Arden, Elizabeth (1878–1966)

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Arden, Elizabeth (1878–1966)

American cosmetics entrepreneur who introduced a scientific approach to the manufacture of cosmetics and built a multimillion-dollar empire based on her "total woman" approach; she was also one of the nation's top owners of thoroughbreds. Name variations: Florence Graham; Elizabeth N. Graham. Born Florence Nightingale Graham on December 31, 1878, in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada; died in New York City on October 18, 1966; fourth of five children, third of three daughters of Susan Tadd Graham and William Graham (a market gardener); married Thomas Jenkins Lewis, on November 29, 1915, and became an American citizen (divorced 1934); married Prince Michael Evlanoff (a Russian émigré), on December 30, 1942 (divorced 1944).

Left high school out of necessity to seek employment; joined her brother William in New York (1907); began a beauty salon (1909); launched her first branch salon (1914); her business empire began to grow under the name Elizabeth Arden; eventually her products were sold in 78 countries; became interested in thoroughbred racing, a venture in which she also made a great deal of money.

Born into dire poverty near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on the last day of the year in 1878, the child named Florence Nightingale Graham would become one of America's wealthiest entrepreneurs. But in the village of Woodbridge, as the fourth of five children, she arrived in her family as another mouth to feed.

Florence's parents were both immmigrants to Canada. Her mother, Susan Tadd Graham , was born in Cornwall, England. Her father was William Graham, a Scotsman who made his living as a market gardener. Susan Graham died when Florence was six, and the only thing that allowed the Graham children to go to school rather than to work was a small allowance left to them by an aunt. When the allowance ended, Florence had to leave high school and seek employment.

In her first jobs, as a dental assistant, cashier, and stenographer, she approached her positions creatively. Working for the dentist, it was her notion to advertise, bombarding the dentist's patients with clever letters that implied what might happen if they didn't stop by for a checkup; in a year, her employer's business doubled.

In 1907, Florence Graham was 28 when she followed her brother William to New York City; eventually, she went to work for E.R. Squibb & Sons, the chemical manufacturers, as a bookkeeper and stenographer, a job that lasted for only ten days. She found her niche, finally, employed at Eleanor Adair's, a beauty specialist, where she began learning the elementary formulas for manufacturing and selling cosmetics.

At the start of the 20th century, the cosmetics industry was in its infancy, with few manufactured products available on the market. Most cosmetics were made at home. A typical homestyle formula for hand lotion was:

10¢ bay rum
10¢ glycerin
10 drops carbolic acid the juice of one lemon

According to Margaret Case Harriman , dressing tables of the time contained "a can of talcum powder, a chamois facecloth, and a little

rosewater and glycerin; face powder was obtainable only in two shades, pink and white." Women who used more than such staples might be considered "loose." Learning the basics of the fledgling industry, Florence would go on to reshape both the cosmetic market and contemporary attitudes.

In 1910, she entered into a partnership with Elizabeth Hubbard , establishing a beauty salon at 509 Fifth Avenue. The two women began to mix "nourishing" creams, astringent lotions, youth masks, and muscle oils to sell. The business flourished, but a clash of personalities began to undermine the partnership, and Florence Graham decided to buy out her partner. Planning to register her products under the name "Florence Nightingale," she discovered she was not allowed to use the trademark. Since the name "Elizabeth Hubbard" was already painted on the shop window, she decided to combine her partner's first name with "Arden," which she took from the poem "Enoch Arden." In a bit of early test marketing, Graham mailed herself a letter addressed to "Miss Elizabeth Arden" to decide how it looked, and the sight of the envelope convinced her that she had found her trademark.

Elizabeth Arden has made femininity a science, and probably earned more money doing it than any businesswoman in history.

Time, May 6, 1946

Elizabeth Arden was a perfectionist. When she did not like the hard, slippery texture of a face cream, she told a firm of chemists that she wanted a light, fluffy product, like whipped cream. When her suppliers said her request was impossible, she searched for a firm that would give her what she wanted. In 1914, she met A.F. Swanson, a young analytical chemist at Stillwell & Gladdening; thanks to his efforts, Cream Amoretta was born. According to Arden's specifications, he next created Ardena skin tonic, which sold so well it was difficult to keep in stock. In 1915, Arden opened a salon at 673 Fifth Avenue and a wholesale department at 665 Fifth Avenue to supply the growing demand for her preparations in stores throughout the country. Swanson now worked for Arden full-time, creating the products she envisioned.

