Alluring Artifacts: Interrogating Cosmetics and Bodily-Hygiene Products from the Late Post-War Campus
Cosmetic and hygiene-related products, perhaps due to the personal and often somewhat private nature of their use, are a deeply compelling class of artifacts. As commodities through which we tailor our appearance (or odor) and in turn shape our relationships and encounters with others, objects used to groom the body are embedded within, and utilized to communicate and negotiate, a complex and varied range of social meanings. These meanings are, of course, not static. Such objects are made meaningful through the ways in which agents utilize them within their specific social worlds and in relation to existing fields of power, i.e. the negotiation of one’s position relative to historically situated sets of gendered, racialized, and classed expectations of ‘proper’ appearance and behavior.
Gender is perhaps a particularly apparent dimension of the meanings negotiated through the consumption of cosmetic and hygienic products, given the significant divergences between normative cosmetic and hygienic routines among differently gendered bodies. For example, when second-wave Feminist currents mounted resistance to the imposition of gendered expectations of make-up use in public life in the late 1960s and 70s—a move that prompted cosmetic marketing to emphasize “natural” make-up regimens—they were effectively engaging in discursive and material negotiation over the meanings and expectations associated with womanhood in a specific time and place (Smithsonian Institute 2021). Archaeology, with its attention to material culture and mundane, everyday contexts of social life, is well suited to explore the meanings invested in—and negotiated through—cosmetics and grooming products within locally and historically specific conjunctures.
The Service Road Landfill Assemblage
CAP recently encountered an opportunity to explore these meanings through artifacts recovered from a mid-twentieth century landfill deposit impacted by IPF activities along Service Road. Recovery efforts for the disturbed materials were carried out over the course of two months by CAP director Dr. Stacey Camp, former Campus Archaeologist Autumn Painter, and current Campus Archaeologist Jeff Burnett. Since then, a sizeable portion of this assemblage has been cleaned, processed, and catalogued by CAP fellows Aubree Marshall, Rhian Dunn and myself, with the assistance of Jeff Burnett. While much remains to be done with this collection before a comprehensive analysis can take place, this post aims to describe aspects of the assemblage and point towards potential avenues of analysis and interpretation for cosmetics and bodily-hygiene related artifacts.
Background research into the Service Road landfill provide some details to help date and contextualize the assemblage. While archival materials concerning the landfill are scarce, MSU Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF) maps made in advance of the construction of the T.B. Simons Power Plant along Service Road indicate that the landfill was in operation up until at least 1963 (MSU IPF 1963). While no firm date has been found for the initial commissioning of the Service Road Landfill, aerial photography of the vicinity suggests it had been established by October 15, 1953 (MSU Spatial Data Management Team (SDMT) 2021). MSU’s prior landfill arrangement involved use of an East Lansing City dump located nearby the intersection of E. Michigan Avenue and S. Harrison road, approximately the present location of the Brody complex of residence halls (Forsyth 2021, Isa 2017). The Brody dump was decommissioned sometime in the early to mid-1950s, lining up cleanly with the rough date for the commissioning of the Service Road landfill gleaned from historical aerial images.
The preliminary round of cataloguing has provided some additional information that helps to date the assemblage. When considering artifacts for which we were able to get a firm date of production, the assemblage dates to between the late 1930s and the early 1960s. However, this is somewhat distorted by mid-century bottle return systems which involved the direct refilling of containers, making associated artifacts—primarily soda bottles—less useful for finely dating the deposit (Friedel 2014). Accounting for this and selecting for only finely-dated non-returnable or ‘one-way’ containers (grooming products, beer, wine, juice, etc.) results in a narrower date range of 1958-1963. Given the possibility that the landfill would have been flattened during its decommissioning, it seems plausible that while the landfill overall represents a wider date of deposition, the portions of this fill disturbed and recovered by CAP in 2020 may represent a sample of more recently deposited materials.
The contents of the assemblage seem to represent a variety of campus spaces. Residential settings are represented by the substantial volume and variety of domestic and personal items—such as the cosmetic/hygienic products discussed in this blogpost. Institutional dining spaces are contributors to the landfill, as suggested by the presence of multiple patterns of MSU dining hall ceramics. Educational and research settings also appear to be represented, judging by the inclusion of various data-recording related artifacts, as well as injection vials, syringes, and laboratory glass.
This finer date range provides us with a means to contextualize the recovered materials within the history of campus. A date range of 1958-1965 places the assemblage at the end of a series of substantial transformations of campus life following the end of World War II. Spurred by provisions of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the G.I. Bill) that paid tuition for returning servicemembers, Michigan State University—then known as Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science—expanded dramatically in the early post-war era (Goldstein 2015; U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs 2013). To accommodate this influx of students, the Campus erected a large volume of temporary residential units, including those often referred to as ‘Quonset Huts,’ across a wide swath of campus (Goldstein 2015; MSU Archives and Historical Collections [AHC] 2012). This dynamic brought on additional changes to campus, including a more age-variable student population and an increasing amount of students with spouses and/or children. While part of a longer, more gradual trend since the early-twentieth century, this era also saw an increasing number of women attending the institution.
In the intervening time between World War II and the decommissioning of the Service Road Landfill, the school had also gone through substantial changes in relation to its status as an institution. In 1955, Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science became Michigan State University of Agriculture and Applied Science (AHU 2021a). Accompanying this change was a concurrent expansion of academic programming, an increasing emphasis on research, and growing investment in surrounding communities through MSU’s extension program (Goldstein 2015). Physically, MSU had expanded significantly; the university had bought up substantial amounts of land from small farmsteads south of campus’s former boundaries, and the construction of new buildings entailed an increasing density of structures south of the Red Cedar river. The Service Road collection, then, represents a slice of MSU’s materiality following a period of rapid growth, the increasing representation of women and married students, and amidst a transformation to a more professionalized, research-oriented university—sitting at the dawn of the 1960s and the intensification of cold war tensions, mid-century anti-communism, and student activism.
Before jumping into an interpretive discussion, it may be helpful to briefly review some of the materials recovered from the Service Road landfill. As cataloging is still underway, this section does not attempt any quantitative analysis or to provide a comprehensive overview of recovered materials.
Interpreting the Assemblage: Mid-Century Marketing and Gender Ideologies
Due to a lack of substantial archaeological investigation into post-war settings, resources for dating specific products from this era are relatively underdeveloped. Cosmetics and bodily hygiene products from this era are particularly difficult, as they are less likely than other artifacts—such as food and beverage containers—to have date codes indicating the year of its production. Some non-archaeology focused resources, such as James Bennett’s impressive and well-researched website on “the history and science of cosmetics, skin-care and early Beauty Culture” were incredibly helpful in patching some of these gaps, even in some cases providing a date for the launch of specific product lines. For artifacts for which I could find no substantial information, newspaper advertisements—particularly for mass-produced and well-marketed products—offered a means to produce reliable date ranges.
Coming in contact with advertisements for the products I was cataloging produced a useful, if unintentional entrance-point into thinking about aspects of gender ideology surrounding the consumption of these items. While not representative of any comprehensive analysis, in this section I share some of the advertisements I encountered in newspapers and supplementary searches for magazine ads, and attempt to unpack some of their ideological content relative to entangled relations of gender and class. Each ad depicted in this section represent specific artifacts recovered from the Service Road landfill. While many themes and tactics of these ads are not unfamiliar relative to contemporary advertising, I feel this makes them no less interesting to examine.
Advertisements for scent-oriented products (deodorant, perfume, cologne, etc.) offered some of the most direct examples of the gender ideologies embedded within contemporaneous advertising for cosmetic/bodily-hygiene products. Women’s deodorant ads intensely mobilized insecurities about body odor, often threatening the failure of romantic pursuits—within an unsurprisingly heteronormative frame—if one did not properly control perspiration. Such ads, typically depicting women in social situations with men while comprised by body odor, emphasize the connection of femininity and romantic success—itself figured as an indicator of a normative femininity—with specific regimes of bodily care.
These implications are also apparent within ads for medicated lotions used to treat acne, such as “Ten-O-Six” lotion, Bonne Bell’s medicated make-up, and Tussy Medicated Lotion and Make-up. Product lines like Mennen’s “Date-Line” deodorant combined this approach with heavy marketing towards young women—emphasizing that “it’s made exclusively for our age”.
