The History of Lipstick Begins With a Sumerian Queen

Queen Nefertiti of Egypt. Image: KathleenPirroArts
Lipstick has been around for over five millennia and is said to have originated with Queen Schub-ad of ancient Ur. The Sumerian queen would colour her lips with a concoction of white lead and crushed red rocks. Her lip-colouring beauty ritual quickly caught on with her people. The practice spread to nearby Assyria, where men and women alike began to paint their lips red.

"Lipstick culture then reached the burgeoning Egyptian empire, where it continued to primarily denote social status rather than gender. Egyptian men and women boldly applied makeup as part of their daily routine ... Eyes had the most cultural importance ... but lips too received color from red ochre, either applied alone or mixed with resin or gum for more lasting finish," writes Sarah Schaffer.

Though red remained a fashionable colour choice, other options soon became available in Egypt, including orange, blue-black, and magenta.

Greece and Rome's Contrasting Relationship with Lipstick

Following the decline of the Egyptian empire, Greek culture and power began to spread, and with that, the tempestuous Grecian relationship with lipstick. Early Greek authorities rejected the superficiality of lipstick, and many Greek women dutifully avoided all makeup. Lipstick became a sign of prostitution, with Greek prostitutes favouring a lipstick made of red dye, wine, sheep sweat, human saliva, and crocodile feces.

Around 700 to 300 BCE, however, use of lipstick in Greece became increasingly acceptable. In fact, just as in Ur and Egypt, lipstick in Greece gradually became associated with wealth and the elite. For the most part, lower class Greek women continued to avoid makeup.

Following the fall of Greece, the Roman Empire displayed an unabashed love of lipstick. Men and women alike wore lipstick to display their social rank. Wealthy Roman women began the practice of having specially-trained cosmeticians (read: slaves) at their beck and call. Roman lipstick was mostly composed of ochre, iron ore, and brown algae.

Europe's Condemnation and Adoration of Lipstick

By the early Middle Ages in Europe, also known as the Dark Ages, the use of lipstick began to significantly wane. Christian authorities rejected the use of lipstick, which was a view that informed many people's beauty practices or lack thereof. That said, the use of lipstick never died or went fully underground. In fact, by 500 CE, lower class women in Spain wore lipstick on an almost daily basis.

Shortly thereafter, orange lip hues became popular in Germany and Britain.

Around 800 CE, elaborately decorated cosmetic containers -- including lipstick boxes -- began to be distributed far and wide via trade routes out of Constantinople, suggesting the start of a more official cosmetics trade.

"In England, 'a woman who wore make-up was seen as an incarnation of Satan,' because such alteration of her given face challenged God and his workmanship. While this interdiction against lipstick mostly took the form of social rather than legal sanctions ... Applying a lily or rose tint to one's lips remained permissible based on those colors' connotation with purity," writes Schaffer. 

Merchants of darker and red coloured lipsticks could be jailed for witchcraft, or worse. Some risked being killed if caught selling their wares in public. At the same time, men and women of Edward IV's court could wear lipstick as often as they pleased, without risking punishment.

With Elizabeth I's coronation in the 1500s, England embraced lipstick. Elizabeth was rarely seen without her signature red lipstick, which was made from cochineal (insects), gum Arabic, egg whites, and fig milk. She believed that lipstick had life-saving properties, a common view at the time. The ladies of her court copied her look -- a white face and carmine lip -- but lower class women continued to avoid lipstick or wear more muted colours.

The 1600s saw a "continued siege on lipstick from clergy, ethicists, and occasionally lawmakers, and a continued love affair with lipstick by the English population." Lipstick use was still common by both the upper and lower classes, but was used discretely and mostly in protected or familiar social settings. British parliament tried to pass a bill forbidding the use of lip painting in 1650, but it did not pass.

In France in the 1700s, dark makeup of any kind became associated with wealth and high standing, while a bare face became associated with prostitutes. In England, the exact opposite association arose.

Image: Alex Sheldon

America's Lipstick Emancipation

The American colonies tended to follow the more lax French obsession with lipstick in the 1700s, and American women went to great lengths to achieve reddened lips. Some would rub their lips with moistened red ribbons or drink special liquors that promised to give women their much-desired ruby red lips. It became fashionable to have lip rouge parties where women would apply lipsticks together and exchange lip rouge recipes.

Queen Victoria's influence in the 1800s had a bit of a dampening effect on the use of lipstick, but even that could not stop women's devotion to the beloved product. Lipstick never went out of fashion, but it did go underground for a time.

By the early 1900s in the United States, "lipstick began to acquire the symbolic and economic standing that it holds today," Schaffer writes, "with rapidly increasing numbers of women using the product."

Lipstick became a symbol of women's emancipation, and its use was even incorporated into the New York Suffragette Rally of 1912.

"In both America and England, women publicly applied lip rouge with the express intent of appalling men. Lipstick's long proscription by social, religious, and legal male authority made it a ready symbol for female rebellion," Schaffer says. 

Lipstick Meets Mass Production

American mass production of lipstick began in 1915 by Maurice Levy of the Scovill Manufacturing Company. Levy's product was a push-up metal contraption, making lipstick portable and easy to use.

The first swivel-up lipstick hit the market in 1923, and was patented by James Bruce Mason Jr. By this time, the average American woman owned a variety of lipsticks in shades ranging from reds to cherries, and purples to browns.

Due to wartime rationing during World War II in the 1940s, the twist-up metal lipstick tube was replaced with plastic or thick paper. Plastic has become the preferred and most widely used lipstick container material.

Image: Pinterest
The 1960s marked the widespread replacement of dark lipstick colours with nude, frosted, and other unconventional colour choices.

Tinted, shimmery glosses replaced lipstick for a time in the 1970s. Red lips became popular again in the 1980s, and other pastel colours were introduced. These lighter colours were especially popular with teenagers at the time.