Continued to: Revlon (post-1960)
From its beginnings in 1932 selling nail polish, Revlon would go on to become one of the largest cosmetics companies in the United States. Much of the credit for this success has been attributed to one of the company’s founders, Charles Haskel Revson.
A lot has been written about Charles Revson, much of it uncomplimentary.
Whatever else he was—nasty, crude, lonely, virile, brilliant, inarticulate, insecure, generous, honest, ruthless, complicated—Charles Revson was a man of single-minded persistence and drive, entirely dedicated to his business. And a perfectionist.
Complex. Shy. Private. Crude. Smart. One could go on and on with adjectives describing Revson. All would fit at one time or another. He was such a strange mix of persons and personalities that no generalization would have properly profiled.
Tobias and others provide us with a potted history of Revson’s early life. They note that he was born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1906, the son of Jeanette Weiss and Samuel Morris Revson, but grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire as the middle child between two brothers, the older Joseph and the younger Martin. After graduating from Manchester Central High School in 1923 he went to work in the garment district of New York as a salesman for the Pickwick Dress Company where he worked his way up to becoming a piece-goods buyer. In 1930, he ran away to Chicago with Ida Thompson to get married but soon returned to New York, got divorced, moved back in with his parents, and started selling nail polish for the Elka Company, Newark, New Jersey in 1930 or 1931. After working at Elka for a short time he resigned and established what would become Revlon in March, 1932, with his older brother, Joseph Revson, and a business acquaintance, Charles Lachman.
The new company was going to be named Revlac – an amalgamation of Revson and Lachman – but it did not sound right (Tobias, 1976, p. 30) so an ‘L’ replaced the ‘S’ in Revson and Revlon started up at 38 West 21st Street, New York. The company incorporated the following year as the Revlon Nail Enamel Corporation with Charles Revson as president, Joseph Revson its treasurer and general manager and Charles Lachman its vice-president and technical adviser. The youngest Revson brother, Martin Revson, would join the firm in 1935 and become its marketing manager.
It is sometimes said that Charles Revson took a big risk leaving a paid job at Elka in the middle of the depression to start out on his own but the risk may not have been as large as it first appeared. From all reports Elka was a very small firm and Revson was probably getting most of his income from commissions, so going out on his own and selling for himself was potentially a move up as it cut out the middleman.
The biggest risk Revson faced in his new venture was a guaranteed supply of nail polish. This explains why Charles Lachman was so important to the business and why was he given a half-share of it: Lachman’s wife’s family owned the Dresden Chemical Company. They made nail polish – possibly even for Elka – and Lachman’s involvement was on the condition that Dresden would supply Revlon with nail polish on credit.
Also, nail polish may not have been having the same slump in sales that was being experienced by other products during the depression years of the 1930s. In a piece of self-promotion, the J. Walter Thompson Company – the advertising agent for Cutex – noted that manicure sales had actually risen during the years 1929-1932.
In the three depression years since 1929, total dollar sales volume for Cutex manicure products has been 28% greater than in the three preceding years — following a steady sales growth since 1915.
As a salesman, Revson’s main problem was how to outdo the competition. The largest nail polish company of the time was Northam Warren, who held the Cutex brand, but there were a myriad of others including Blue Bird, Peggy Sage, Glazo, La Cross and Chen Yu. Revlon not only survived, it prospered. In its first ten months of business it did US$4,055.09 in sales and this jumped to US$11,246.98 in 1933 reaching US$1.2 million by 1940 (Tedlow, 2003). This is not to say that the early years were easy and Joseph Revson can take much of the credit for guiding the early company financially through this time.
One reason often given for Revlon’s success is that its nail polish was superior to other brands. According to this story Charles Revson had realised the potential of the Elka’s opaque nail polish and made it better by producing it in a wider range of shades.
Elka’s product, however, was revolutionary. It was opaque. All the other nail polishes on the market were transparent. Charles saw the potential in this difference. The others were made with dyes and were limited to three shades of red—light, medium, and dark. Revson felt that polish—“cream enamel,” as it came to be called—made with pigment so that it would really cover the nails, and made in a wide variety of shades, could capture the market.
Although overstated there is some truth to this story. Most nail polishes at that time in the United States were formulated to be transparent and used dyes rather than pigments as colourants. In the early 1930s the fashion trend was to only colour the nail across the centre of the nail plate, leaving the moon and the free edge clear. When applied with skill this look went well with transparent nail polishes. Cutex was still promoting this nail fashion as late as 1938, even though it had introduced a cream polish in 1934.
By contrast, opaque or cream nail polish – containing pigments including titanium dioxide – was applied over the whole nail. It covered flaws in the nail plate and required less skill to apply.
What is not true is that transparent polish only came in a limited range of colours – Peggy Sage, for example, had 24 shades of nail polish in 1935 that could be harmonised with clothing. However, the number of shades was not as important as the colours in the range. The exuberant 1920s had ended with nail polish being produced in a wide variety of colours – including, blues and greens as well as metallic colours like gold, silver and bronze – many of which were used to match brightly coloured clothing, particularly evening-wear. The depression years of the 1930s would see nail fashions move to more subdued reds and smokey-reds and this was the colour range Revlon was promoting.
