Around 1920, a group of businessmen from Lowell, Massachusetts approached the advertising copywriter Helen Rosen Woodward about setting up a cosmetic business. This meeting would lead to the establishment of a new name in American beauty, Primrose House.
The businessmen had no specific interest in, or knowledge of, cosmetics. Their aim was to repeat the financial success of fellow Lowell residents – such as James Cook Ayer (Ayer’s Sarsaparilla) and Humphrey O’Sullivan (O’Sullivan’s Rubber Heels) – who had made fortunes selling products through national advertising campaigns. They were looking to invest in a consumer product that could be sold in bulk nationwide and in the early 1920s cosmetics looked to be a good bet.
Helen Woodward was persuaded to develop the idea in return for common stock in the new company.
Her research into the cosmetics business suggested that establishing a mass-marketed line would required a prohibitively expensive advertising campaign but a luxury, salon-based line could be developed at a more reasonable price.
When I examined the cosmetics business for them, I found that there are two ways of going about it. There are concerns which sell one or two cold creams of face powders at a low price, in enormous quantities, through drug and department stores. These are direct, commercial enterprises, advertising widely and selling at a moderate price. The other way is much more subtle and indirect. The companies which employ the second method deal in large numbers of creams, powders, rouges, lotions—each for its own little purpose—and all very high priced. These companies operate in an atmosphere of elegance and illusion, which enables them to charge fantastic prices—to add from five hundred to a thousand per cent to their costs.
I learned that it would cost about three hundred thousand dollars to put on the market a low priced set of cold creams, while the more luxurious array could be started on its road for about sixty thousand dollars.
Woodward developed a plan and put this to the Lowell investors. It had three main components: the cosmetic company would sell a wide range of luxurious cosmetics; it would be centred around a salon situated in New York at a place that would attract national attention; and a woman with high social standing would be engaged as the nominal head of the company (Woodward, 1926, p. 305). The Lowell businessmen were delighted with the outline, raised the money to put it into action – including some from Helen Woodward – and, in 1921, founded The Lowell Company to develop the new concern.
Most of the seed money for the company (US$100,000) was raised in Lowell so the company was based there. The president, Robert F. Marden, was a banker whose primary interest was in the Morris Plan Company, a bank in Lowell. Vice-presidents were Frank B. Kenney, a Lowell cotton manufacturer; William E. Woodward, the husband of Helen Woodward; and Elsie Waterbury Morris, a New York socialite who had the necessary social credentials Helen Woodard was looking for. The treasurer and clerk was John H. Murphy, also from the Morris Plan Company.
Elsie Waterbury Morris was to head the salon established in New York. As well as her good social standing she was the wife of Gouveneur Morris IV, a well-known author and playwright, so was likely to generate a lot of free publicity if she went into business. A booklet – ‘Beauty for Every Woman’ – supposedly written by her, was published by McCall’s Magazine to give her credentials as a beauty authority.
Mrs. Morris believes in beauty as a science. – “I believe that woman should give the impression of beauty, both spiritual and physical, and that her success will depend largely on her ability to keep fit,” says Mrs. Morris. “The love of her husband and the adoration of her children are to a great extent dependent upon the picture she creates. “Because we have been slow to realize the Importance of this factor, beauty, we have two types, both run riot: The girl on the street her face slathered with paint and the type of woman who seems to fancy that any individuality in the form of physical beauty must necessarily be wrong, or who, in a spirit of egotistic self-sacrifice, endeavors to make herself look as much like an Eskimo as she can! “I know from personal observation,“ continues Mrs. Morris, “that to look fit, happy, cleanly, beautiful, gives to a woman the necessary courage to face the everyday practical problems of life. “I am sure that preaching of the right sort of thinking, physical fitness, courage, Christianity is not confined solely to the pulpit but can be taught even from the lowly beauty parlor.
The company also engaged the services of Lucille Buhl Bonanno. Lucille had been working for Elizabeth Arden but given Arden’s micromanagement style and famous temper it probably did not require much to persuade her to jump ship. Lucille provided technical advice for the new company and also assigned to it a patent for a Face Molder (US: 1443725) widely used in early advertising for Primrose House.
It was hoped to set up the New York salon on Fifth Avenue but a site at 3 East 52nd Street was selected instead. As well as being near to Fifth Avenue, the building had an architectural style taylor-made to attract attention which was one of Helen Rosen’s stipulations for setting up a successful beauty business.
The salon was reached through a red lacquered door situated at street level. This opened to a private stairway that led up one flight to a reception room filled with soft comfortable chairs where clients could relax, sip tea and read fashion magazines while waiting for their appointment.
