Think of it as a bath and beauty time capsule if you will — The Smithsonian National Museum of American History (and apparently, American beauty) is curating cosmetic and personal care products manufactured since the 1880s. The bizarre archive of a sort of “bed, bath and beyond” is housed on the top floor if the museum and collected in the Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections
Because packaging was designed to be disposable, it is stored out of sight, but thanks to support from Kiehl’s the museum will be digitizing the 2000-plus piece collection.
While something as innocuous as “Crest White Strips” or as silly as “Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific” may hardly seem archive-worthy, in a greater context Americans have always taken their personal care items very seriously.
“It certainly tells you quite a lot about what people were willing to spend their money on, and it tells you what they were trying to obtain personally, how they wanted to present themselves to the world, or maybe how they felt like they had to present themselves to the world,” explains Research and Project Assistant Rachel Anderson.
In addition to seeing how vastly products have changed, it is also interesting to see how little they haven’t. For example, while celeb-branded products are certainly en vogue now, people have actually wanted to emulate stars for the last 100 years.
Viewed chronologically and cumulatively, one can also tell what is happening in society based on product type. For example, packaging styles changed drastically due to cost during the World War II.
In addition, what was deemed attractive changes over the course of time. To wit: tanning seems to cycle much like skirt lengths, while health and environmental concerns continue to evolve. We are so concerned now about ingredients being non-toxic and locally sourced, but according to Racked, just 80 years ago some popular products included “arsenic complexion wafers,” which contained a low dose of arsenic to make one look pale.
The overall collection will continue to evolve — it may soon include anti-aging and feminine hygiene products — and the Smithsonian team hopes to open the site to crowdsourcing.
No word yet if they scored a box of out-of-production Today’s Sponges made famous by an episode of “Seinfeld” in which Elaine finds out they have been discontinued and scours the city to stockpile them.
One can only hope, the online archive is indeed “sponge-worthy”.