Looking Back: A History of Lipstick

looking-back-lipsCosmetic products have captivated the human race since ancient times.  Yet there has been one item that has never gone out of style, or lost its popularity. No matter how large fashion changes  or extreme swings occurred over the last thousands of years, a few essentials manage to remain in widespread usage. Soap, shampoos, kohl eye liners, nail polishes, and forms of facial make up paints have survived the rise and falls of civilizations. But one stands above the others, often being in vogue with members of both genders, and that most iconic of cosmetic products is lipstick.

There isn’t any exact way to determine who first discovered a need for lipstick, or whether it was in the form of a balm for protection from the sun, or used in religious rituals, or if it was simply used to attract members of the opposite sex. Archaeological digs and the relics found show that humans have employed a form of lipstick throughout history. It has been with us since the dawn of time, when women and men used various fruit and plants to mark their faces in religious ceremonies. The Grolier Codex of ancient America shows two Mayan woman wearing lipstick. Although we don’t know much about the Mayans, As ancient civilizations developed in the Mesopotamian region, the first manmade lipstick appeared as a cosmetic tool for the wealthy women and men living in the areas of ancient Mesopotamia, Indus Valley Region and Egypt.

Ancient Sumerian men and women crushed gemstones and used them to decorate their faces, mainly on the lips and eyes. Were they possibly the first to invent and wear lipstick, about 5,000 years ago, for fashionable reasons? The ancient Indus Valley Civilization applied red tinted lipstick to their lips for face decoration. Ancient Egyptians wore lipstick to show social status rather than gender. They extracted a red dye from seaweed, iodine, and salt, know known to be bromine mannite, but this dye resulted in serious illness. Lipsticks with shimmering effects were made using a pearlescent substance found in fish scales. Finally, Egyptians crushed bugs to create a red color on their lips.

The Egyptians managed to advance the art of lipstick making by producing bright red carmine lipstick made from insect pigments. This timeless technique is still in use. Lipsticks were eventually made from powdered and processed bodies of insects or seaweed extracts, mixed with various oils and waxes. cleo

History and cinema will forever immortalize the beauty of Cleopatra derived through the figures that were depicted in hieroglyphic images or in myths left to us of her cosmetic enhancements through her seductive bright red lipstick.

From Dawn (of time) to Dark Ages

2500 BC to 1000 BC – Ancient Mesopotamia was a home of first lipstick known to mankind. Women used crushed gemstones to decorate their lips.

2000 BC – Indus Valley Civilization used dyes to color their faces and lips. The products often contained harmful ingredients that caused serious illness.

2000 BC to 100 AD – Egyptians used lipstick that was made from crushed carmine beetles. This popular red lipstick, sometimes decorated with a pearlescent affect, which was extracted from fish scales. This was used only by the wealthy and powerful, most notably by the legendary Cleopatra.

8th – 12th AD – One of the most important moments in the history of lipstick occured during the Islamic Golden Age when famous cosmetologist and chemist Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (936–1013) invented solid lipstick that was based perfume sticks rolled in special molds. These are the basis for all modern lipsticks.

Europe in the Middle Ages – Until the late 16th century, lip coloring was banned by the Christian church. They believed that lip coloring was connected with Satanic rituals and cult worship. Thus, lipstick was only used by the lowest classes of the time period, those being prostitutes and actors.

Gloriana to Cinema

The history of lipstick tells of the European Middle Ages almost removing lipstick from fashion forever. Harsh living conditions, constant wars, plagues, lack of food and other factions led to years where very little or no advancements in cosmetics. With the church maintaining fashion and common laws, they actively discouraged lipstick usage or facial coloring of any type.

Times evolved, and lipstick returned to the height of popular fashion once again during the reign of English Queen Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603). During the time of Queen Elizabeth I bright red lips and a stark white face became fashionable. During this era, lipstick was made from a blend of beeswax and red stains from plants. Only upper class women and male actors wore makeup.


Throughout most of the 19th century the obvious use of cosmetics was not considered acceptable in Britain for respectable women, and it continued to be the trademark, so to speak, of groups on the outside of the social order, such as actors and prostitutes. It was considered brazen and uncouth to wear makeup. In the 1850s, reports were being published warning women of the dangers of using lead and vermilion in cosmetics applied to the face. By the end of the 19th century the French perfume house, Guerlain, started to manufacture lipstick for commercial usage. This version of lipstick was covered in silk paper and made from deer tallow, castor oil, and beeswax. 

16th century – Reign of English Queen Elizabeth I, bright red lips and a stark white face became fashionable. This enabled popularization of lipstick that was made from beeswax and red stained plants. Only higher classes of noble women, and stage actors wore lipstick.

18th century – During this era, lipsticks slipped from the fashion of the higher echelons of society and found its popularity among the lower classes.

19th century – Lipstick remained in widespread usage only with actors and prostitutes. The latter is referenced in Oscar Wilde’s poem, The Harlot’s House.

But one pale woman all alone,
The daylight kissing her wan hair,
Loitered beneath the gas lamps’ flare,
With lips of flame and heart of stone.

Change to this centuries long tradition came to an end when French perfumers began producing lipstick commercially in 1884, when the House of Guerlain produced the first commercial lipstick. 

1880s – Famous American actress Sarah Bernhardt begun openly wearing lipstick. During that time, lipstick did not come in tubes, but was applied with a brush.

Carmine dye was expensive and the look of carmine colored lipstick was considered unnatural and theatrical, so lipstick was frowned upon for everyday wear. Only actors and actresses could get away with wearing lipstick. In 1880, few stage actresses wore lipstick in public. The famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt, began wearing lipstick and blush, or rouge as it was known, in public. Before that point, women applied makeup at home. Bernhardt often applied carmine dye to her lips in public.

