By  on March 4, 1994

WASHINGTON -- In retracing the U.S. beauty business over the last 100 years, it appears a series of seemingly random events somehow led to the development of a $20 billion industry.

Could anyone have predicted in 1904, when Max Factor left his post as a theatrical face painter and wig maker in the court of Russia, that he would build a U.S. fortune in cosmetics that would be fought over and then sold to Procter & Gamble?

It seems far-fetched to think that Avon, with sales of $4 billion and a door-to-door operation in 100 countries, got its start in 1886 when founder David McConnell thought he could peddle more books if he offered a bonus gift of perfume.

Consider the inauspicious beginnings of Vaseline, a "miracle jelly" that Robert Augustus Chesebrough developed in 1859 after hearing stories about a petroleum residue with curative powers for burns and abrasions. He first sold the salve from the back of a wagon in Brooklyn. Now, the product is a staple of Chesebrough-Pond's.

One can't overlook Graham Gordon Wulff, a South African chemist who invented Oil of Olay, which was initially used during World War II as a skin treatment to prevent dehydration of burn wounds on British Royal Air Force pilots.

And where would Revlon be today if Charles and Joseph Revson didn't make the daring move of putting colors into dull Depression-era nail enamel? In fact, Charles Revson could arguably be given credit for the first at-the-counter demonstration. He came up with the concept of coordinating lip and nail color, or "matching lips and fingertips."

It seems the U.S. cosmetic industry was spawned by a disparate group of pioneers, but once it got a foothold in medicine cabinets and vanities, the business of beautifying ballooned.

By 1900, the number of companies making perfume and toiletries had grown to 262, from 67 in 1880. The expansion continued steadily until the early 1970s, when a modern-day boom occurred.

According to Susan Babinsky, vice president of consumer products at Kline & Co., Fairfield, N.J., fragrances had a volume of $3 billion in the U.S. last year, up from $600 million in 1973. During the same period hair care product sales increased to $4.5 billion, up from $700 million; color cosmetic sales increased to $3.5 billion from $500 million, and skin care to $3.5 billion from $550 million.

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