The common denominator of these ads is that failure to adopt the ‘proper’ regimes of bodily-care—to properly discipline the body—risked one’s exclusion from the world of romantic success. Viewed within a frame of compulsory heterosexuality in which romantic failure itself indexes a divergence from idealized femininity, a tacit second exclusion is implied here: exclusion from normative femininity itself.
If odor-oriented products for women were mobilizing insecurities about romantic failure and exclusion from normative femininity, ads for men’s deodorant, cologne, and after-shave evince no comparable threats of exclusion from masculinity and rarely posit failure to adopt standards of bodily care as a liability in romantic pursuits. Deodorant, and to some extent odor-control products more broadly, were initially a heavily gendered category of products marketed almost exclusively to women (Meyer & Casteel 2017). Marketers in the 1940s and 50s began to try to change this dynamic and increase demand by unsettling the gendering of such products and advertising more directly towards men. This move prompted a series of amusingly heavy-handed appeals to normative notions of masculinity. Some brands, such as “King’s Men,” aimed to form associations between ‘masculine’ scented products and British nobility, emphasizing that their “cool, virile scents” could help one project an air of gentlemanly refinement.
Drawing on similar themes, with perhaps a slight added dimension of ‘ruggedness’, the Vick’s Chemical Company’s “Seaforth” product line located associations of masculinity within the imaginary of the Scottish highlands. Seaforth products (cologne, after-shave lotion, and deodorant) included prominent notes of ‘masculine’ scents such as heather, fern, and peat moss, with the added touch of having the cologne packaged in white milk-glass containers designed to look like stoneware whiskey jugs (Bennett 2021.
A slightly more subtle, but not necessarily less gendered approach was taken with Shulton’s “Old Spice” line, each bottle of which featured prominent ships of the British and American navies. This nautical branding of Old Spice drew on established associations between maritime spaces, as well as naval service, with masculinity (Glasco 2004). Other products, like Mennen’s “Brake” deodorant, took the approach of emphasizing physical difference to masculinize the product, declaring the product to be “man-sized” and stronger than a “little woman’s roll on”.
It is interesting to note that among these efforts to masculinize odor-control products these ads take a different tact than the advertisement for woman’s deodorant, and do not threaten the compromising of one’s masculinity or the failure of romantic pursuits due to failure to properly discipline the body. Instead of representing alleviation of the risk of romantic failure, odor-control products oriented towards men offered a distinctly classed masculinity. Whereas the risk of romantic failure threatened women with exclusion from femininity, men’s colognes and deodorants promised a form of inclusion within class-laden notions of gentility and refinement.
This isn’t the only area in which heavily class-laden conceptualizations of gender identities are articulated within the ads I reviewed while cataloging. Many products recovered from the landfill, particularly for make-up, perfume, and shampoo, combined an idealized feminine aesthetic with notions of luxury and fame. An advertising campaign for “Halo” shampoo in the late 1950s features women with elegantly styled hair facing away while a man, notably a TV personality or musician—indexing proximity to fame—looks on infatuatedly above the tagline “you can always tell a Halo girl.”
Max Factor’s “Hi-Fi” liquid make-up, took a similar approach by drawing on the brand’s established association with Hollywood make-up. “Hi Fi,” an abbreviation for ‘high fidelity,’ drew a metaphor from sound engineering advancements made in the mid-twentieth century (Olson 2005) and aimed to associate the product with the expensive audio equipment of Hollywood and the music industry, claiming that it “does to color what high fidelity does for sound.”
Advertisements for Avon’s Topaz line of fragrance products promised “luxury” and a “jewel of a fragrance.”
Companies like Revlon partnered with established European jewelers like Van Cleef & Arpels to lend an air of refined luxury to their petite “Love Pat” gold-tone compacts.
Through advertisements such as these, one can see how marketers tied consumption of these products to a certain kind of classed femininity embedded within mid-century aspirations for class mobility. By working these commodities into mundane regimes of bodily discipline women could—according to the logics of the advertising—stand out above the crowd as women of distinction and refinement.
Taken together, unpacking the ideological content of ads for cosmetic/bodily-hygiene products from this era may serve as a useful starting point for interpreting materials from the Service Road landfill, particularly as they relation to the mutual constitution and intersections of classed and gendered identities.
