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Ayer, Harriet Hubbard (1849–1903)

American cosmetics entrepreneur and journalist. Born Harriet Hubbard in Chicago, Illinois, in 1849; died in 1903; graduated from the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Chicago, Illinois; married Herbert C. Ayer (divorced); children: two daughters.

Harriet Hubbard Ayer's great beauty, facility with words, and business savvy came together out of necessity and turned her into one of the first cosmetic notables of the 19th century. After her marriage to wealthy Chicago businessman Herbert C. Ayer ended, and he subsequently lost his fortune, Ayer was left to support herself and her two small daughters. After close to 20 years as a wealthy society matron, she went to work as a saleswoman in a fashionable New York furniture store. Turning her "fall from grace" into an advantage, she soon had a cadre of special customers and was making business trips to Europe to find special pieces of furniture for them, often calling on the very people she had once known in her more leisurely past life.

On one such junket abroad, Ayer visited M. Mirault, a chemist in Paris, who had, in better days, made the special violet Parma perfume that had become Ayer's trademark. On an impulse, Ayer purchased from him the formula for a cream his grandfather had supposedly made for Mme Récamier , the famous beauty who had plotted against Napoleon (and had used the potion for 40 years with, some say, stunning results). In 1886, with hopes of manufacturing the cream herself, Ayer obtained $50,000 backing from a rich Chicago customer, James Seymour, who insisted that she put her own name on the product.

Ayer continued to sell furniture by day, while at night she perfected her formula. It was her promotions, however, that pushed the concoction over the top and set a new standard for cosmetic publicity. She crafted imaginative pamphlets about Récamier's beauty secrets and how she had discovered them. Since medical ointments were the most socially accepted of the day, Ayer first claimed that the cream was a remedy for sunburn. She used the endorsements of society friends and a testimonial by actress and beauty Lillie Langtry —who must have relished the idea of the elixir, having reportedly been known to "rub her face with minced raw meat." Ayer went so far as to put the Hubbard coat of arms, as well as her name, on the jars, a personal approach so revolutionary and shocking that an ardent suitor who had proposed marriage suddenly broke off the relationship.

Due to a bizarre turn of events, Ayer's success lasted only a few years. She was reportedly sued by her original backer James Seymour because, as one story goes, she refused his advances. (To further complicate matters, her daughter Hattie had married Seymour's son Lewis.) Seymour, in another strange twist, supposedly convinced Hattie to commit her mother to an insane asylum. Hattie complied. When Ayer was released, she took up the cause of treatment of the insane and helped organize legal help for similar victims. The cosmetic business was all but forgotten.

In 1896, Ayer resurfaced on the staff of the New York World, writing a beauty column for the new woman's page in the Sunday edition. She soon became as well known for her "working-woman's costume," with a skirt cut off a full four inches from the floor, as she did for her health and beauty advice. In 1899, she published a bestseller, Harriet Hubbard Ayer's Book: A Complete and Authentic Treatise on the Laws of Health and Beauty. She continued to experiment with creams and deodorants, and even a formula for straightening hair (which would eventually make a fortune for Madame C.J. Walker ).

Following Ayer's death in 1903, the right to her cosmetic products and the use of her name were sold by her heirs. Forty years later, the cosmetic industry was the 20th largest in the United States, with an estimated half billion dollars spent on improving the appearance of the female population. The floodgates opened to scores of profiteers, mostly men. Women, too, like Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden followed in Ayer's footsteps and became some of the biggest female money makers of the 20th century.


Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: W.W. Norton, 1976.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

Ayer, Harriet Hubbard (1849–1903)

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