Back in 1933, cream nail enamel was received by beauty salon and consumer alike with great enthusiasm, for it gave the nails a covering that hid flaws as no product had ever done before. And it gave Revlon the “hook” by which they could enter the style business with a commodity.
With cream nail enamel, a range of reds could be developed that would not only flatter the hands, but would also harmonize with the clothes a woman wore. Crazy colors were soon dismissed as being unwearable and in bad taste, colors such as chrome-yellows, weird blues and greens, fantastic shades that were the first obvious ones to think of, aside from reds. However, subtle, smokey tones, in the spectrum or red ranging from light to dark, beautified a woman’s nails and hands, and, at the same time, could be made to harmonize with her wardrobe.
The colours that Revlon sold were mostly the work of Charles Revson. Whatever else that might be said of him Revson did have a good eye for colour, at least as it applied to make-up and clothing; furnishings and fixtures were another matter. More importantly, Revson treated nail enamel colours like fashion items and, like clothing fashions, was soon bringing out new shades in spring and autumn. All of Revlon’s marketing efforts would then be put into promoting the new shades while older ones, although still available, were soft-pedalled. Revson’s commitment to this idea was such that in 1937 he opened a style department at Revlon – run by Miss Cherie Shackleton – specifically to promote style and fashion in manicure items.
As well as colour, Revlon nail enamels may have been superior in other ways, as the story below – repeated in books about Diane Vreeland – suggests:
Mrs Vreeland – later fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and subsequent editor of Vogue – became close to a friend of Flame’s [‘Flame’ d’Erlanger], simply called Perrera, who dabble in investments, but whose greatest love was giving manicures. … Perrera’s polish was made to a special formula which he alone knew, drying almost instantly to a rock-hard finish. From time to time he would give some to friends, and when Mrs Vreeland returned to New York in the late 1930s, she took two bottles with her.
The polish so impressed Mrs Vreeland’s manicurist that she offered to have a boyfriend take a look at it. ‘I think I can get him to copy it,’ said the manicurist. ‘Really,’ replied la Vreeland. ‘Who’s the boyfriend?’ ‘Charles Revson,’ came the reply. The Revlon range by this time had a great colour palette and a reputation for not chipping but, as Mrs Vreeland recollected, ‘it took hours to dry and had no staying power’. She remained convinced that ‘Revson studied Perrera’s formula and evolved a product that dried faster than anything anyone had ever used in America’.
There are other reports that Revlon had a quality product. A. C. Bailey of the Bailey Beauty Supply Company in Chicago – who admittedly became a Revlon distributer in 1934 and may therefore be a little biased – is quoted as saying:
“I went with him,” Bailey says, “because I had checked with some of the finest beauty shops in the east, like Michael of the Waldorf, and found the polish was incredible. It was chip-proof and had more stay-on power, had more gloss and lustre, the colors were beautiful, and the formula was just terrific. We were carrying at the time about five brands of nail polish. Blue Bird, Chen-Yu, Glazo and a couple of other. We threw everything else out and carried only Revlon.”
Revlon products therefore appear to have been as good as, if not better than its competitors. In part, this was due to Revson’s obsession with quality. Quality concerns may have been the reason for Revson switching his nail polish supplier from Dresden to Maas & Walstein around 1937, although a cynic might interpret this move as an example of Revson’s aversion to being beholden to anyone, and/or part of the move that saw Lachman’s share of the Revlon business cut from one-half to one-third (Tobias, 1976, p. 51).
Even if we accept that Revlon’s nail enamel was good and its colours fashionable I do not think this completely explains the rise in the company’s fortunes in the 1930s. For that we need to look first at Revlon’s sales force. Charles Revson was a very successful salesman. He was enthusiastic, quite good looking when younger, would endear himself to female buyers by arriving with his nails painted in the latest Revlon shades, and was apparently prepared to exchange sex for a Revlon sale or extra Revlon counter space. When Martin Revson joined Revlon in 1935 as its sales manager, he proved to be an even better salesman – presumably emulating his brother’s sales practices – and also put together an aggressive sales force for Revlon.
Revlon salesmen were expected to win. If a Chen-Yu nail enamel color chart somehow walked out of a store in a salesman’s briefcase … well, it could always be replaced by a Revlon color chart. If the bottle caps on some Chen-Yu nail enamel were loosened a bit and the enamel hardened … well, the store, or the customer, would know not to buy an inferior brand again. If, in an attempt to secure counter space, a salesman should spread his arms out, accidentally sweeping the competitive product off either end of the counter onto the floor … well, the salesmen were authorized to buy up the damaged merchandise at the retailer’s cost and replace it with Revlon product.
In his endeavours to ‘bury the opposition’ Revlon continued to use dubious sales practices. Leaving aside charges of wire-tapping in the 1950s – strongly suggested but unproven – the most important of these was coercion. Revlon was not above using a bit of ‘muscle’. In 1942, for example, a trade magazine reported that the Los Angeles company, Seal-Cote Co., had accused Revlon of violating its trade-name and pressuring dealers. Seal-Cote made the charge that not only was Revlon’s Seal-Fast an imitation of their product Seal-Cote, but that since Revlon had introduced their product in 1941, the company had been “coercing dealers, jobbers and beauty parlours not to carry Seal-Cote“ (AP&EOR, 1942) resulting in the cancellation of numerous Seal-Cote orders.
This was not an isolated case and eventually the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued Revlon with a series of cease and desist orders in 1954 and 1956 but by then it was too late; after 1955 demand for Revlon products was such that that coercion was largely unnecessary.
Revlon’s attempts to shut out competitors date back more than 20 years and it took the Trade Commission some time to get this giant specialist on women’s beauty to agree that it would quit using unfair trade practices on those beauty shops which dared sell a rival product.
Here is some of the sworn testimony showing how Revlon tried to dominate the lipstick market.
The Royal Supply Co., a Houston, Texas, beauty Jobber, wrote Thomas Products of Buffalo, a nail cream manufacturer, 4/l/46: “Please do not ship your order of 3/13/46. Since we handle Revlon, they do not want us to handle competitive items.”
Here is another letter from Revlon to O. L. Becker of the B-G Supply Co., Albuquerque: “It is understood that in consideration for granting you the distributorship for Albuquerque you will of course carry Revlon preparations only and accordingly promptly dispose of any stock you may have on hand of other preparations.”
Again, Mortimer A. Fogel, manager of quality cosmetics of New York, testified, 12/1/49, that the Duchess Beauty and Barber Supply of Knoxville, Tenn., had returned to him an entire year’s supply of “Monique” beauty products, excluding 40 gallons of shampoo, after signing with Revlon.
As it became a larger cosmetic company, with a stronger department store presence, Revlon improved sales by placing demonstrators in select stores and made payments of ‘push money’ elsewhere. By 1955, the company had over 600 demonstrators employed in department stores throughout the country. As well as promoting Revlon products, the demonstrators could give immediate feedback by telephone on how lines were moving (Television Magazine, 1955); feedback that was added to field reports from regional managers, salon and department store representatives.
Revlon’s sales in the 1930s were also boosted by the fact that its early business was salon-oriented. The popularity of the new permanent waves attracted a lot of customers to American beauty salons in the 1930s and many women would also get a manicure when they came in to have their hair set. It was a lot easier for a Revlon salesman to get an order from a salon than to get an opening in a department store, and a salon manicure allowed customers to try and then buy a Revlon nail enamel. Salons that tried the product and liked it would reorder and their customers would spread the word and start asking for it from their local department store, so the permanent wave boom was perfectly timed to help Revlon to establish itself, a major piece of luck for the new company.
Revson was very aware of the importance of salons to his business. Although the company began selling to department stores after 1935 they had a number of products that were clearly aimed at making salon manicures a total Revlon experience. By 1938, as well as selling twenty-one shades of Cream Nail Enamel, Revlon had also developed a range of other nail cosmetics including: Adheron, a base and top coat; Prolon (1938), for weak, brittle nails; Oily Polish Remover in liquid or pads; Cuticle Lotion; and Nail Cream along with other manicure equipment like emery boards and orange sticks. Then, in 1939, they added a range of hand lotions to enable manicurists to better personalise their Revlon treatments.
Special, personalized manicures have been developed by Revlon and outlined in a booklet, “How to give … how to sell Revlon Manicures.” Just as the hair requires individual treatment in permanent waving so to do different hands, Revlon maintains, and suggests four techniques: a style manicure; a lactol manicure for dry, brittle hands; a hand sculpture manicure with massage; a hand sculpture manicure with arm massage. Each incorporates one or more of four new Revlon products. They are hand massage cream for lubrication, a hand finishing lotion, a hand cream of the pink pearly type and an emulsified pearl hand lotion. These items, in addition to some new steel implements and nail enamels, are offered in a handsome chrome manicure tray.
A major factor in the rise of Revlon was the action of its biggest competitor Northam Warren, the owners of Cutex, Glazo and Peggy Sage, that collectively controlled most of the nail polish business in the United States by the 1930s. However, Northam Warren’s strength may have worked against it.
As Revlon entered the retail market, a number of forces were operating to make a new competitor and a change in status very welcome to a major part of the retail trade. Certain deep antagonisms existed in the mind of the retail trade and certain basic dissatisfactions with the policy of a predominant supplier. Throughout the retail trade there was an eager expectation for someone vigorous, with a new idea that could be picked up, accepted and promoted as a foil to this other company. Revlon stepped into this fortunate retail situation at the precise psychological moment with a new product and a new sales idea. The result is history in this industry.
Even if this ‘industry antagonism’ was not as severe as this author makes out, it is clear that Northam Warren failed to fully capitalise on their introduction of cream nail polish and the harmonising of nail polish with lipstick.
