Old Cosmetics Made New Again Through the Art of Digitization

Arsenic Complexion Wafers? A whole new world of yesteryear cosmetics just got a refresh

Calling all Pinterest lovers, there's a whole new world of addicting pinning just waiting here for you. The National Museum of American History has more than 2,200 items in a collection of cosmetics and hygiene products that few people outside of the museum realized existed. Now they can all be viewed, sorted, shared and studied by anyone with an internet connection. Through a grant from Kiehl's, the collection has been digitized.

The collection includes more than just makeup. “Oral hygiene, skin care, as well as the things that you think of as cosmetics,” says Rachel Anderson, curatorial assistant at the museum's division of medicine and science. “We're looking at all of these things that you use to beautify and take care of your body.”

By looking at entire collections, researchers from various disciplines will be able to trace cultural changes throughout American history. For example, much can be learned by searching for products used for bleaching skin. “Really popular among women to attempt to make the complexion pale," says Anderson. “But then not even 30 years later, you see tanning products coming into vogue. . . .So for me that was a really interesting thing. Watching these beauty ideals and how they are tied to notions of health. A healthy caucasian face being idealized as pale and then later being idealized as tanned.”

Some of the odder items in the collection include the boxes of Sfag-Na-Kins. “They are pads that were made with sphagnum moss,” says Diane Wendt, associate curator in the division of medicine and science. “They were developed during World War One but actually came from the surgical dressing materials and then were used in sanitary pads.”

“These images are things that I see everyone pinning on Pinterest and that sort of thing,” says Wendt. “There's a lot that researchers and scholars would be interested in. You clearly have stories of industry, you have women's studies, advertising and marketing, all sorts of cultural studies.” Wendt also hopes that high school and middle school teachers will incorporate the site and it's resources into lesson plans.

Digitizing the collection was important not only to provide access to the public but also to fully document items before it is too late. “We wanted to really capture the objects because this was stuff that was meant to be used and then thrown away,” says Wendt. “When we have the outer boxes, I can almost watch some of that material crumble. Another reason to try to at least capture it in a photograph at this point. We definitely have problems with old tubes of toothpaste. There's a reaction going on between the old metal tubes and the toothpaste inside.”

“When you look at the whole collection, you see what people were hoping for themselves,” says Anderson. “What was worth spending money on to try to become something.”

The National Museum of American History's new digitized collection of health, hygiene and cosmetic products includes historic materials from pharmaceutical companies or manufacturing pharmacists including the American Cyanamid Company, the Dial Corporation, Garfield and Company, Kiehl’s Pharmacy, Norwich Eaton Pharmaceuticals, Procter & Gamble, and Sterling Drug. 

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