In this series, we will take a look at the historical evolution of how iconic beauty products came into existence and grew so popular that they became cultural touchstones in their own right.
Even the most casual cosmetics dabbler is acutely aware of the most famous mascara of all time: Maybelline New York Great Lash. The brand's iconic lash lengthener debuted in 1971 and remains its top seller, with one of the pink-and-green tubes crossing a cash register scanner somewhere around the globe every 2.5 seconds. It's earned the Allure Readers' Choice Award 20 years in a row and remains the company's best-selling product to this very day.
Beauty historians know that the lore of Maybelline itself begins with mascara — the very first one, in fact. In 1913, young Chicago chemist Thomas Williams had an older sister, Mabel, who was in love with a man who was in love with someone else. Her unrequited feelings proved the perfect impetus for a makeover, much like in every rom-com worth watching.
Mabel did her best with what was available: She used Vaseline on her lashes and brows to enhance them for a sultry stare. Her brother had the idea to amp up the effect by adding carbon dust to the Vaseline, which darkened her lashes and brows more dramatically. The product worked, and in 1915, Mabel scored her suitor and Thomas founded what would become the global industry giant, Maybelline (a combination of "Mabel" and "Vaseline").
Two years later, Williams introduced Maybelline Cake Mascara, which was the first modern eye cosmetic intended for everyday use. Though cake mascara was initially available only via mail order, it was so popular that women began to ask for it in drugstores. In 1932, Maybelline began selling its Cake Mascara in a variety of retailers responding to overwhelming demand. Now a collectors' item, the original product sold for 10 cents.
In the early 1960s, Maybelline became the first brand to bring automatic technology — a single tube housing both the mascara formula and the brush applicator — to the public with its Ultra Lash. And then in 1971, Maybelline New York Great Lash was born, further solidifying the company's standing as the mascara authority.
A cosmetic gateway drug for many who grew up in the '80s and '90s, Maybelline Great Lash Mascara is perhaps one of the most easily-recognizable beauty products in history. Its now-iconic neon color scheme was no doubt partly what got it noticed when it debuted, but it was what's inside the tube that proved to be a real game-changer in the marketplace in the early 1970s.
"The formula is water-based, which was groundbreaking and revolutionary when the product launched," says Amy Whang, Maybelline's senior vice president of marketing. "At the time, most mascaras were solvent-based and tended to repel water, making it difficult to remove without an oil-based remover."
While the tube and first-of-its-kind formula were flashy, the product's name was intentionally less so. In part, that owes to the fact that the clever copywriting we're accustomed to today was simply not a priority in the 1970s. After all, there were not only far fewer brands in the beauty market, but there were also far fewer product options available to consumers. For Maybelline, this straightforwardness reigned supreme. "The name was meant to be simple," says Whang. "A great formula, an easy application and a natural lash look — Great Lash was born."
The mascara's easily-identifiable packaging (just try to lose it in the cavern of your makeup bag) was inspired by then up-and-coming designer Lilly Pulitzer. "At the time, makeup trends were all about color," says Whang. "[The color scheme was] in line with that and the décor and fashion themes of the time. It is so recognizable, and of course remains to this day."
But the enduring popularity of Maybelline Great Lash is that consumers do, indeed, find the formula itself to be, well, great. "It's truly an American icon and that's why it remains Maybelline's number-one mascara year after year. The Great Lash formula has not changed since the original blend. It's one of the most closely guarded formulas in makeup," says Whang.
It's been posited recently that mascara is losing its ground and waning in importance to beauty companies, but in fact it seems that the opposite may be true: Many brands are doubling down and working with their respective R&D departments to perfect their formulas, bring new technology to the space and generate the kind of excitement for mascara consumers showed for Great Lash's first 1971 drop.
Glossier, for instance, released its first mascara in May of 2018, more than three years deep into its successful tenure in the marketplace. It took a reported 248 tries to get it just right. Then there's Chanel's new Le Volume Revolution, the first mascara to bring 3D printing technology to lashes with its carefully crafted brush. In fact, of any color cosmetics category, mascara is perhaps the one that offers the most opportunity for continued ingenuity and advancement. And for Maybelline, it absolutely remains a key focus. "Mascara is definitely the core of Maybelline New York and a big priority for our internal labs," says Whang. "The goal is to innovate and break through; we're the leader on mascara, so the teams work on new formulas and brushes as a priority."
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