The idea of matching nail enamels with lipsticks was an old one, dating from the late 1920s. Cutex, Revlon’s biggest nail polish rival, had already introduced a line of lipsticks to match its Crème Nail Polish range which was first sold in 1934. Debuting in 1935, Cutex lipsticks came in automatic containers in four shades: Natural, Coral, Cardinal and Ruby, with advertisements that used headlines such as “Fashion says—Lips and fingertips now must match”.
Five years later, in 1939, Revlon introduced its own lipsticks in nine shades with colours that matched Revlon nail enamels. Revlon salesgirls were supplied with charts which they could use to advise customers on which shade went with which and Revlon supported sales with an advertising campaign that used coloured advertisements – a first for Revlon – a number of which used the slogan ‘Matching fingertips and lips’, a reversal of the tag used by Cutex.
As it was no longer just in nails, Revlon changed its name to the Revlon Products Corporation and followed up the introduction of lipstick with Cheek Stick (1940), a cream rouge in stick form – it came with a small packet of tissues to help spread the rouge without staining the fingers – and a lipstick brush (1941).
Copying what Cutex did by matching lipstick with nail polish would not be the last time Revson capitalised on an idea developed by others. Charles Revson was not a creative product genius and a lot of what Revlon produced was copied from competing cosmetic companies. When others came up with a good product Revson would have it analysed, improve the formulation where possible and conduct an extensive advertising campaign to help sell it. As Mike Sager, a Revlon salesman noted:
“Copy everything and you can’t go wrong,” he remembers Charles telling him. That way—and it was basically Charles’s formula for forty-three years—you let the competitors do the groundwork and make the mistakes. And when they hit with something good, you make it better, package it better, advertise it better, and bury them.
Although this is an oversimplification – copying was endemic to the cosmetics industry as a whole – it contains more than a grain of truth. There are more examples of Revlon copying its rivals than the other way around.
He [Revson] gave many hours of his time each week to the laboratory. As he often told me, “That’s where it starts,” adding, “If it’s wrong there, kiddie, forget it!” He was not a chemist but learned quickly what the technological side of chemistry could do for his business. He filled his laboratory with every conceivable electronic device capable of producing and measuring products. He once said to me, during a competitive discussion, “Anything they make, we can break down in twenty four hours and copy.” He did, too.
When the United States entered into the Second World War in 1941, Revlon contributed to the war effort, assembling first-aid kits, making dye markers for the navy, and manufacturing hand-grenades for the army. Charles also lost Martin Revson for the duration of the war when his brother joined the navy.
The war also generated supply shortages in glass, metal and assorted cosmetic ingredients and may have been the reason Revlon rationalised its lines in 1943, dropping seven shades of nail enamel along with matching lipsticks and suspending three shades of Cheek Stick. However, this still left seventeen shades of nail enamel remaining and the war shortages did not stop Revlon from introducing new colours. Probably the most famous of these was Mrs. Miniver Rose. Packaged in a plastic case, as metal was in short supply, Revlon produced the shade – without consulting M.G.M., the makers of the wartime propaganda film ‘Mrs. Miniver’ – released in June 1942 starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Revson must have been gratified to see print fabrics, real and artificial roses and other fashion accessories on display in stores all over America soon after Revlon released the shade.
Despite the war shortages, Revlon also managed to introduce some new products, including a brief foray into leg make-up with Leg Silk and, more importantly, the addition of face powder into its range with Revlon Wind-Milled Face Powder (1943) in Snow Pink, Vanilla Frost, Misty Coral, Peach Icing, Country Cream, Mrs. Miniver Rose, Rosy Future and Sun Mocha shades.
My guess would be that the name was selected to mimic Coty’s Air Spun Face Powder, first put on the market in 1934. Revson admired Coty, it had class.
[Revson] was particularly enamored of their advertising. The Coty girl wore huge, wide-brimmed hats which became a trademark of the firm. Revson, then just commencing his own advertising program, must have looked in awe at the size and splendor of his competitor, for by then Coty had widened its line into lipstick, nail polish and other make-up lines.
Revlon also made the winning bid of US$301,125 for the German firm Graef & Schmidt, Inc., New York which had been seized by the U.S. government in 1943 because of its German business ties. Revlon then exercised its option to buy Graef & Schmidt’s factory buildings and the company came out of the war able to make its own manicure and pedicure instruments removing the need to order them from an outside source.
Although Revlon’s sales grew and its distribution network was extended, scarce supplies meant that Revlon’s growth was restricted during the war. Even so, by 1947 they had become the largest vendor of nail enamel and lipstick in the world (AP&EOR, 1947). As the post-war production ramped up Revlon continued on much as before except that beginning in 1944 they began to use full-color photographic advertisements to publicise their products in major magazines like ‘Vogue’ and ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ with spreads running occasionally over two pages. The post-war shade promotions included Fatal Apple (1945); Ultraviolet and Bachelor’s Carnation (1946); Cinderella’s Pumpkin (1947); Orchids to You (1948); Plumb Beautiful (1949); Sunny Side Up, Stormy Pink, Where’s the Fire? and Love that Red (1950); and Certainly Red (1951) but by far the most successful was Fire and Ice.