A beauty expert would analyse the client’s skin and then pass her to a nurse who would carry out the required treatment.
The manner of the nurse and the reclining chair soothe you at once. At your right stands a little table filled with delicious jars and bottles, with little bowls of hot water and other bowls of ice.
The nurse dips a little sack of almond meal, orris, and oatmeal into hot water, and passes it swiftly over your face. Over the bowl of ice she pours a lotion smelling of roses and violets. Into this icy odorous mixture, pungent with alcohol, she dips white balls of cotton batting. And then in precise, swift, and calm succession creams and liquids, oils and medicinal salves—all icy cool—are applied to your face. The nurse does not talk, except to say at just the right moment, “This cream I am now using is heavier; your skin needs food.” Or, “This tonic is very stimulating to a tired skin.” Then the light is turned off and the nurse disappears, while you relax in complete sleepy nothingness.
The signature procedure for Primrose House was ‘Face Molding’. This treatment helped generate interest and also distinguished Primrose House from companies, like Elizabeth Arden and Dorothy Gray, that used patters, or others, such as Helena Rubinstein and Richard Hudnut, that relied primarily on massage.
Despite its claims not to be massage, which was liable to ‘stretch the skin’ and ‘break down tissue’, the Primrose House Face Molding Treatment included a light facial massage routine. After applying the Face Molding Cream, which provided nourishment, fingers were used to apply pressure to the muscles of the face in an upward direction. This was said to strengthen the facial muscles and improved their elasticity, which banished the flabbiness and wrinkles that resulted from lax facial muscles. To make sure the facial muscles were strengthened, moulding was followed with astringents, a common muscle firming treatment of the time.
Clients could also do face moulding at home using the Primrose House Face Molding Set, which consisted of a muscle chart and the Face Molder, a device developed by Lucille Buhl to press Balsam Astringent to the skin over the Face Molding Cream.
The Face Molder: “[T]o be used in home treatment, in an ingenious device for exercising and firming the muscles thus restoring their youthful elasticity. It fits every angle of the face and neck and when using it there is no danger of stretching the skin or breaking down tissue.”
If deep wrinkles and hollows were present then the stronger Balsam Tissue Stimulant was used instead.
See also: Face Moulding
Elsie Waterbury provided the press with a fanciful story about how the Primrose House preparations were developed:
You know I have worked over the ideas Primrose house is carrying out for a long time. I have collected beauty preparations from all over the world and put them into use here. My fiends and I had many favorited preparations of our own—recipes we’d found in Paris or the East; something a skin specialist had prescribed, something grandmother had used when she was a girl in Virginia or something an English maid had brought from Surrey. Now we have pooled all these, our favourite beauty secrets. We have had specialists work on them, test them and here they are.
These snobbish values were also used in company advertising.
Of course, you know how Primrose House came to be. A group of women, led by Elsie Waterbury Morris, who have spent years and thousands of dollars in acquiring in formation in regard to beauty—for their own use—decided to go into business with this information as their capital.
Leaving this marketing blurb to one side, the fifty or so cosmetics in the original line must have been created in a relatively short period of time, something that reflects well on the unknown New England private label companies that developed them.
The skin-care principles followed by Primrose House were fairly standard for the time. They relied on the idea that the face and skin were a good deal more plastic than we would credit today, so manual therapies could improve circulation, skin foods could build up tissues, astringents could firm and tighten muscles, and chin straps could correct sagging throats.
The Primrose House skin-care line in the 1920s covered most of the important areas. It made allowances for dry, normal and oily skin, had day and night treatments, and included special preparations for common skin problems such as freckles, blackheads and acne. The treatments followed the standard pattern of the day namely cleansing and toning the skin followed by a skin food. There were also the usual muscle oils, bleaches, pore refining and foundation/vanishing creams.
Rose Leaf Cleansing Cream: “This delightful cream, which liquifies readily, is invaluable for removing all surface impurities and cleaning the pores.”
Smoothskin Cream: “For the woman with an unusually dry and sensitive skin this is the perfect cream, light, non-fattening, with just a trace of perfume.”
Face Molding Cream: “It has exactly the right consistency for the molding process, and is rich in fine nourishing oils.”
Developing Cream: “This unusual cream is rich in fat producing and tissue building compounds.”
Primrose House Bleach Cream: “An excellent cream for toning snd clearing the skin … For discolouration, freckles and brown spots on the face.”
Porefiner Cream: “This astringent cream is extremely valuable in the treatment of enlarged pores.”
