Monday, January 30, 2012


The story of Harriet Hubbard Ayer (1849-1903) reads like a modern day melodrama the likes of which read more like fiction than the transgressions of real life. Yet, this indomitable woman, determined to succeed took matters into her own hands and rose above the stigma of divorce, kidnapping, madness, seduction, betrayal and the loss of her cosmetic business to reinvent herself again as a world famous journalist who penned a column of beauty and cosmetic advice to a devoted audience of women and men. At a time when most women did not work Ayer established Recamier Preparations, Inc., the first cosmetic company owned and operated by a woman but a male dominated society would curtail her entrepreneurship. Vindictive and jealous men in her life punished her for her ambition, accomplishments and seized her children. These egregious setbacks did not squelch her spirit. She was a pioneer and set the stage for other women to succeed and made beauty in a bottle respectable. AN AMERICAN BEAUTY Harriet Hubbard was a natural beauty whose intellectual development evolved far beyond what anyone expected. Born into a family of wealth and privilege she matured into a beautiful, accomplished Chicago socialite and was painted by famous artists of the time including William Merritt Chase. No one, however, would have suspected that under the gaze of her beauty lurked a girl full of perseverance, resilience and determination. BECOMING MRS. AYER It is no wonder that she attracted the attention of Herbert Copeland Ayer, the son of a wealthy iron dealer. The Civil War was over and Herbert’s father prospered and with his social credentials confirmed the Hubbard-Ayer liaison was a surety. At the age of sixteen, on October 2, 1866, she married Herbert Copeland Ayer, a man fourteen years her senior. It did not prove a happy liaison and with her husband’s excessive drinking and other problems a shadow loomed over the marriage, which was acerbated by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 in which the Ayer’s home as well as the properties of so many other citizen’s was destroyed. Harriet also suffered from the death of her daughter Gertrude, who had a delicate nature and succumbed to the affects of smoke inhalation from the fire. PARIS SOJOURN More tragedy struck in 1833. Heartbroken and exhausted, after the collapse of the Ayer iron business Harriet was forced to fend for herself and her two remaining daughters. After separating from her husband and compounded by her mother’s dwindling inheritance, Harriet was almost destitute. With resolve to maintain the lifestyle to which they had been accustomed Harriet moved with her daughters to New York City, where she found work as a decorator and a salesperson for Syphers, the antique furniture store. On one of her frequent business trips to Europe, she discovered a chemist in Paris who created creams and perfumes. THE MADAME RECAMIER FORMULA There are several versions of how Harriet acquired the skin care products. It is suffice to say that on one of her trips to Paris, the epicenter of fashion and beauty, she had the fortuitous occasion to visit a certain M. Mirault who made the Parma Violet Perfume Harriet used. M. Mirault also had a formula for a face cream that reputedly had been made by his grandfather for the famous French beauty from the days of Napoleon, Julie de Recamier (1777-1849), which he sold to Harriet for a great price. Realizing an opportunity in 1866, she launched Recamier Toilet Preparations, Inc. A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS WOMAN A born innovator Harriet skillfully marketed the Recamier products using her own name Harriet Hubbard Ayer and the Hubbard family crest on the label. Through extensive advertising and paid endorsements by famous entertainers her commercial success proliferated. Such tactics proved successful because countless women who aspired to a higher social status were encouraged to purchase her products, which included brushes, soaps, balms and scents, as well as the coveted cream. VICIOUS MALE INTERVENTION A lot of jealousy surrounded Harriet’s success and most of it perpetrated by men. Severe problems arose when Harriet was publicly accused of scandalous behavior in 1889. It’s true that she suffered a form of mental symptoms of exhaustion and melancholia but she was still in control of her business until men intervened. Setting a trap Harriet was drugged and isolated and eventually institutionalized in 1893 by her former husband, who had been egged on by James M. Seymour, the scoundrel who plotted to take over her business. Such incarceration seems to be typical of the way men at that time could do away with unwanted wives or in Harriet’s case a woman of property and business. It took more than a year for Harriet to escape through the help of her lawyers and friends from the Bronxville Insane Asylum. However, she was unable to regain control of the business and retired from its operation. After her departure the company Harriet founded did not last, going into receivershiip in 1896. Other incarnations of the Recamier Manufacturing Company and all rights to the name "Harriet Hubbard Ayer" were obtained by other entrepreneurs seeking to ride on the reputation of her name and beauty products. In 1907, after Harriet's death, her daughter, Margaret Hubbard Ayer sold the rights to her mother's name to Vincent Benjamin. How successful these companies were is lost in the powder dust of the cosmetic industry. RINVENTING HARRIET HUBBARD AYER The Recamier business was run into the ground by Seymour but Harriet regained her health and reinvented herself. Obviously you cannot keep a strong willed independent woman down for long. In 1896 she was hired to write a column on beauty advice for the New York World and he role played an important part in advancing the careers of women in the new mass journalism. Eventually, the material from these columns became the basis of a book published in 1902, “Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s book: A Complete and Authentic Treatise on the Laws of Health and Beauty. OH YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL The Ideal Toy Company launched a Harriet Hubbard Ayer doll in connection with the leading cosmetic company and each model included a beauty instruction booklet. With a lovely wig on her vinyl head, the doll came with curlers and cosmetics. Not only could her hair be styled, but Ayer cosmetics could be applied to her dainty face.was offered complete with makeup for little girls to hone their skills.
Harriet Hubbard Ayer was ahead of her time, a pioneer who spearheaded the beauty industry and paved the way for later women entrepreneurs. When Ayer died in 1903, at the age of 54, she was the highest paid journalist in the United States.


  1. My sister and I had one of these dolls..mine had auburn hair, hers was a blonde. I loved and treasured mine and kept her in pristine condition up until the month I got married, 1962!

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