New Digitization Project Offers a Peek at Thousands of Historical Beauty Products

National Museum of American History
National Museum of American History /

National Museum of American History


Deep in the recesses of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., more than 2000 jars, boxes, ointments, and salves are usually kept locked away. Most objects in the collections haven’t seen the light of day in years, but thanks in part to skincare company Kiehl’s, a new digitization project is bringing the museum’s Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Collections to light, as Smithsonian reports.

There are shampoos, deodorants, and tonics galore, plus stranger items, like sanitary products made with sphagnum moss and “safe” arsenic complexion wafers (arsenic has a long history of use in cosmetics; it was valued for producing a fashionable pallor).

National Museum of American History // Public Domain

Sociologists and cultural historians know that objects made for everyday use can be even more revealing than the polished products of high culture; a bottle of hand cream may tell you more about a society than a symphony. Rachel Anderson, curatorial assistant at the museum's division of medicine and science, told Smithsonian that the large collection, which spans the mid-19th century to the present, is helpful for tracing cultural trends. For instance, although she notes that products for producing pale skin were popular at one point, “not even 30 years later, you see tanning products coming into vogue." The result, she says, is a shift from "A healthy caucasian face being idealized as pale ... then later being idealized as tanned.”

The digitization also helps preserve delicate products, often packaged in fading cardboard boxes or rusting metal tubes, for public access. On the museum’s website, you can click through categories devoted to makeup, hair care, baby products, and the always important “alleviating body odors.” Illuminating historical text accompanies each category. You can also search by keyword, if you have a particular fascination for, say, moss, arsenic, or Farrah Fawcett shampoo. The digitization was announced earlier this month, and is ongoing. If you think beauty standards are crazy today, it's worth being reminded the past often wasn't much different.