The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era


“The Mad Search for Beauty”: Actresses' Testimonials, the Cosmetics Industry, and the “Democratization of Beauty”1

Marlis Schweitzera1

a1 University of Toronto at Mississauga

“Actresses as a rule know no more about making themselves beautiful than does the average woman; neither are they naturally more beautiful,” wrote actress Margaret Illington Banes in a 1912 article entitled “The Mad Search for Beauty.” “The truth of the matter is,” she continued, “that no actress—or any woman—can impart the secrets of beauty to another, any more than the rich man can impart the secrets of business success to some other man.” Disturbed by recent trends in the theatrical profession that required actresses to present themselves as “beauty specialists,” Banes sought to expose the constructed nature of their on- and offstage performances. Stage stars captivated audiences because they had numerous opportunities to appear onstage dressed in the height of style; “under the same circumstances,” she concluded, most women “would look quite as well.”

Marlis Schweitzer recendy received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto's Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama. Her dissertation, “Becoming Fashionable: Actresses, Fashion, and the Development of American Consumer Culture,” examines the convergence of theater and the fashion industry in New York between 1893 and 1919. An adjunct faculty member at the University of Toronto at Mississauga during 2004-05, she will begin a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship next fall at the University of Pennsylvania, where her new research will focus on “fashion nationalism” in American culture.


1 I would like to thank Elspeth H. Brown, Stephen Johnson, Charlie Keil, Pamela Walker Laird, Jean-Christophe Agnew, Charles McGovern, and Sara Alpern for making insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article. I would also like to thank Alan Lessoff and Kathy Fuller Seeley for making editing suggestions that gready improved the final draft. A small section of this article (now much revised) appeared in Business and Economic History On-line 1.1 (2003) as part of the conference proceedings for the 2003 Business History Conference.