In the early part of the twentieth century most face powders, lipsticks and rouges came in a limited number of shades. The colours were generally identified descriptively by names such as Rachel, Natural, Peach, Flesh and White for powder or Light, Dark, Tangerine, Geranium, Cherry, Vivid and Crimson for lipstick and rouge. Eye make-up colours were even more limited, usually restricted to blacks and browns for eyebrows and eyelashes, and blues, greens and greys for eyeshadow.
There was no guarantee that make-up produced by different firms sold under the same shade name was identical in colour but the limited colour choices and recognisable tint names made selecting a suitable shade of make-up a fairly simple process. There was limited scope for colour coordination – generally restricted to matching lipstick and rouge – and many cosmetic companies made this easy by giving their matching lipsticks and rouges the same shade names.
See also: Colour Coordination
During the 1920s shade ranges grew as cosmetic companies took suntanned skins into account. A number of these new darker shades took on descriptive names like Aureate, Sunburn, Copper and Ocre but by the late 1920s the earlier colour naming conventions – which were weak at best – were being discarded for names with more marketing appeal. In 1928, for example, Elizabeth Arden sold more than a dozen shades of face powder; some like White, Naturelle, Rose and Rachel had descriptive names but others like Illusion, Lilas, and Minerva did not.
Although women had more choice, the wider shade ranges and the decline of descriptive names meant that choosing an appropriate shade of powder, lipstick or rouge became more difficult, a situation complicated by the trend for coordinating make-up with clothing colours. There were some calls for colour standardisation to make identification easier but this was a lost cause.
The view has been expressed that certain tints, known by what may be called “standard” names, should be absolutely standardised. For example, if a woman asked for rachel powder, she should get exactly the same tint, no matter what the brand.
This policy would not be acceptable to the cosmetic industry as a whole. It would handicap enterprise, limit novelty, and deprive the manufacturer of one of his most potent sources of appeal.
At the same time, it seems only reasonable to require that such names as “rachel,” “naturelle,” “peach,” “sunburn,” etc., should connote definite ranges of shades. Actually … this is not always the case. One firm, for example, offers a “rachel” which differs only slightly from another firm’s “naturelle”; and both tints would perhaps be more correctly denominated “peach.”
To help women select suitable colours, cosmetic firms began to turn to a visual solution long used in the textile, paint and other trades, namely swatch cards.
In the textile trade, swatch cards were used to display the range of fabrics companies made or sold. Constructed using real samples of fabric to ensure that the customer knew precisely what they were buying, they were used by travelling salesmen or jobbers on their rounds but could they could also be sent by post to potential or long standing customers.
As well as swatches of finished cloth, these cards were also used by synthetic dye companies to send samples of different fabrics coloured with their dyes.
When the idea of colour cards was taken up by cosmetic companies to display shades of make-up, some followed the example of the textile trade and used real make-up to create them. Max Factor, for example, created a colour card of his face powders in the 1930s by sticking samples of actual powder to card, presumably making sure that the glue did not affect the colour.
Also see the company booklet: Max Factor Hollywood Color Chart
Unlike fabrics, making colour cards using real samples of powder, rouge or lipstick was not a viable proposition in most cases. Unfortunately, printing shade cards using colours that matched make-up was not without its problems.
Even though colour reproduction improved during the 1930s, most shade cards were generally made by individually printing a sheet of each tint – colour matched by trial and error – then die-cutting out individual pieces which were then stuck to cards. Shade cards made this way were laborious to make and expensive, so in most cases their use was restricted to wholesale brochures, point of sale booklets or counter displays.
After the Second World War it became easier to print a large number of colours directly to card and to get better colour matching. This made the customary method of printing each colour separately obsolete, dramatically reducing printing costs.
Printing firms such as McCorquodale & Co. Ltd. in Britain and Pantone Press in the United States could now direct print colourful showcards and other advertising material displaying the shade ranges of a particular line of make-up.
Also see the company booklet: New Make-up Color Fashions by Max Factor
Ultimately, much of this loose paper-based material would be replaced with other more eye-catching displays. Advances in the manufacture of plastics and the move to self-service would see colour charts being superseded by three dimensional plastic reproductions or being built into self-service display stands.
Updated: 12th August 2017
Blaszczyk, R. L. (2012). The color revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Poucher, W. A. (1932). Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps (4th ed., Vols. 1-2). London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd.
Redgrove, H. S. (1933). Colour control in the cosmetic industry. The Manufacturing Chemist. May, 135-139.
Sipley, L. W. (1951). A half century of color. New York: The Macmillan Company.