The Fire and Ice shade promotion was launched in the autumn of 1952. It was developed by Kay Daley – from the advertising agency Norman, Craig & Kummel – and Bea Castle – Revlon’s in-house marketing executive – and featured the model Dorian Leigh in a silver sequinned dress with red cape photographed by Richard Avedon. ‘Vogue’ magazine planned its November issue around the shade, and the usual blanket of magazine ads, window displays, counter cards and radio endorsements, helped by a good deal of free publicity, pushed total Revlon sales to almost US$25.5 million.
Revlon also added some new products in the immediate post-war period including Fashion Plate (1947), a pressed cream powder that promised a ‘poreless-as-porcelain’ finish but could be applied without water; Aquamarine Lotion (1947), a complexion lotion for the hands and body; Lip-Fashion lipstick (1948), a long, slim stick which had a double angled tip with a narrow side for outlining the lips and a broad side for filling them in; Touch & Glow (1950), a matt, liquid make-up in seven shades; and Dreamy Eye Make-up (1950), consisting of mascara, eyeliner and eyeshadow.
When Aquamarine Lotion proved to be successful, Revlon built it into a complete line which included: Aquamarine Soap, Aquamarine Bath Powder, Aquamarine Cream Deodorant, and Aquamarine Spray Deodorant (1950); Aquamarine Cream Deodorant, and Aquamarine Lotion Deodorant (1951); Aquamarine Shaving Balm, Aquamarine Lotion, for hands and legs, and Aquamarine Lotion Shampoo, for dry, normal, oily and bleached hair (1952); Aquamarine Talc, and Aquamarine Spray Deodorant (1953); Aquamarine Splurge, after-bath mist (1954); and Aquamarine After Bath Freshener, and Aquamarine Milk Bath (1959).
This practice of adding ‘flankers’ or ‘line extensions’ was repeated by Revlon to build a number of products into extended lines including Ultima, Moon Drops, Natural Wonder, Clear and Clear, and Sun Bath.
By 1950, Revlon was a large cosmetics company with manufacturing plants in most of North and South America, in 11 countries in the Near and Middle East, and subsidiary organisations in 11 European countries as well as Britain, Iceland and Malta (AP&EOR, 1950). Overseas sales were handled by Revlon International Corporation. In the United States, the company’s products were distributed directly to 1,700 department stores, 5,700 better drug stores and numerous high class beauty salons (AP&EOR, 1951) and Revlon could be said to be on par with its competitors. However, apart from nail polish/enamel Revlon did not dominate any particular line of cosmetics and although it was a market leader in lipsticks, this lead would be challenged in the 1950s.
In 1950, Hazel Bishop began an extensive newspaper, radio and television campaign promoting Hazel Bishop Lasting Lipstick beginning what has been referred to as the ‘Lipstick Wars’. By 1953, Hazel Bishop had captured 25% of the American lipstick market and had also introduced a rouge and nail enamel into its cosmetics range.
Most of Hazel Bishops’s success was the result of its extensive use of television advertising, a medium Revson did not understand and disparaged, mainly because it was broadcast in black-and-white not colour.
Just as color plays a major role in Revlon products, so it does in advertising. Each new color is promoted to the hilt. Magazine ads, counter cards, packages, window displays and direct mail proclaim the new colors as they come along. Color is one reason that Revlon has never gone heavily into radio or black-and-white television. But when color television is perfected, you can bet your bottom dollar Revlon will be in it.
The situation was made worse for Revlon when Coty added Coty “24” indelible lipstick to its range in 1955 using the theme ‘Wake up beautiful with “alive” color glowing on your lips!’. It proved to be a big seller and affected Revlon’s sales even further. Between Hazel Bishop and Coty, Revlon’s share of the American lipstick market hit an all time low (Abrams, 1977, p. 128).
In 1951, to combat Hazel Bishop, Revlon added Indelible-Creme Lipstick to its Regular Lipstick but was forced to abandoned it in 1953 when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) got agreement from advertisers that lipsticks can only claim to be ‘indelible’, ‘smear-proof’, or ‘non-smear’ if the word ‘type’ was used with such descriptions. Its replacement was Lanolite Lipstick, a greasy, lanolin enriched lipstick, in non-smear and regular formulations but sales were disappointing.
In 1955, in response to Coty “24”, Revlon introduced Living Lipstick (the twenty-four hour type) with the line ‘Put living color on your lips’ an obvious copy of Coty’s ‘alive’. Rather than face a protracted legal battle with Revlon for copying, Coty simply informed International Playtex – who had a trademark on ‘Living’ (for Living Bras) that included toiletries – and Revlon was forced to also cease production of this line under threat of a court action.
