Elizabeth Arden, Business Pioneer
The woman born as Florence Nightingale Graham has a much better known name – Elizabeth Arden. Long before the rise of modern feminism, she was powerful businesswoman and an advocate for women’s health and wellbeing. A Canadian who came to the United States to create her beauty empire, she eventually became one of the richest women in the world.
An Indomitable Dream
Florence Nightingale Graham was born in 1884 in the town of Woodbridge, Ontario. Her parents had come to Canada to seek their fortunes – her father from Scotland, her mother from Cornwall. Sadly, Florence’s mother died when the girl was only six, so she was raised by her father and siblings. As with her namesake, Florence became a nurse, but she felt that she was meant for something else, something different. In time, she dropped out of nursing school.
Her time as a nurse, however, did teach her a few things. The skin salves and burn creams she would apply had more potential than simply medicine. These could be beauty creams or lotions to perfect already healthy skin, if made correctly. She left nursing to live with her brother in Manhattan and secured a job as a bookkeeper for a pharmaceuticals company. The bookkeeping was to make money – but she would spend her free time in the lab, trying to create new skincare products.
Graham turned her kitchen into a laboratory, mixing and matching ingredients, trying to find the perfect balance, often working by trial and error. It is rumored the neighbors believed the smells that came from her house were those of rotten food being cooked because the family was too poor to buy fresh food.
It looked as though all her hard work would never amount to anything. Besides, at that time, it wasn’t proper for a woman to be engaged in such activity. Her father encouraged her, as a young woman, to get married, instead of perusing her dream as a cosmetics entrepreneur. She would not give up, however, experimenting for years, moving from job to job to support herself.
Florence partnered with Elizabeth Hubbard, a fellow culturist, in 1909. Their business relationship didn’t last long, but Florence decided to keep the name, Elizabeth, matching it to a poem by Tennyson called Enoch Arden. As Elizabeth Arden, she got a $6,000 loan from her brother to open a salon on 5th Avenue.
A Woman Before Her Time
In the early 20th century, cosmetics were not something most women were interested in wearing. A ‘painted face’ was something for prostitutes or other lower-class women. Elizabeth Arden is largely responsible for changing that perception. She focused on women who were considered plain or past their prime, and used makeup to enhance their beauty.
Arden traveled to France in 1912 to learn their beauty secrets, watching the people at work in the famous French beauty salons of Paris. While there, she created her own makeup supplies and brought them back to America. Her business, the Red Door spa, began to expand greatly, becoming an international concern in 1915.
Today, millions of women around the world get makeovers to try out new looks, to get a fresh appearance, or simply because they enjoy the process. Elizabeth Arden invented the makeover. It wasn’t just her cosmetics that made her famous, but the way she made them something desirable, and the way she made women feel about themselves.
A beauty company is not quite all it can be without fragrances, and Arden recognized this, creating Blue Grass in 1934. It was luxuriously feminine and romantic, which is just the sort of image Arden liked to inspire. The original was a floral, spicy, woody blend – powerful and strong, but not overwhelming and still so very feminine.
Elizabeth Arden led her company until her death in 1966, leaving behind a legacy her company tries to uphold to this very day.
The Legacy of Elizabeth Arden
The fragrance 5th Avenue was created in recognition of that first spa opened in the early 20th century. Today, this street is known for its wealth and opulence, and the perfume reflects that. A woman who wears it is a woman of refined tastes, who knows what she likes, and makes no apologies for who she is. It is laced with floral scents of lilac, magnolia, pink violet, jasmine, ylang-ylang, tuberose, and others, yet touched with citrusy hints from mandarin and bergamot, and sweetly seductive sandalwood, Tibetan musk, amber, and vanilla.
“To be beautiful is the birthright of every woman.” This was Elizabeth Arden’s fervent belief. Nearly 100 years ago, she was encouraging women to be careful of overexposure to sunlight, to hydrate their skin, and to practice yoga every day. As an entrepreneur and cosmetics pioneer, she was at times very much a 21st century woman living in an early 20th century world.