Primrose House Foundation Cream: “An ideal preparation for protecting the skin and providing a base for powder.”
Primrose House Skin Freshener: “A mild refreshing astringent for toning up the skin.”
Balsam Astringent: “A stronger astringent which keenly penetrates the pores, tightening the skin with amazing precision.”
Balsam Tissue Stimulant: “This stimulating oil sinks freely into the pores and reaches the undernourished tissue beneath.”
Acne lotion: “For irritations of the skin, pimples and eruptions, caused by neglect or ill-treatment.”
Other products included preparations for tired eyes; oils and lotions for the hands and feet; nail polish and remover; depilatories; bathing salts, powders and oils; and assorted shampoos and tonics for the hair.
The Primrose House make-up range from the 1920s included loose and compact face powders; a liquid powder; compact, cream and liquid rouge; lipstick; a cream kohl that could also be used as an eyeshadow; and an eyeliner. Each product came in a limited but serviceable range of shades.
Chiffon Face Powder: “The leading powder of Primrose House. It is quite unsurpassed in fines and delicacy.” Shades: White, Natural and Brunette.
Primrose House Face Powder: “An unusually fine powder.” Shades: Cream-White, Natural, Light Brunette, Dark Brunette and Suntan.
Evening Face Powder: “Brilliant artificial lights at night make a different shade of powder desirable.” Shade: Orchid.
Petal Bloom: “A dainty lotion to be used under powder to give the skin a soft and even smoothness. Or may be used as liquid powder, obviating the necessity of the powder puff.” Shades: Cream-White, Natural, Light Brunette and Dark Brunette.
Pomegranate Cream Rouge: “May be used on the lips as well as the cheeks.” Shades: Light and Dark.
Prim-Ora Rouge: “Practically indelible.” Shade: Orange.
Rose Petal Rouge: “This delightful liquid rouge imparts the radiant glow of health to the skin and no matter how strenuously one motors, golfs, or even swims Rose Petal Rouge will remain until it is removed with cream.”
Primrose House Spiral Lipstick: Shades: Light, Medium and Dark.
Ko-Hul: “An exotic and unusually effective preparation for making the lashes dark and luxuriant. This cream also darkens the lids to just the right extent.” Shades: Brown and Black.
Eyebrow Pencils: Shades: Brown and Black.
Also see the company booklet: Here Dwells Youth.
Things went well at first, with The Lowell Company even paying its stockholders a dividend, but there was an underlying disconnect between the operation that the three women – Helen Woodward, Elsie Waterbury and Lucille Buhl – had established and the aims and objectives of the Lowell businessmen. The men were really interested in establishing a mass marketed business and did not understand the dynamics of maintaining a luxury salon-based line – a mistake also made by the Lehman Brothers when they bought the American business of Helena Rubinstein in 1928. Once the Primrose House salon and line were established, they began cost-cutting. These changes saw the replacement of Helen Woodward by the advertising agency Hewitt, Gannon & Company in 1922, the subsequent dismissal of both Elsie Waterbury and Lucille Buhl, and the reorganisation of the business under new management in 1926.
Most of the disagreements arose because they wanted to take away from the business the subtle atmosphere which we had so painfully and carefully developed and without which our products would be worth no more than any other creams on the market. So friction grew until the situation became intolerable. Finally they took the advertising away from me while I was in Europe and unable to do anything about it. They gave the account to a little agency, which, whatever its qualifications, had not even a woman copywriter and no experience in selling any kind of beauty products. From that time on the advertising became merely a vulgar paraphrasing of what had been done before. A year later they discharges Mrs. Morris abruptly and rudely, and a few months afterward they also in equally rude fashion discharged Mrs. Buhl.
The dismissal of Lucille Buhl may have been the reason why the Face Molder and Face Molding Cream were downplayed after 1928. The Primrose House skin-care routine for normal skin then became more like any other: cleansing, nourishing and toning (bracing) followed by the application of make-up.
Follow these four Primrose steps to Youth
1—Perfect cleansing is the first step to a beautiful skin. With a bit of absorbent cotton, squeezed out of cold water—or with the finger tips if you prefer—smooth Rose Leaf Cleansing Cream generously over the face and neck. Always begin at the base of the throat with long, light strokes spread the cream upward over the face. Then remove with tissues or a soft cloth.
Rose Leaf Cleansing Cream is the lightest of oil creams. It penetrates the film of natural oil that accumulates on the skin, takes up every particle of dust and make-up, and leaves the pores free so that skin may breathe.