Revlon’s Lustrous Lipstick – the fourth lipstick Revlon had marketed since 1951 – went on sale in 1956, one year after Revlon released the Futurama refillable lipstick cases designed by the jewellers Van Cleef & Arpels. When Futurama was first put on the market women could chose to insert either Living, Lanolite or Regular lipsticks (1955) and then later Lanolite, Lustrous or Living lipsticks (1956). This was too much. The choice confused women and Revlon got trade complaints about the need to stock three different types of lipstick in a wide range of colours and refills. Living lipstick was dropped because of the Playtex legal suit and Revlon dumped over 1,000,000 Lanolite lipsticks off its inventory (Abrams, 1977, p. 129) leaving only Lustrous Lipstick remaining.
Fortunately for Revlon it was now in a position to bear the cost of this. By 1956 it was the sole advertiser of the hottest television show in the America, ‘The $64,000 Question’. With it Revlon won the lipstick wars and Coty and Hazel Bishop were no longer considered a major threat.
Revlon had previously sponsored a number of television shows including ‘Revlon Mirror Theater’, ‘Mr. and Mrs. North’, ‘What’s Going On?’ and ‘Whom Do You Trust?’ none of which had proved to be successful in its battle with Hazel Bishop and their television program ‘This is Your Life’. Revson had little choice but to try again and much against his better judgement he agreed to be come the sole sponsor of yet another television program, ‘The $64,000 Question’.
The show first went to air on 7th June, 1955 and after a slow start proved to be a phenomenon. Almost anything Revlon advertised on it got a massive sales boost. The company’s sales jumped from US$33,604,000 to US$51,646,000 in 1955 – even though the program had only been televised for six months – and had more than doubled to US$110,363,000 by 1958, the year the show went off the air (Abrams, 1977, p. 64).
See also: Revlon and ‘The $64,000 Question’
By 1960, Revlon was the number one seller of lipstick, hairspray, nail products and make-up (Tobias, 1976, p. 148) and way out in front of all of its competitors, even outselling Avon. Revlon had also gone public on December 7, 1955, six months after the debut of ‘The $64,000 Question’. The shares began at US$12 but hit US$30 within a few weeks and were split two-for-one in 1956. Helena Rubinstein may have been a rival but even she had Revlon shares.
However, Charles Revson was soon on his own. Joseph Revson left the firm in 1954 and Martin followed in 1958. In both cases the departures were acrimonious.
While engaged in the lipstick wars Revlon was expanding its product range in a number of directions. The company added to its make-up range with Second Nature (1952), a liquid make-up base; Love-Pat (1953), a pressed powder-cream; and Touch & Glow Face Powder (1955). It also developed a skin-care range beginning with White Sable Liquid Cleansing Cream (1952); followed by Moon Drops (1953), a moisturising balm; Clean and Clear (1955), a foaming cleanser containing hexachlorophene; Build Up (1954), a firming facial; Waking Beauty (1954), a night cream containing vitamins A, D, and E; Liquid Asset (1957), a skin normaliser; and Ultima (1959), a face cream.
Revson also began to show a greater interest in perfumes. If he had not been previously convinced about the importance of fragrance, the success of Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew Bath Oil (1953) must have certainly attracted his attention.
In 1968, making one of his infrequent public appearances as a speech maker, he told the National Association of Chain Store Druggists, “Get a fragrance going and you’ve got everything. Soaps, powders, after-bath colognes, bath beads — you name it!” Revson saw the line extension possibilities of fragrances as a money machine which could keep turning out product after product once the public accepted the basic essence.
He also believed fragrances were one of the few untouchable areas free of government (FDA and FTC) regulation. “Y’know what they’d have to put on a fragrance label?” he told me once. “hopes and dreams — not ingredients, kiddie — hopes and dreams.”
Revson had already followed this idea by releasing the Aquamarine line scent being made available as a spray mist in 1954 the same year that he released Fire and Ice Parfum. In 1955, Revlon introduced Intimate, a perfume that imitated Dior’s Miss Dior, first sold back in 1947. With some reluctance Revson agreed to it being advertised on television – the first fragrance to be promoted this way – and within a year it was one of the six largest selling fragrances in the world, again helped along by ‘The $64,000 Question’.
Other products produced by Revlon in the 1950s included: Silicare (1953), a hand protectant; Silicare Medicated Hand and Body Lotion (1955); Sun Bath (1956), a beauty tanning lotion; Top Brass (1957), a men’s hair dressing; Hi and Dri (1957), a roll on deodorant (the antibiotic neomycin added in 1960); Living Curl (1958), a hair spray; and Thin Down (1958), tablets for weight reduction containing an appetite depressant and vitamins. Some of these came from Revlon’s increasing interest in pharmaceuticals; the company had been acquiring pharmaceutical firms and adding them to its Pharmaceutical Division instituted in 1955. Some of its pharmaceutical products were related to skin-care but others like Femicin, a medication for period pain, were drugs pure and simple.
By 1960 – thanks largely to the success of ‘The $64,000 Question’ – Revlon had become one of the biggest cosmetic firms in the United States; only Avon had larger overall sales. Rather than being happy about this, Charles Revson was worried.
Revson knew that there was a difference between a commodity and a fashion item: a commodity is used until it is finished and competitors usually compete on price; a fashion item can be discarded long before the product is used up and competitors differentiate themselves through creativity and marketing skill, with a product that is priced accordingly.
As they were primarily about colour, Revson could market nail enamels and lipsticks as fashion items with new colours appearing each spring and autumn. They were advertised extensively and marketed through packaging, displays and promotional tie-ins with fashion magazines and department stores which allowed Revlon to set a premium price. The Publishers Information Bureau indicated that Revlon spent US$396 on magazine advertising in 1935 (a single advertisement in the New Yorker); US$6987 in 1936; US$120,000 in 1941 after lipstick was added to the inventory and US$492,736 in 1949 (AP&EOR, 1951). Revlon advertised heavily in relation to its sales – and in its early days borrowed heavily to fund it – which gave people the impression that the company was a lot bigger than it really was (Tobias, 1976, p. 108). It also helped establish Revlon as a producer of prestigious products in the minds of its customers.
A key to this strategy was maintaining a degree of exclusivity. To preserve its prestigious image as a high fashion, high margin brand, Revlon had to control distribution and keep its products out of stores that would cheapen the brand and lead to price competition. For the most part, Revlon had managed to do this, restricting its products to ‘selected’ stores and salons.
Revlon entered the 1950s as a relatively luxurious nail polish and lipstick brand but it ended the decade largely as a mass marketer. This was mainly due to the success of its television advertising but it was also partly the result of the inclusion of new products that were more difficult to promote as fashion items. Revson was very aware of this problem and battled to try and maintain Revlon, or at least parts of the company, as a high-end brand.
The TV campaign had tripled Revlon sales, but it had also made it more mass than class, just the opposite of what Charles Revson had planned. He urged me to retain at least the combination of mass and class, and we had been able to do that through a combination of restricted distribution, luxury packaging and higher than average pricing. Still, there was no denying that the one thing Revlon was losing in the process of growth was “class.”.
(Abrams, 1977, p. 190)
Abrams suggests that there was more to Revson’s obsession with class than simple economics.
Revson argued that the quality image of his top lines would enhance the image of basic Revlon. But pride, not profit, was his fundamental motivation in taking the course he did.
(Abrams, 1977, p. 255)
Revson’s concern about prestige was the main reason behind a number of developments including the Princess Marcella Borghese line (1958) – the first time Revlon had used a ‘celebrity’ endorsement – the opening of ‘The House of Revlon’ beauty salon in New York (1961), and the introduction of the Ultima II line (1964).
After negotiations with Princess Marcella Borghese [1911-2002] in Italy, Princess Marcella Borghese, Inc. was registered as an American corporation in 1957, after which the Princess travelled to the United States to help develop the line. Things did not go smoothly; expected personal formulas for cosmetics proved to be non-existent (Abrams, 1977, p. 196) and, after the line was released in 1958, Fabergé took Revlon to court charging that the Borghese packaging and promotion copied their Julliette Marglen line. These problems may have turned Revson against it and be part of the reason why Princess Marcella Borghese was not mentioned in company reports until 1965.
Other issues for Charles Revson were the fickle nature of the cosmetic business and potential limitations on the growth of the company, both issues made more pressing by the fact that Revlon had become a public company in 1955 and these factors affected its share price.
Starting in 1957 with Knomark, Inc., the makers of Esquire shoe polish, Revlon began acquiring a number of businesses that Charles Revson hoped would maintain growth and reduce the company’s dependance on cosmetics. Purchases were relatively modest in the 1950s but picked up considerably in the next decade.
|1932||Brothers Charles and Joseph Revson and Charles R. Lachman establish Revlon.|
|1933||Revlon Nail Enamel Corporation established.|
New Products: Adheron, a base-coat.
|1934||Revlon makes its first large sale to the Marshall Field department store.|
|1935||Martin Revson joins Revlon.|
Revlon’s first ad appears in ‘The New Yorker’ magazine.
New Products: New cream polish remover that lubricates the nails as it removes the polish.
|1936||Revlon opens a store account with Saks Fifth Avenue.|
|1937||New showroom opens at 125 West 45th Street, New York.|
Revlon Style Department opens.
|1938||Revlon Export Corporation organised|
New Products: Solvent, a nail polish thinner; Prolon, a cream designed to prevent nails from splitting and breaking; and Lactol, a brittle nail treatment.
|1939||Revlon Nail Enamel Corporation changes its name to Revlon Products Corporation.|
Revlon introduces lipsticks to match its nail enamels.
|1940||New Products: Pearl Hand Cream; and Cheek Stick, a cream rouge in a stick form.|
|1941||New Products: Seal-Fast, a clear top-coat; and Revlon Lipstick Brush.|
|1943|| Revlon reorganises its shade range.|
New Products: Wind-Milled face powders; and Leg Silk leg make-up.