In the early 1890s, carmine was mixed with an oil and wax base. The mixture gave a natural look and became acceptable. At that time, lipstick was not sold in screw up metal tube; it was sold in paper tubes, tinted papers, or in small pots. The Sears Roebuck catalog first offered rouge for lips and cheeks to American women by the late 1890s. By 1912 fashionable American women had come to consider lipstick acceptable, though an article in the New York Times advised on the need to apply it cautiously.

By 1915, lipstick was sold in cylinder metal containers, which had been invented by Maurice Levy. Women had to slide a lever on the side of the tube in order to move the lipstick to the top of the case. In 1923, the first swivel-up tube was patented by James Bruce Mason Jr., from none other than Nashville, Tennessee. Dark red was one of the most popular shade throughout the 19th and 20th century. Dark red lipstick was popular worldwide in the Flapper Era of the 1920s. Flappers wore lipstick to symbolize their independence. Lipstick was worn around the lips to form a Cupid’s bow, inspired by actress Clara Bow. At that time, it was acceptable to apply lipstick in public and during lunch, but never at dinner.

In the early 1930s, Elizabeth Arden began to introduce different lipstick colors. She inspired other companies to create a variety of lipstick shades. In the 1930s, lipstick was seen as symbol of adult sexuality. Photography and the cinema made lipstick acceptable among women. Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder were among the first to sell lipstick in their salons. I have always been told that cosmetic counters are in departments stores because cosmetics, and especially lipstick, became so popular during World War II that the sales clerks needed protection from the public.

During the Second World War, metal lipstick tubes were replaced by plastic and paper tubes. Lipstick was scarce during that time because some of the essential ingredients of lipstick, petroleum and castor oil, were unavailable. With World War II enabling women to enter the workplace, and take careers in areas such as scientific research, in the late 1940s, Hazel Bishop an organic chemist, created the first long lasting lipstick, called No-Smear lipstick.


By the 1950s, movie actresses Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor helped bring back dark red lips. A 1951 survey revealed that two-thirds of teenage girls wore lipstick.

1912 – Fashionable American women accepted lipstick as an important part of their daily and public attire.

1915 – The first lipstick sold in cylinder metal containers was invented by Maurice Levy.

1920s – Rise of photography made lipstick acceptable across Europe and North America.

1921 – Use of lipstick became widespread in the U.K. by the general female population.

1923 – Cylinder swivel-up tube was patented by James Bruce Mason Jr. in Nashville, Tennessee. This invention made lipstick easy to apply.

1927 – Frenchman Paul Baudercroux invented “Rouge Baiser” which was marketed as kiss-proof lipstick. It was banned from the market because it was so long-lasting that it caused problems when removing it from the lips.

1930s – Max Factor invented lip gloss.

1940s – World War II made lipstick scarce, because several of its essential ingredients were used in the war effort (petroleum and castor oil). During those years, metal tubes were replaced by plastic and paper.

1950 – American Hazel Bishop created the first long lasting, non-smearing lipstick.

1950s – American actresses Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor popularized dark red lips. Their influence, and new inventions by the companies Gala and Max Factor created exciting colors and trends.

1960s – Rock groups Ronettes and the Shirelles popularized white lipsticks, but the majority of female popularization preferred darker and colorful tones. By then, lipstick and high heels were one of the biggest examples of femininity.

1970s – 1990s – Black lipstick was popular in Goth and Punk subcultures. marilyn_manson_cannes

It was only in late 19th century when industrial advancements enabled cosmetologist to mass produce lipsticks for commercial sales. From that point, lipsticks slowly become highly popular. New innovations made their packaging easily accessible, and it evolved lipstick into the forms we know today…tubes that open, glosses, no smear formulas, and every-shade-of-the-rainbow colors.

Worldwide acceptance of lipstick by both genders acknowledges it as an integral part of daily life. We choose colors by current fashion and by our individual preferences. We are still much like the earliest humans, using lipstick either to enhance our attractiveness, or in the immortal words of Prince…

want your




Liberato Portillo M.; Ana Lilia Vigueras G. “Natural Enemies of Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus Costa): Importance in Mexico”, 2009. 

Riordan, Theresa. Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations that Have Made Us Beautiful. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group. 2004.

Eisner, T. For Love of Insects. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2003.

Behan, J. The Bug that Changed History. 2006.

http://www.elizabethancostume.net/makeup.html Elizabethan Makeup

Sherrow, Victoria. For Appearance’s Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty, and Grooming. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing. 2001.

All pictures/photographs are public domain for non-commercial usage, or are owned by the author.  

7 Comments on “Looking Back: A History of Lipstick

  1. Wow. I’m so glad you shared this one. I am forever in love with lipstick. In fact, I blog about it myself–even wrote a poem about it. I’ll share it. Why not? 🙂

    I write you every day,
    just like I apply my lipstick.
    slow and all at once,
    coloring both in and outside
    of the boundaries,
    fixing what doesn’t work
    and reapplying.
    I’m a perfectionist you know.

    I scribble that I miss the words,
    your breath,
    the essence of your soul and passion,
    a crimson palette that scares me
    as it rips apart my armor
    with slices of your tongue.

    I write my deepest secrets.
    My love for you.
    My sadness.
    Trapped and panicked butterflies take up space
    in my lower belly,
    and my heart,
    like a heavy metal drumbeat,
    pulsates too fast.

    I ache.
    The way I miss you is unnatural,
    a storm inside my veins
    that marches like inevitable death.
    I wipe away every single one.
    and continue with a fresh stroke.
    Nothing is perfect.
    Nothing ever will be.

    Liked by 1 person

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