On November 29, 1915, at age 43, Elizabeth Arden married Thomas Jenkins Lewis and automatically became an American citizen. Lewis was an advertising man who managed Arden's wholesale operation. From the outset, the money rolled in to the Arden enterprise. By 1920, demand was so great that a new warehouse at 212 East 52nd Street was supplying Elizabeth Arden merchandise to some 5,000 drug and department stores. The wholesale operation required three floors, and the factory nearby required two buildings and part of a third.

The ingredients for Arden's early cosmetics were simple. Ardena skin tonic, for example, contained water grain alcohol, boric acid, and perfume; her popular muscle oil was nothing but third-grade castor oil and water. What distinguished Arden from her competition was an understanding of the importance of packaging. Paying attention to color, shape, and design, she endowed both her products and her business with a certain aura. When she used some of her first profits to buy a genuine Oriental rug and authentic antique table for her salon, they set the style for props that were to grace many of her enterprises. Time magazine would report in 1946, "The grand showcase of the Arden beauty empire at 691 Fifth Avenue is guarded by a greyliveried doorman and a red door marked simply, Elizabeth Arden." Women who entered her salons felt swept into an exotic world that enhanced their sense of confidence and well-being.

Despite the stock-market crash of 1929 that heralded the Great Depression, Arden remained optimistic about her economic future. "The depression is going to make a lot of manufacturers pull in, economize, cut down," she declared, "and that leaves us a clear field." As sole stockholder in her business, she refused an offer that year of $15 million. That same year, her salons opened in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and Miami Beach. Her enterprises continued to grow throughout the Depression, while new factories were established in London, Paris, Berlin, Toronto, and Mexico. A sister of Arden's, who had become the Vicomtesse de Maublanc through marriage, managed her Paris salon. Although some of her foreign ventures were not as profitable, Arden recognized their value in giving the company an allure that sold well at home. She was involved with every facet of her business empire. Wrote a contemporary:

A driving woman, Elizabeth Arden gets up early every day, even if she's been up late the night before. She okays all her ads, thinks up most of the names for products (Blue Grass, April May, It's You, White Orchid, Winged Victory)…. She has her own ideas of per fection, and demands it of her employees, even if a chemist has to spend days re-making a color until Arden herself thinks it is "paradise pink." Her competitors say, "Work for Elizabeth Arden and live in a revolving door."

In 1917, Arden had introduced eye shadow and mascara to the United States, and more new products continued to roll off the assembly lines. To test products, she liked to experiment on herself and her employees. Secretaries, stenographers, and file clerks in the company might be spotted trying out a different product on each eye, or with nails painted with different polishes to compare their durability. When a Miss O'Leary began to break out after using a series of experimental creams and lotions, Arden grasped the opportunity to create a profitable new product line for sensitive skin.

Most Arden customers were women over 40, who wanted to retain youth and beauty. Elizabeth Arden was the best advertisement for her beauty products. Only 5'2", she had beautiful skin and maintained her slim figure, appearing much younger than she was; and her vitality was legendary. Arden understood what appealed to her clientele. Judging pink to be the most flattering color in the spectrum, Arden often wore pink, and the color was usually significant in the decor of her many homes and offices. Once, when $100,000 worth of cosmetics deviated from the soft Arden pink that was her trademark, she refused to sell them.

At age 18, Arden had suffered an injury that caused her intense pain throughout life. In an effort to cinch her reputation as the highest kicker in Toronto, she had kicked at a chandelier and fallen, doing permanent damage to her hip. At one point, she was forced to remain bedridden for six months. When doctors wanted to operate, she opted for yoga and meditation, a highly unconventional approach at the time. The yoga exercises and a healthy diet helped her regain her health and strength. This experience later helped her envision other routes to beauty. In 1934, she purchased a farm, which she named Maine Chance, where she set up a treatment center; clients were prescribed low-calorie diets and special exercises tailored to their individual needs. Menus centered on vegetables and fruits, avoiding meats and sugar; and exercises were often performed to music, another innovation. By 1947, Maine Chance had proved so successful, Arden opened the Arizona Maine Chance Farm, promoting her concept of exercise, a healthy diet, and keeping active as the means for women to maintain good health into advanced age.

