Monday, March 16, 2015

In the Spotlight: Theatrical Makeup from the 1930s

by Erin Doane, curator

Every once in a while, I come across a box tucked away in storage that I haven’t opened in my almost four years here. Sometimes, such a box contains unexpected treasure. Recently, I found one that contained a collection of theatrical makeup used at a local theater in the early 1930s. There were greasepaint sticks and powders and even little boxes of hair. I don’t know much at all about early 20th century theater makeup so I did a little digging.

Various colors of hair for creating theatrical mustaches, beards, and sideburns
There were quite a few pieces made by E.M. Stein Cosmetic Company in the box. The narrow cardboard tubes contain sticks of greasepaint in a variety of colors from skin tones to blues, greens, and pinks. Greasepaint became widely used by stage actors once gaslights became standard in theaters in the late 19th century. The powder makeup that had been used up until that point did not look good under the new brighter lights. If actors went without makeup at all, they looked washed-out and unexpressive. Applied correctly, greasepaint made actors look more natural under gaslight and under newer electric lights.

Collection of Stein’s greasepaint sticks, early 1930s
Stick greasepaint is made of dry pigments, such as zinc oxide, ochre, and lampblack, mixed with a waxy base, like lard, tallow, beeswax, or paraffin. To apply greasepaint, actors first covered their faces with an oily base like Vaseline so that the makeup would come off more easily later. A flesh-tone base color was applied first followed by darker and lighter shades for shadows and highlights. Then color was added to the eyes and lips. Finally, loose powder was dusted all over the face to set the makeup.

Face powder was needed to set the greasepaint and keep it from smearing.
Commercial greasepaint first became available in the 1890s. The makeup moved from stage to screen in the early days of motion pictures. Traditional greasepaint, however, proved to be too heavy and did not look good on film. In 1914, Max Factor developed a lighter cream greasepaint for use in movies. His new formulation was sold commercially as Supreme Greasepaint. Max Factor is also credited with coining the term “makeup.” Before the 1930s, proper women did not wear cosmetics but as Hollywood starlets began wearing makeup in public, regular women followed suit.

Max Factor makeup, including Supreme Greasepaint, early 1930s

Color chart and instructions for applying Max Factor greasepaint, 1930s
This collection of theatrical makeup was a wonderful find. I can just imagine actors at a local theater putting on their costumes and makeup so they could step out on stage and entertain a packed house.


  1. Another very engaging piece. Thanks!

  2. where to find information in reference to the history of the Miner's Theatrical Makeup company? (since 1864) and a list of its various theatrical makeup products?