Beauty Junk(ies): Cosmetics from the East Lansing City Dump

Beauty Junk(ies): Cosmetics from the East Lansing City Dump

A fun fact for freshmen: if you live in Brody, you might be living in a dump. To be more specific, from the 1920s to the early 1950s, parts of the area now occupied by Brody Complex once served as the site of the City of East Lansing garbage dump. Campus Archaeology investigated a portion of this site during construction near Brody in 2009 and the Emmons Amphitheater in 2011. The large number of artifacts recovered includes everything from food containers to medicines to cleaning products, providing insight into various aspects of East Lansing life during this period.

One category of artifacts that caught my interest includes several cosmetic and hair care products. As a regular makeup user (maybe she got enough sleep, maybe it’s Maybelline) I thought it would be interesting to research these objects and learn about beauty standards and cosmetic use in this era. For this week’s blog post, I focused on three cosmetic items from the Brody/Emmons site that were most likely marketed to and used by women. To provide some historical context for these artifacts, I researched how attitudes toward cosmetics have changed over time, how these attitudes might have affected the availability and forms of cosmetic products, and thought about how this might be reflected in the archaeological record.

In the 18th century, both men and women of the upper class wore makeup (1). Heavy paints and rouges helped to smooth complexions often marred by pockmarks. By the 19th century, however, changing gender norms and beauty standards made it socially unacceptable for men and women to paint their faces (1). For men, the use of cosmetics began to be seen as effeminate (2). For women, conspicuous makeup was considered vulgar due to its association with prostitution. Few cosmetics were commercially manufactured during this time. Instead, cosmetics were mixed at home and applied discreetly to achieve a “natural” look (1). Therefore, we can expect few commercial cosmetics from this era in the archaeological record.

The 20th century brought about another about-face (no pun intended) in attitudes. The influences of Hollywood and flapper culture made it more socially acceptable for women to wear conspicuous makeup (3). By the 1940s, makeup became not just acceptable but a key aspect of feminine identity (3). As women entered the workforce during World War II, bold makeup—particularly lipstick—helped signal femininity and counterbalance the short hairstyles and masculine clothing worn by female workers (1). This era of increased social acceptance, burgeoning production, and conspicuous consumption of cosmetic products frames the context of the Brody/Emmons artifacts and helps us think about how gendered ideals of beauty may have influenced what the people of East Lansing purchased and how they presented themselves.

Makeup compact recovered from Emmons Amphitheater

One of the cosmetic items recovered from the East Lansing dump is a makeup compact case that still contains a white powder puff and the remnants of a pinkish powder. This compact case provides an excellent example of the advent of conspicuous makeup consumption.

Before makeup gained widespread acceptance, cosmetic cases were hidden inside accessories such as walking sticks and jewelry for their owners to access discreetly when outside of the home (4). As it was unacceptable to wear makeup, it was also unacceptable to be seen applying it. Over time, both the use and application of makeup gained social presence and acceptability. Suffragettes of the 1910s applied lipstick in public to shock men (3). Flappers of the 1920s wore heavy makeup and made a show of applying it (3). Beautifully decorated, mirrored compacts became fashionable accessories to be pulled out in public and shown off like cigarette cases or purses (4).

Makeup compact recovered from Emmons Amphitheater
Makeup compact recovered from Emmons Amphitheater

The CAP compact represents such an accessory. Roughly teardrop shaped, made of a silver metal, and decorated on the outside with a geometric line pattern, the compact likely once held a mirror inside the top lid. The compact was refillable, as most compacts were until disposable plastic cases became the norm in the 1960s (5). The user would have filled a thin compartment in the makeup compact with loose powder, compressing it in place with an inner lid that snapped shut. Powder was applied with a thin cotton puff that fit between the mirror and the powder compartment (5).

Pond's cold cream ad from 1946. Image source.
Pond’s cold cream ad from 1946. Image source.

Another cosmetic product in the Brody/Emmons assemblage is a jar of Pond’s cold cream. Cold cream is a product made of an emulsion of wax, oil, and water that for centuries was made in the home (6). Around the turn of the century, commercially produced cold creams became available that boasted longer shelf lives than their homemade counterparts. As makeup use increased in the 20th century, these cold creams were marketed to women as a means of removing powders, lipsticks, rouges, and the rest of the makeup they were sold (6).

CAP’s cold cream jar is made of opaque white milk glass with the brand name, “Pond’s,” embossed on the bottom. The jar looks very similar to images of the product appearing in advertisements from the 1940s and 1950s (6,7). These ad campaigns show how cosmetics were marketed to women as means of attracting men. The slogan “She’s engaged! She’s lovely! She uses Pond’s!” accompanied by pictures of beautiful women and their equally beautiful engagement rings sent the clear message that women needed to use cosmetics to achieve a certain standard of beauty necessary to win husbands.

Pond's cold cream jar recovered from Brody
Pond’s cold cream jar recovered from Brody

The third item I examined from the Brody/Emmons assemblage is a clear, circular, glass perfume bottle decorated with concentric circles and embossed with “DeVilbiss” on its base. The embossing indicates the bottle predates the 1940s, as the company replaced bottle stamping with paper labels in the 1940s (8).

DeVilbiss perfume bottle recovered from Emmons Amphitheater

Like makeup compacts, perfume bottles of this era were refillable, decorative, and intended for display (9). The DeVilbiss name comes not from the perfume itself, but from the manufacturer of the atomizer. Dr. Allen DeVilbiss initially invented an atomizing spray nozzle to deliver throat medicines in 1887. In 1907, the atomizer was introduced to the perfume industry with great success. DeVilbiss Manufacturing Company produced perfume atomizers at its factory in Toledo, Ohio from 1907 to 1968, selling as many as 1.5 million per year during its peak years in the 1920s and 30s (9). Like other cosmetic products, perfume was also marketed with sexual and romantic overtones. Perfumes with names like “Mantrap” and “Irresistible” were marketed as product that increased women’s sexual desirability. Perfume was also marketed as an item that men were supposed to gift women: a 1929 ad for DeVilbiss perfume atomizers reads, “Ask her, she’ll say she wants a perfume spray” (9).

The cosmetic products in the Brody/Emmons trash dump provided an interesting opportunity to explore gendered artifacts and think about how these objects reflect the social norms of the era. If you enjoyed this blog post, my next post will focus on hair care products from the same trash dump that were likely marketed to and used by men. In the meantime, be sure to check out other CAP blog posts on personal grooming items like the beard comb found at the privy site and the nail polish bottle topper from the Gunson trash pit.

Author: Mari Isa


  4. Loalbo, S. 2009. Vintage Fashion Accessories. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.
  6. – 1951 ad
  7.–cold-cream-mad-men.jpg – 1940s ads
  9. (ad)

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