing and pickup of the mascara when the brush was scrubbed across the surface of the cake. However, care had to be taken with the amount of water used as, when the water evaporated the cake would shrink – too much and it could adversely affect the appearance of the final product in the box. Some chemists reduced the shrinkage caused by the water loss by adding a small amount of humectant to the mascara mix (Kempson-Jones, 1947, p. 73).

Once the completed formulation was made, the heated mass was poured into moulds which were usually embossed with the name of the manufacturer. The excess mascara was scrapped off and, once cooled, the completed mascara cakes were removed from their moulds, turned over – so the name of the company was on top – and packaged.

Arden Gate type cake mascara mould

Above: An Arden ‘Gate’ type cake mascara mould along with the scraper – used to remove the excess – and a sample mascara box (Rutkin, 1975).

Round cake mascara

Mention should be made of a rather unusual cake mascara introduced into the United States in 1937 by National Cosmetics, Inc. Called Modern Mascara the cake was made as a hollow cylinder rather than a square block and was sold in a metal tube rather than a box. A wet wire spiral brush was inserted into the hole in the cake and rolled around to collect the mascara which was then applied to the lashes. The manufacturers suggested that the new style brush covered the lashes ‘evenly all over instead of just on their bottom side’. Between uses the brush simply screwed into the case.


Above: 1938 Modern Mascara. The brush was dampened before it was inserted into the hole in the round cake. This must have created some potential for bacterial growth in the tube over time.

Like other cake mascaras the brush had to be dampened to lift the mascara from the block. Despite this, the brush operated in a similar way to those later used in automatic/wand mascaras, predating them by over twenty years.

Automatic mascara

Although liquid and cream mascaras were also made in the first half of the twentieth century, it was not until the arrival of ‘automatic’ mascaras in the 1960s – begun by the introduction of Helena Rubinstein’s ‘Mascara-matic’ in 1957 – that the reign of the cake mascara came to an end. Although cake mascara continued to be made after this – examples can still be found on the market today – by the end of the twentieth century ‘spit black’ was largely forgotten.

See also: Liquid and Cream Mascara

Updated: 26th June 2015


Daniels, M. H. (1958). Eye beauty. Drug and Cosmetic Industry. 82(4) 442-443, 525.

The drug and cosmetic industry. (1945). 57(1). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Harry, R. G. (1940). Modern cosmeticology. The principles and practices of modern cosmetics. Brooklyn, NY: Chemical Publishing Company.

Hifer, H. (1945). Mascara. Drug and Cosmetic Industry. 56(1) 617, 42-43.

Kempson-Jones, G. (1947). Mascara: A simply prepared cosmetic. Manufacturing Chemist and Manufacturing Perfumer. 18(2). 73-74.

Poucher, W. A. (1926). Eve’s beauty secrets. London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd.

Redgrove, H. S. & Foan, G. A. (1930). Paint, powder and patches: A handbook of make-up for stage and carnival. London: William Heinemann.

Rutkin, P. R. (1975). Eye make-up. In M. G. deNavarre.The chemistry and manufacture of cosmetics (2nd ed., Vol. IV). Orlando: Continental Press.

Wells, F. V. & Lubowe, I. I. (1964). Cosmetics and the skin. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation.

Wetterhahn, J. & Slade, M. (1957). Eye makeup. In E. Sagarin. (Ed.). Cosmetics: Science and Technology. New York: Interscience Publishers, Inc.