LET'S REMINISCE: How cosmetics caused a cultural war

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

In a new book titled “The Red Menace: How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History,” Ilise Carter recounts how lipstick started a culture war in this country one hundred years ago.

At the beginning of the 1921 school year, Pearl Pugsley of Knobel, AK., was sent home from high school for wearing lipstick and powder. Not only were her parents understanding about her adolescent infraction, they even retained a lawyer on her behalf, arguing that their daughter’s civil rights had been violated.

The case received nationwide press coverage, and at the height of Pearl’s fame, her mother said, she was offered $1,000 a week by a “Los Angeles motion picture concern [that] wants ‘the heroine of the lipstick war.’”

America’s lipstick war is little remembered today, but a century ago, the debate over whether respectable women could wear lipstick had important political and social implications. For Pearl herself, wearing lipstick was about more than vanity — there was a principle at stake. “It wasn’t a desire to create trouble when the suit was filed,” she explained at the time. “I’m going to fight the case to a finish in an effort to uphold women’s rights to use all reasonable means to look their best at all times.”

In the end she lost the fight, when the state Supreme Court dismissed her case on the grounds that “Courts have other and more important functions to perform than that of hearing the complaints of disaffected pupils of the public schools.” But two years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, it wasn’t far-fetched to associate women’s right to beauty with their right to full citizenship. The Arkansas Democrat’s editorial page even worried that feminine wiles could be an undue influence on politics: “With the national enfranchisement of women, the old discussion arises as to whether women will rely upon the frills, the lipstick, the sidelong glance, and the silk stocking to get votes for themselves or their favorite candidates.”

Make-up was also on the minds of prohibitionists celebrating the passage of the 18th Amendment. Having achieved its goal of banishing liquor from the U.S., the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) began to talk about going to war against the scourge of cosmetics. At the organization’s 1921 national meeting in San Francisco, a speaker declared, “Let’s go after the lipstick, and the rouge, and these other beautifying instruments. There is no room for smeared lips in America.” The WCTU ultimately declined to include lipstick on the same list as “demon rum,” declaring, “The women who use lip-stick are not the sort we can educate. Their feet are firmly set on the road of folly they have selected for themselves.”

The “flappers” of the 1920s were everything the WCTU hated, but many of them also saw wearing lipstick as a kind of political statement. These young women were the first

generation to reject the corset and petticoat in favor of looser, more comfortable dresses and flexible undergarments; to cut their hair into shorter “boyish” bobs; and to adopt the painted, bee-stung lip as their calling card.

Traditionalists were aghast to see “the lipstick queen sitting in the place formerly occupied by modest maidens,” as Rev. Robert McCaul put it in a sermon denouncing New York City as the new Babylon. On the other side, syndicated columnist Frederic J. Haskin wrote that America should be proud of the new generation: “Should the flapper with her elaborate makeup, her elaborate clothes, her bold and confident carriage, be suppressed as a menace to the nation’s morals, or celebrated as its chief claim to art and beauty?”

No matter what you thought of their morals, flappers were good customers. In 1919, according to U.S. Treasury data, American women (and probably a few men) spent an estimated $750 million on “rouge, lipsticks, powder and perfume,” equivalent to almost $11 billion in today’s dollars. Some critics were concerned about how much they were literally consuming: The average wearer “Eats Her Height in Lipstick Every Four Years,” blared one Iowa newspaper headline. Yet the fact that there were “Fifty Million Painted Lips Kissed Everyday!—And No One Gets Poisoned,” as another paper reported, was probably reassuring to the public, which in earlier generations had been warned that makeup contained lead, arsenic and other toxins.

One of the celebrities swept up in the lipstick war was Ruth Elder, an early aviation pioneer. Inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight in 1927, and possibly looking for a way to break into the movies, Elder announced that she would be the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic, on the plane she named the American Girl.

Reporters were especially interested in her beauty routine, noting that “Besides her flying suit, Miss Elder will take, she said, two dresses, a powder puff, a lip stick, and a mirror.” When she and her co-pilot George Haldeman took off on Oct. 12, 1927, New York’s Daily News announced: “FLAPPER WINGS FOR PARIS.” Unfortunately, ice on the wings and a broken oil line caused the American Girl to crash in the Atlantic Ocean off the Azores, where a Dutch steamer picked up the pilots unharmed. The distinction of being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic would go to Amelia Earhart the next year.

Although not well-known today, Ruth Elder was emblematic of an era in which women were trying to balance newfound freedom against long-held expectations of femininity. It’s an exhausting balance that women, famous or not, are still trying to strike: Reach for the skies, but make sure your lipstick is perfect.

Ms. Carter is a journalist and performer. Information in this article was gathered from her new book “The Red Menace: How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History,” published Nov. 15 by Prometheus.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject:  jlincecum@me.com.