Beyond Advertisements: Cosmetic and Hygiene Products as Forms of “Body Work”
While newspaper and magazine ads may provide some useful insight into the gender ideologies surround the use of cosmetic and bodily-hygiene related products, it is insufficient to furnish a comprehensive understanding of the social meanings invested in much materials. To employ this kind of frame alone runs the risk of obscuring the agency of past social actors—painting them as passive recipients of a predetermined and static set of gender ideologies rather than active participants in their construction and transformation.
Instead, a more promising approach would need to be able to reckon with how social actors made such items meaningful in mundane, everyday practices and interactions and in relation to historically and locally specific social worlds. Such a framework could provide a way to consider how people may have sought to challenge, transform, or reproduce the meanings attached to such products in marketing campaigns and the gender ideologies that animated them. A potentially helpful direction might be to conceive of the meanings produced through use of such products as a form of what Debra Gimlin calls “body work”. In Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture (2002), Gimlin uses body work to describe and investigate how the presentation and modification of the self through cosmetic products, services, and procedures constitutes a means to “negotiate the relationship between body and self in the context of a social structure and culture that simultaneously provide resources for the creation of identities and place limits on those identities” (2002:9). Drawing from a background in cultural studies, feminist theory and symbolic interactionism, Gemlin joins a wider transdisciplinary turn towards approaches focusing in at “the level of the body” (2002:3, 7). The combination of attention to bodies and the agentive dimensions of self-presentation and identity formation provides a way around interpreting the significance of cosmetic/bodily-hygiene products in a reductive way that takes for granted a foreclosed and static set of gender ideologies tightly confining and predetermining their meanings. While it is beyond the scope of this blogpost to offer such an analysis here, this points towards potentially fruitful avenues for further work on the Service Road landfill collection.
Future Directions for Analysis
Considering this perspective in light of the changing dynamics of campus life over the course of the landfill’s operation generates additional questions. What meanings did cosmetics and bodily-hygiene products take on in the context of a student body with an increasing proportion of women? Or in relation to increasing age-diversity and numbers of married students? What meanings might such objects acquired within an atmosphere of increasing professionalism and emphasis on research and community outreach?
Future analyses of gendered life on campus utilizing the Service Road materials would also benefit from considering a broader range of materials with significant gendered meanings. For example, one ceramic pattern from the assemblage identified by CAP this summer appears to have been exclusive to women’s dining halls (AHC 2021c:60, 2021b).
This pattern is designed to resemble floral cross-stitch embroidery patterns, evoking a heavily gendered symbology in its representation of an activity often associated with an idealized vision of feminine domesticity. Unpacking the meanings attached to this motif, and the ways in which it might have been made meaningful in the lives of past social actors is a worthwhile endeavor for future discussions elsewhere. Was it an unwelcome rearticulation of hegemonic gender ideologies that ascribed the home and domestic labor as the purview and appropriate social domain of women—particularly for those in academic spaces still largely dominated by men? Or might its meanings have been more ambivalent, contingent, and/or contested?
Such inquiry might be a useful starting point for thinking about gendered space on campus, a goal set out by former CAP fellow Amy Michael in a series of 2014 and 2015 blogposts. Such a focus would also benefit from attention to the regulation of gendered space on campus through the ‘Women’s Handbooks’ given to women students during orientation at MSU (AHC 2021b). These handbooks are primarily rule-books, laying out a series of regulations women students were subject to beyond the universal school rules. Such materials may help to furnish a more complete understanding of the divergent ways in which gendered bodies were differentially surveilled and regulated on campus.
While this blog post does not approach a comprehensive look at cosmetic and bodily-hygiene related objects from the Service Road landfill collection, it does point towards a few productive avenues for future analyses. Combining attention to the sets of gender ideologies surrounding the consumption of these materials with the framework of ‘body work’ may allow for analyses that work to contextualize consumption within broader fields of power—particularly as they relate to intersections of gender and class—without reducing their meanings to reflections of the messaging of mid-century advertising or neglecting the agentive and transformative ways they may have been made meaningful by past social actors. Expanding analysis to other classes of materials, such as the “cross-stitch” patterned ceramics mentioned above, alongside attention to archival documents such as the MSU women’s handbooks, may furnish useful insight into gendered space on campus. Future analysis would also benefit from attention to the racialized aspects of beauty culture in the mid-twentieth century and exploring their intersections with the gendered and class-laden meanings explored here.
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