2—Now the skin is in a receptive condition for the second step—nourishing. To keep your skin vital, supple and unlined, once a day mold Primrose Smoothskin Cream over your face and throat. Mold the cream gently into the skin for four or five minutes until the skin can absorb no more. Then remove with a soft cloth. You will be amazed at the new life this cream brings to your skin. 3—Now make a fresh pad of cotton and saturate it with Primrose Skin Freshener. Go over the face and throat with a brisk upward sweep. Skin Freshener is a mild, bracing and toning lotion that closes the relaxed pores and refines the skin texture.
4—And last—a bit of rouge, if you need it. Then finish with Primrose House Chiffon Powder—the most luxurious face powder you have ever known. It gives the skin a natural bloom that lasts for hours.
It seems clear that the new management had plans to extend the reach of Primrose House. A west coast branch was established at 127 Grant Avenue, San Francisco in 1927; the wholesale business was moved to 49 West 45th Street, New York in 1928 and larger product sizes were introduced; the salon was relocated to 595 Fifth Avenue, New York in 1929; and European trademarks were taken out in 1928, suggesting that there were plans for an overseas expansion.
Given the banking connections of some of the original Lowell investors, the stock market crash of 1929 probably meant that money to invest in a major expansion of Primrose House evapourated and as far as I can tell the company never managed to develop an overseas market.
Ownership of the company during the 1930s is a little cloudy. At some stage Louis R. Wasey [1884-1961] acquired stock in the business through the Wasey Products Corporation he established in 1936. Wasey was the president of the Erwin, Wasey & Company advertising agency but also had significant commercial interests in the manufacture of a number of products including Barbasol (shaving cream) and Kreml (hair tonic). When his advertising company handled the accounts of these products, Wasey stood to make money both from product sales and advertising billings, a lucrative practice later followed by another advertising executive, Raymond Spector, when he took an interest in Hazel Bishop.
See also: Hazel bishop
During all these of these changes the standing of the Primrose House line steadily depreciated. By 1940, although it was still stocked in department stores, Primrose House was also aiming its advertising at the 5-and-10 market, a long way away from where Helen Rosen had originally tried to situate it, but perhaps where the original investors had planned it to be.
New skin-care products were added to the Primrose House range after 1930. The first one of importance was Delv (1934), an all-round cream and powder base that contained ‘Triactin’ – advertised as a youth preserving ingredient – and lemon juice for ‘the daily care of the skin’.
In 1937, Delv Ltd. was created as a separate company specifically to sell Delv. The only reason I can give for this is that the investors had hopes that Delv might at last provide them with a product that they could sell in large quantities. If so they must have been disappointed as by the end of the decade Delv appears to have been replaced by Chiffon All-Purpose Cream.
One big improvement instituted in the 1930s was the Primrose House’s dry skin treatment. Until 1936, women with dry skin were recommended to use Rose Leaf Cleansing Cream first and then follow this with Primrose House Nourishing Cream to which a few drops of Smoothskin Oil had been added; a cumbersome practice. This routine was replaced with one that cleansed with Chiffon (Cleansing) Cream (1937) and then nourished with Primrose House Dry Skin Mixture (1936) which presumably had the oil already added. Smoothskin Oil continued to be promoted as a treatment for sun and wind dried skin and hair and around 1945 a lanolin-based Chiffon Smoothskin Lotion, for hands, body and face was also added to the range.
There is very little in the Primrose House skin-care range to get excited about, with the company generally following skin-care trends rather than creating them. Products introduced after the war included Estrogenic Hormone Cream (1946); Deep Pore Cleansing Cream (1948) for the youth market; and Chiffon Special Hand Lotion (1953), a lanolin-based hand cream; all products similar to others already on the market.
The one exception to this was a biological. Although Primrose House seems to have stayed away from most of the biological fads – such as placental extracts and royal jelly – introduced into skin creams during the 1950s, in 1952 it introduced the first albumin wrinkle treatment into the United States. Said to be a French preparation imported from Paris, Le Secret de Blanche Delysia, was advertised as containing a ‘magic elixir for renewal of fresher, firmer and younger looking skin’s. Sales seem to have faded fairly quickly.
See also: Albumin Wrinkle Smoothers
Chiffon Face Powder, most frequently advertised as ‘shine-proof’, continued to be the premier face powder in the Primrose House range right through the 1930s, even though, by 1938, it was only produced in eight shades: Beige (Rachel No 2), Natural, Brunette, Daybreak (Peach), Rachel, Rose Petal, Rose Beige, and Dark Tan. The Daybreak shade was dropped from the line by 1940 as peach shades were becoming less popular due to the fashion of suntanning. The company was well aware of this, introducing Bandana shades of lipsticks and rouge for summer skin tones in 1936.
