Hazel Bishop isn’t well-known today, but in the 1950s her name was on everyone’s lips. She made the most famous lipstick in the world, and she did it by plugging away at different formulas in her kitchen in the evenings.
Hazel Bishop lipstick set off multiple “make-up wars.” The first was among different make-up giants, all trying to get a share of the market from Hazel Bishop’s creation. Bishop had been on the verge of going to medical school . . . in 1929. The Great Depression put an end to her academic life, and meant she had to put her undergrad degree in chemistry to work. She spent the next twenty years in various chemistry positions, first as a research assistant and junior chemist at academic institutions, and then as an increasingly senior chemist at petroleum companies.
Her dream was to have her own business, and at night she was scouting around for an invention that would launch that business. She settled on lipstick.
At the time, lipstick for women was just pigment suspended in a mixture that could be smeared on the lips. This worked perfectly well, except for the fact that the pigment could just as easily come off the lips — onto the teeth, onto food, onto whoever a woman kissed. Women had to be incredibly careful with their make-up and reapply throughout the day.
Chemists wanted something that would stain the lips, not just cover them. There was an easy way to do that — bromo acids. Bromo acids start with a compound called fluorescein. Optometrists use fluorescein sodium eye drops to stain the tissues of the eye when they check for damage to the eye during regular check-ups. The solution is a reddish colour. Add some bromine to fluorescein and you get a bromo acid, which you would not want to put in your eye, but which does what the eye drops do — stains tissue. Lipsticks made from these hues stain the lips instead of covering them with pigment. Different chemical variations on bromo acids give slightly different hues, for a variety of colours.
The problem was, the acids also dried the lips. A beautiful red pout was worthless if it was peeling off a woman’s face. This was the problem that Bishop was trying to solve. She did it by grinding away at the problem, varying the amount of bromo acid, and drying different moistening ingredients until she settled on lanolin as the magic ticket to make the lipstick “work.” By keeping the bromo acid level low, and supplying enough moisturizer, she could balance it out to a lipstick that women would wear.
When Bishop started shopping it around — she got her starter cash at a Barnard college reunion — she emphasised that the lipstick was practical. Instead of flowery names like “scarlet dream,” she gave her colours simple names like “orange red,” and included instructions, telling women to apply the lipstick and then blot it almost completely off their faces. She made a respectable $69,000 the first year. She partnered up with Raymond Spector Advertising, and Hazel Bishop’s Lasting Lipstick made 10 million in the next four years.
Competitors like Revlon were desperately formulating their own “long lasting” lipsticks, and trying to out-compete Hazel Bishop, Inc. Meanwhile, Hazel Bishop, Inc was in the middle of a civil war. Bishop sued her advertising partner, Specter, who had managed to gather up most of the stock in Bishop’s company. She ended up resigning, with a settlement of $408,000.
Although she invented several more products, including a leather-cleaning product and a foot spray, they never hit as big as her long lasting lipsticks. The concept of long-lasting lipstick, and deep red lipstick, has gone in and out of fashion, but if you see a lipstick today that’s dark red and long lasting, it’s likely to have bromo acids in it. You have Hazel Bishop to thank for that.