The History of Lipstick

Since it first made its mark, lipstick has travelled a long and colourful path to the present day.

Here are some facts about the history of lipstick, cherry-picked from Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power. Enjoy!

(WARNING: This is a masHOOsive post, specifically designed for the make-up fanatic, but the timeline is divided into specific eras so as to make the information easier to both navigate and digest!)

 Lipstick Timeline


  • Queen Shub-ad of ancient Ur, was reportedly the first to use lip colorant approximately 3,500  B.C. The Sumerian queen adorned her lips with colorant created from white lead and crushed red rocks.
  •  The men and women of Egypt began wore lip colorant as a means of denoting social status.
  •  In Ancient Greece, lip paint (in particular red) was mainly reserved for prostitutes.
Queen Nefertiti of Egypt


  • At the beginning of the Middle Ages, religious criticism of lipstick became rife.
  • However, applying a lily or rose tint to the lips remained permissible in England due to the colors’ association with purity.
  • Many women would therefore make rose lip rouge out of sheep fat and mashed up red roots.

16th Century

  • Queen Elizabeth normally made her own crimson colour from a cocktail of cochineal, gum Arabic, egg whites, and fig milk. It’s thought that she or one of her close associates invented the lip pencil by mixing ground alabaster or plaster of Paris with a colouring ingredient and rolling the paste into a crayon shape before drying it in the sun.
  • During this period, people believed that lipstick could work magic and even ward off death.
  • For this reason, when Elizabeth became ill, she increasingly applied heavy amounts of lip colorant. By her death, it’s reported that the queen was wearing nearly half an inch of lip colour!

    Queen Elizabeth
    Queen Elizabeth loved a bit of lippy (image:

18th Century

  • By the 1700s, social and legal penalties ensured that the use of lipstick was kept to a minimum in England, and only prostitutes wore bright make up.
  • The opposite applied to France, where upper class women wore obvious makeup and deemed the ‘natural look’ as one suitable only for prostitutes (in the 1780s, Frenchwomen went through approximately two million pots of lip rouge per year.)
  • Meanwhile, American women went great lengths to achieve reddened lips, employing a number of bizzarre strategies e.g. rubbing red snippets of ribbon across their mouths, carrying around lemons throughout the day for sucking, or rubbing on Bavarian Red Liquor.

19th Century

  • Cosmetics were extremely unfashionable among the Victorians. Queen Victoria publicly declared makeup “impolite,” and makeup became socially unacceptable for everyone bar prostitutes and actresses.
  • Lipstick, in particular, was the least respectable cosmetic of the century. However, women found other non-cosmetic methods of enhancing their lips e.g.  kissing rosy crepe paper, biting one’s own lips and lip salves are just a few examples. Women also secretly traded recipes and made lip rouge with their friends in underground lip rouge societies.
  • The more privileged female members of society would sneak off to Paris to buy Guerlain’s lip pomade, which contained grapefruit mixed with butter and wax.
Queen Victoria
A bit of a killjoy was our old Queen Vicky (image:

20th Century


  • Due to the endorsement of leading suffragettes, lipstick more specifically symbolized female emancipation, and was incorporated into the 1912 New York Suffragette Rally. Subsequently, suffragettes wore a noticeable shade of red lip rouge as part of standard rally procedure.
  • The French company Guerlain introduced the first lip rouge in actual stick form for its aristocratic clients, and by World War I, it had become common to purchase lipstick stored in tinted papers or rolled in paper tubes.
  • The original push-up lipstick tube, introduced by Maurice Levy in 1915, quickly gave way to the swivel lipstick tube that people still use today, invented by James Bruce Mason Jr. in 1923.


  • The common American recipe of crushed insects, beeswax, and olive oil produced lipstick tended to turn rancid several hours after application.
  • A few of the patented ideas to emerge from this period include: octagon lipsticks, lipsticks designed to resemble toast popping out of a toaster, and lipsticks whose covers rolled back in imitation of roll-top desks.
  • Approximately fifty million American women used lipstick in the 1920s.
A cover of Vogue from 1930
A cover of Vogue from 1930 (image:


  • Helena Rubinstein became the first to advertise lipstick as offering sun protection.
  • Fashion magazine Vogue declared lipstick a defining item of the twentieth century, and encouraged women to take lipstick application seriously, advising: “paint your lips as an artist would.”
  • In light of WW2, manufacturers sold lipstick as not a dishonorable frivolity, but rather an important part of the war effort and lipstick became a symbol of female strength.
During WW2, manufacturers stressed that lipstick was an important part of the war effort.. talk about cashing in! (Image:


  • Manufacturers began selling particular brands of lipstick to more narrowly targeted clientele, for example, 1940s marketing executives later explained that they did Maybelline for “not too intelligent girls,” Revlon “for tarts,” and Cover Girl “for the nice girls.”
  • Lipsticks began to come disguised as other objects i.e. binoculars, or equipped with accessories, such as emergency flashlights in case of blackout.
  • In 1941, Americans spent twenty million dollars on lipstick. That figure, by 1946, had crept up to thirty million dollars spent on five-thousand tons of lipstick. Ninety percent of American women wore lipstick.


  • Statistics from the time show that nearly 100% of American college girls wore lipstick, and 98% of all American women wore lipstick, compared to 96% that brushed their teeth.
  • Airlines generally considered lipstick part of their flight attendants’ uniform.
  • Estee Lauder introduced the first free sample and gift with purchase, giving away miniature lipsticks, rouges, eye shadows, and face creams.
In the 1950s airlines generally considered lipstick a staple part of flight attendants' uniform (image:


  • The late 1950s trend of white and beige lipsticks became best sellers during this decade.
  • One of the most popular ‘lipsticks’ was a product intended as a concealer, called “Erase.”
  • Heavier metallics, particularly in the Helena Rubinstein line, also became fashionable, and other fleeting trends included a 1964 caramel-flavored lipstick.


  • Lipstick became a symbol of social rebellion, adopted by both sexes of the punk-rock music and cultural movement to express sex, violence, and general nonconformity.
  • Purple and black became the most popular colors due to this contingent.
  • Later in the decade, the disco style, also relied on lipstick for its deliberately provocative look.


  • Red became the ‘in’ color, worn by all celebrity cosmetics icons.
  • Advertising lipsticks as “not tested on animals” just began to gain market cache.
  • Worldwide lipstick sales totalled $580 million in 1986, and worldwide lipstick sales totalled an additional $140 million that year.
The Material Girl was never one to shy away from a statement look


  • Lipstick began to target the naturalist market by incorporating trendy “natural” ingredients and allegedly gentler formulas. Many lipsticks began to boast vitamins and herbs.
  • Manufacturers trumpeted lipstick and other cosmetics as attuned to animal rights.
  • Lipstick with sun protection also became exceptionally popular, and profitable; manufacturers could charge twelve to thirteen percent more for lipsticks that claimed UV protection.

Naughties and beyond

  • At the start of this millennium, the United States cosmetics industry presented a $32.7 billion global market with lipstick earning $9.4 billion.

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