The introduction of more finely ground face powders in the 1930s intensified competition in the American face powder market. There was little Primrose House could do to match the fineness claims made by better selling face powders, such as Lady Esther and Coty, except to say that its Chiffon Face Powder was ‘silk sifted’.
See also: The Bite Test
Some make-up products, such as a range of eyeshadow colours, were extended to solidify the Primrose House range. However, the company’s make-up was still only available in a limited range of shades through most of the 1930s. For example, when a new soft, more permanent, non-greasy lipstick was introduced in 1935 in an embossed black case, it only came in Light (orange cast), Medium, Primrose Red (cherry), Bright and Dark shades. When Revlon began making lipsticks in 1939 this restricted colour range became more of an issue. A new Primrose House Chiffon Lipstick (1940) still only came with four new shades: Chiffon Red, Medium, True Red and Raspberry before being extended with colours like Maraschino (1940), Cherry Red (1940), Burgundy (1940), Matador (1941) and Garnet (1941). Although these came in matching lipsticks and rouge the colours did not extend to nail polish, putting the company at a severe competitive disadvantage.
Primrose House was not oblivious to the arrival of new forms of make-up. Rose Petal Foundation Lotion was available before the war as a base for Chiffon Face Powder and, like many other cosmetic companies, Primrose House introduced a leg make-up – Chiffon Liquid Hosiery – during the stocking shortage created by the wartime restrictions. Then, in 1944, it introduced Petal-Tint, a liquid cream make-up and followed this with Chiffon Pressed Powder, providing its clients with two types of foundation popular in the post-war period. As far as I know it did not make either cake or stick make-up.
The widespread use of expensive television advertising in America in the 1950s meant that smaller cosmetic companies like Primrose House had an increasingly difficult time and were largely relegated to lower-end markets which competed mainly on price.
Louis Wasey retired from Erwin, Wasey & Company in 1956 and his withdrawal from business was associated with Daggett & Ramsdell taking over the manufacture, sale and distribution of Primrose House in 1955. Wasey also sold sold his interests in Barbarsol in 1956. It is unclear whether Daggett & Ramsdell became the new owners of Primrose House in 1955 but they appear to have done so by the time they merged with the Barcley Corset Company in 1958. The Primrose House line limped on for a number of years after this before going out of production sometime in the 1960s.
See also: Daggett & Ramsdell
|1921||The Lowell Company established.|
Primrose House opens at 3 East 52nd Street, New York.
|1926||Primrose House reorganised and new management installed.|
|1927||Primrose House opens a branch at 127 Grant Avenue, San Francisco.|
|1928||Primrose House moves to 49 West 45th Street. Salon still located at 3 East 52nd Street.|
|1929||Salon moves to 595 Fifth Avenue, New York.|
|1931||Chiffon Face Powder repackaged.|
|1934||New Products: Delv, an all-purpose cream.|
|1935||Lipsticks reformulated and released in a new case.|
|1936||New Products: Dry Skin Mixture; and Goggle Eye Cream.|
|1937||Delv Ltd. created to sell Delv all-purpose cream.|
New Products: Chiffon Cream.
|1940||New Products: Chiffon Lipstick; and Make-Up-Mask (had been a salon treatment).|
|1941||Salon moves to 379 Park Avenue, New York.|
|1942||New Products: Forget-Me-Not Face Powder.|
|1943||Beauti-Lashes and Beauti-Nails salon treatments introduced.|
|1944||New Products: Petal Tint Liquid Cream Make-up.|
|1945||New Products: Chiffon Smoothskin Lotion.|
|1946||Chiffon Face Powder repackaged.|
New Products: Estrogenic Hormone Cream.
|1948||New Products: Deep Pore Cleansing Cream.|
|1952||New Products: Le Secret de Blanche Delysia.|
|1953||Primrose House acquires the distribution rights for Hartnell perfume and toilet water in the U.S.|
New Products: Chiffon Special Hand Lotion.
|1955||Daggett & Ramsdell take over the manufacture, sale and distribution of Primrose House.|
Updated: 19th May 2017
Coburn, F. W. (1920). History of Lowell and its people (Vol. 2). New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company.
Peiss, K. (1998). Hope in a jar: The making of America’s beauty culture. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Primrose House. (n.d.). Primrose House [Booklet]. New York: Author.
Woodward, H. (1926). Through many windows. New York: Harper & Brothers.