In 1931, with her beauty empire firmly established, Arden had become involved in horse racing with the purchase of her first thoroughbred. Under the name of Elizabeth N. Graham, she owned as many as 150 horses, many stabled in Lexington, Kentucky, at her Maine Chance Farm. "A beautiful horse," she said, "is like a beautiful woman," and nothing was too good for her horses. She screened their barns to keep out flies, personally massaged their legs if an animal had a limp, sacked a groom whose "mean face" might upset them, and shipped clover from Maine to Kentucky to feed them. During races, jockeys were forbidden to use the whip, and blinders were not allowed on the animals because they didn't "look pretty"; a horse coming off the track would be wrapped in a cashmere blanket. Arden usually visited her horses at least twice weekly, and Blue Grass, her best-selling perfume, was named in honor of her thoroughbreds.

Arden's horses rewarded her for her solicitous care. Her cherry pink, white, and blue racing colors often flashed first over the finish line. In 1946, she was the nation's top winner, with almost $600,000 in earnings. She made the May 6 cover of Time that year, as:

a queen who rules the sport of kings…. She rarely hires anyone who is out of a job. She tolerates no tomfoolery or inefficiency in horse trainers or jockeys either. She bubbles into the paddock before a race to tell her jockeys to "get out in front and go, go, go!" When she loses, she is apt to blame anyone but the horse. Many a millionaire has ransomed his kingdom for a race horse, and ended up with a big oat bill. The difference in Millionaire Elizabeth Arden Graham's case, is that Tom Smith spent her gold and brought home silver cups."

The following year, her horse, Jet Pilot, won the Kentucky Derby.

Meanwhile, rivalry in the burgeoning cosmetics industry grew intense. Arden fought to hold the market against all her competitors, but her archrival was Helena Rubenstein , and their feud lasted 50 years. Arden coaxed many employees away from Rubenstein, including Harry Johnson whom she paid $50,000 a year, then a princely sum, to be her general manager.

Arden resented the fact that her monumental success was sometimes attributed to the business acumen of her first husband Thomas Lewis. In 1934, after their divorce, Rubenstein promptly taunted Arden by hiring Lewis as her sales manager, continuing the feud. After Rubenstein married a prince, Arden married Prince Michael Evlanoff, a Russian émigré, on December 30, 1942, but the union ended in divorce in 1944. In 1959, after Arden lost the tip of her right index finger while feeding an orange to an overeager horse, Rubenstein quipped, "What happened to the horse?"

An exacting employer, Arden was sometimes said to have trained more people for the competition than any other head of the cosmetic business. But she also had a reputation for a certain fairness. She employed a much larger percentage of women than other industries handling similar jobs; she also employed the blind, and her wages and salaries often headed the ranks in the industry. She once paid for the dental work to enhance the smile of a beautiful girl whose appearance was marred by a gold front tooth. Exacting as Arden was, she had many employees who served her loyally for their entire working lives.

In 1943, Arden was in her 60s, when she struck off in a new direction by entering the fashion business, with exclusive collections created for her salons by designers like Oscar de la Renta. In the 1950s, still well ahead of her time, she extended her concept of "total beauty" to men as well as women, when she opened the first men's boutique attached to a beauty salon. Meanwhile, a good diet, meditation, and yoga stood the entrepreneur in good stead. She ran her vast business empire until her death at age 88.

With the advent of the women's movement in the 1960s, some voices condemned the women's cosmetics industry. While there was validity to the criticism that society focused more on women's looks than their abilities, the cosmetics industry gave many women access to entrepreneurial jobs. Elizabeth Arden was not only a businesswoman but head of a major corporation at a time when few women worked. She was also one of the first to extend the limits of attention to beauty beyond women and to create the link between beauty and health. Decades after her death, newspapers and magazines feature diet and exercise advice that originated with Arden.


Current Biography 1957. NY: H.W. Wilson, pp. 19–21.

Harriman, Margaret Case. "Glamour, Inc.," in The New Yorker. Vol. 11, no. 8. April 6, 1935, pp. 24–30.

Hoogenboom, Olive. "Arden, Elizabeth," in Dictionary of American Biography. Supplement 8. 1966–1970. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. NY: Scribner, 1988.

"Lady's Day in Louisville" (cover story), in Time. Vol. 47, no. 18. May 6, 1946, pp. 57–58.

Lewis, Alfred Allen, and Constance Woodworth. Miss Elizabeth Arden. NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972.

Whitman, Alden. Come to Judgment. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1980.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia