“Create a more radiant you”: the early years of Avon cosmetics

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Avon Products, Inc., one of the oldest direct selling companies in America, traces its origins to 1886 when it was founded as the California Perfume Company (CPC). During its early years, CPC concentrated its sales efforts on small-town America. Its representatives introduced many rural women to commercial beauty culture.

CPC was one of the first national companies to market cosmetics at a time when the image of the painted woman was often contrasted with that of middle class respectability. When respectable women wore makeup, it was to appear as natural looking as possible and CPC’s original cosmetics were natural in appearance. The company’s first makeup was Sweet Sixteen Face Powder (1896) with shades pink, white and brunette. By the nineteen-teens, more color products were introduced. The first lipstick was introduced in 1919.

By the 1920s, images of the modern, emancipated woman began to appear in popular culture. The use of cosmetics was promoted as a means of female self-expression and personal fulfillment. A “painted face” was no longer viewed as a sign of immorality, but had become publicly acceptable. During the 1920s, CPC sold several fragrance/cosmetics lines with various names and distinct packaging, but the company lacked brand identification. In 1928 CPC introduced the Avon brand in a­­n effort to modernize its image and rationalize its diverse product lines and was officially renamed Avon Products, Inc., in 1939.

Daphne fragrance and cosmetic line, 1924

The company launched its first magazine advertising campaign in 1936 with “Create a More Radiant You,” the same year as its 50th anniversary. Since then Avon continues to advertise its cosmetics in various media: print, television and internet.

Hagley is the home of the Avon historical archives which contains a wealth of materials that document the company’s earliest days through the present. To get a sense of the scope of the collection, visit the Avon Digital Archive at https://www.hagley.org/online_exhibits/avon/index.html.

Lynn Catanese is the Chief Curator of Library Collections at Hagley Museum and Library.