|1944||Revlon begins full-color photographic advertisements.|
|1945||Revlon acquires Graef & Schmidt, Inc., New York to manufacturing its own manicure equipment.|
|1946||Chicago office at 55 East Washington Square opened.|
New Products: Everon base coat; and Lucite lipstick cases.
|1947||Revlon enters the market in Great Britain.|
New Products: Aquamarine Lotion; and Fashion Plate, a pressed-cream make-up.
|1948||New Products: Lip Fashion, a slim lipstick.|
|1950||New Products: Touch & Glow, a liquid makeup; Nail-Fix, for mending broken nails; and Dreamy Eye Make-up|
|1951||New factories opened in England and France.|
New Products: Indelible-Creme lipstick.
|1952||Match Maker sets introduced to encourage matching of lipsticks and nail enamel.|
New Products: White Sable Liquid Cleansing Cream; and Second Nature, a liquid make-up base.
|1953||New Products: Moon Drops Moisture Balm for dry skin; Cuticle Massage Cream and Creamy Cuticle Remover added to the Nail Builder line; Love-Pat, a pressed powder-cream make-up; Waking Beauty, night cream treatment for dry skin; and Silicare, a hand protectant.|
|1954||New Products: Fire and Ice Parfum; Lanolite Lipstick, in non-smear and regular formulations; Build-Up, an astringent skin tightener; Silken-Net, a liquid hair spray; and Quick-Dry, non-smear nail spray.|
|1955||Revlon changes its name to Revlon, Inc. and goes public.|
New manufacturing facilities acquired in Edison, New Jersey. Revlon Pharmaceutical Division established.
Joseph Revson leaves Revlon.
New Products: Intimate parfum; Futurama lipstick cases; Living Lipstick (the twenty-four hour type); Lustrous Lipstick; Superbase, a base coat; Lastron Nail Enamel, a combination of nylon and cellulose acetate; Touch & Glow Face Powder; Clean and Clear, a liquid cleanser; Silicare Medicated Hand Lotion; and Satin-Set Hair Spray.
|1956||Thayer Laboratories, a drug division, established.|
New Products: Medicated Baby Silicare lotion; and Sun Bath, sun tan lotion; and Aquamarine Spray Mist.
Ideal Toy Company begins manufacture of Revlon dolls.
|1957||Sales Department reorganised after the sales force had been doubled in 1956.|
New Products: Touch & Glow Pressed Powder; Futurama Compacts containing Love-Pat shades (refillable); Waterproof Cream Mascara; Clean and Clear for Very Dry Skin; Liquid Asset, a two-phase liquid to normalise both dry and oily skins; Seven Wonders dry skin cream; and Hi and Dri roll on deodorant.
|1958||Martin Revson leaves Revlon.|
Revlon acquires a 20% stake in Schick, Inc.
New Products: Princess Marcella Borghese line; Moon Drops Moisture Foundation; Thin Down, tablets for weight reduction; Wonder Base, a base coat; Living Curl, a hair spray; Roll-On Mascara, Revlon’s first automatic mascara; Intimate Milk Bath and Intimate Bubble Bath; and Top Brass Deodorant and Top Brass After Shave Lotion.
|1959||Bressard Hair Products Corporation and Bressard Distributors, Inc., makers of hair colours, acquired.|
Revlon buys the distribution rights of Revillion Parfums of Paris for the USA and Canada.
Revlon gains a controlling interest in Les Parfums Pierre Balmain of Paris.
New Products: Ultima, a face cream; Intimate Hand Lotion; Intimate Fragrance Mist; Aquamarine After Bath Freshener; Aquamarine Milk Bath; Top Brass Cologne; and Color-Up, a cream hair conditioner and color rinse.
|1960||Realistic Company of Cincinnati, makers of professional beauty salon products, bought.|
Revlon Professional, aimed at the professional salon industry, established.
New Products: Ultima make-up collection, liquid foundations, powders and lipsticks in natural complexion tints; Moon Drops line established with the addition of Moon Drops Moisturizing Cleanser and Moon Drops Facial Freshener.
Continued to: Revlon (post-1960)
Updated: 23rd April 2017
Abrams, G. J. (1977). That man: The story of Charles Revson. New York: Manor Books, Inc.
Broadcasting Telecasting. (1958). Washington, DC: Broadcasting Publications, Inc.
Dallaire, V. J. (1951). From and idea to $20,000,000 The American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review, February, 115-118.
Nail enamel. (1959). Drug and Cosmetic Industry, 84(4), 458-459.
Tedlow, R. S. (2003). Giants of enterprise. Seven business innovators and the empires they built. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Television Magazine. New York: Frederick Kugel Company, Inc.
Tobias, A. (1976). Fire and Ice: The story of Charles Revson—the man who built the Revlon empire. New York: William Morrow.
Revlon, Inc. Annual Reports 1955-1960.
Rise of Revlon. (1947). The American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review, May, 481-482.
Woodhead, L. (2003). War paint: Miss Elizabeth Arden and Madame Helena Rubinstein. Their lives, their times, their rivalry. London: Virago.