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Where Did Beauty Counters Come From?!

10 January, 2021 - 01:00pm by - First Lady | 10 Comments


Article by BR Natalie

I love a good TV series. I've recently been binge-watching Mr Selfridge (a few years old now...but a goodie!) and other than looking at the gorgeous period costumes (men should seriously bring back the waistcoat) I've loved watching the history of the department store unfold.

Being a crew member of Beauty Review, I'm obviously mad for anything beauty and I loved the episode where they introduced the beauty counter to the shop floor - breaking societal conventions by displaying the products.  So I got to wondering about the history of the humble beauty counter.

Around the world department stores started popping up around the mid to late 1800s.  Smith & Caugheys (est 1880) and Kircaldie & Stains (est 1863) are prime examples of the classic evolution of the department store - they began as drapiers, supplying fabrics for customers to make their own garments and began to evolve through the years in to selling off the rack clothing. As society changed, so did the services they offered.

So when did the Beauty Counter as we know it become a staple fixture in department stores?  Let's travel back to Victorian England and take a tour.

Unless you were an actress in the later 1800s, makeup was frowned upon.  And yet society still imposed ideals on to the ladies of the time.  Pale skin for example was the sign of a true lady - delicate and feminine.  So what did a girl do when she couldn't reach for the powder puff?  Drink vinegar and avoid fresh air.

Fast forward to the Edwardian era - cosmetics, which were frowned upon in the Victorian era (but still very used, only in a very natural manner), were becoming more and more popular.  Women, like today, felt the pressure to look younger, and although there was shame in admitting the use of cosmetics, in private more and more women were turning to them.  Enter the role of the back door beauty shop.

The House of Cyclax was opened in 1897 by 'Mrs Hemming' (real name Frances 'Fanny' Forsythe) and by 1902 she was not only offering beauty treatments but also selling cosmetics.  To relieve embarrassment there was a back door - picture if you will, a veiled lady stepping down from her carriage and risking scandal, all to purchase rouge.

This was generally the situation across the world for the next few years, with the exception of fashion forward cities such as Paris, who were openly selling cosmetics at this time.

Selfridges Beauty Hall 1910

For those not en France or a high born lady, you would  have to brave the chemist and ask for 'essential' items, such a fragrance, soap or body lotion.  These were hidden from view behind the counter.   Everything changed in 1909 when Gordon Selfridge opened Selfridges & Co on Oxford Street in London.  1 year in to trading he took the bold step to not only openly sell cosmetics - but to actually display them and to encourage women to test and enjoy shopping for them.

And we all know what happened next - the beauty counter was embraced and expanded in to a place for women to enjoy (publicly) and experience cosmetics before committing to buy.  We can even buy our cosmetics alongside our groceries.  And even though the internet and technology has meant the end of many a retail establishment, the beauty counter still thrives.  

MAC Counter - Smith & Caugheys 2014

So tell us beauties - do you love the beauty counter?  Do you have a great experience to tell us about, or in today's age of technology do you skip the salesperson interactions and order online?


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18th January, 2021

So interesting! I never really thought about cosmetics being scandalous.

16th January, 2021

No beauty counters where I live. Even if I go to the city I tend to stay away lol

15th January, 2021

Love beauty counters with delicious smelling scents and good customer service. Just can’t help wonder what scent it is. Miss those days where they are so generous in giving out samples for u to take home and try before u buy. Didn’t even have to ask. I do a lot of my skin care shop online as more convenient and saves time.

14th January, 2021

I love beauty counters. I was always in love with the beauty counters in Arthur Barnetts in Dunedin when I was young, and thought the assistants all looked like models. Each visit felt like a brief encounter with wealth and class and I was quite star-struck. It was lovely really, and a fond memory.

15th January, 2021

I always found them slightly intimidating for those reasons! Even though I'm in awe

12th January, 2021

Can't live without them!

12th January, 2021

I like the idea of product testers but I've always felt so intimidated by beauty counters, as I often feel like I'll get pushed into buying products, or frowned upon if I am not dressed nicely that day (only in certain stores though). I do really like the beauty counters at Mecca though.

12th January, 2021

I like the beauty counter but I often don't have the time and in the case with repurchasing skincare items or makeup staples I often just order online unless I'm in the area and normally purchase from that store.

11th January, 2021

Interesting that women would once enter the back door for beauty products.

I have always loved beauty products out on display even as a little girl. From the colours, fragrances and new products it is one of my happy places. Yes a good display does sell and who doesn't like to see and test what they're buying after all it's some time for us :-)

11th January, 2021

I like them from the point of view of everything being easily displayed. In saying that if it's a purchase day things can get out of hand quickly! Probably use the display section if I am going in for something specific, mostly I purchase online.

10th January, 2021

So interesting!! I do love a counter.. of certain brands/stores. Some I don’t want to go near haha. But is not often I make it to town for a look so have to make do with what’s local to me

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