Meet Harriet Hubbard Ayers: Beauty Tycoon
When I first got the idea to write a Gilded Age romance about a heroine who launches a cosmetics business (Daisy Swan, Some Like It Scandalous), I knew just where to look: War Paint by Lindy Woodhead , the biography of beauty entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and their decades-long rivalry.
But I really found my historical heroine #inspo in Harriet Hubbard Ayer (Thanks to my friend Elizabeth for tip! Follow her @Scandalwomen for regular posts about amazing women in history). Harriet’s life story is full of bold moves and second acts and you can’t make this stuff up.
At just seventeen years old, Harriet married a man fourteen years her senior. Herbert Copeland Ayer was wealthy, thanks to his family iron business, and Harriet got to live the life of a Chicago socialite. That is, until the iron business went bankrupt. The marriage was further strained by his drinking. And so, divorce.
By the 1880s Harriet was a divorced single mother of two girls when she moved to New York City. She found a job selling antique’s with Sypher’s, the dealer she used to frequent when she was a socialite redecorating her homes. Her job entailed frequent trips to Europe to acquire antiques and it was on one of those business trips that she discovered and purchased a Parisian Chemist’s recipe for “complexion balm” aka face cream. It was formula reportedly used by the famous French beauty, Madame Recamier.
Fun personal fact: she lived and I once lived on the same street! At different times tho.
Back in NYC, she obtained loan from a guy named James Seymour and with this money she launched Madame Recamier Toilet Preparations Inc at her kitchen table. She opened a shop in Union Square (the same address as Daisy and Theo’s store, btw) and it was a success along with the Madame Recamier business.
Her society connections and somewhat scandalous situation were an irresistibly intriguing mix for many customers. Her advertising geared toward women was novel and effective, too. Her use of advertising, celebrity endorsements, and advertorials was incredibly innovative (And picked up by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein too. The cosmetics and advertising industries grew up together.).
Her business was SO successful in fact that even though she had repaid the loan, James Seymour still had designs upon her business. He engineered some scheme to have her locked up against her will at the Bronxville Insane Asylum so he could try to take over her business (it was clearing at least a million dollars a year. In the 1890s!). It was over a year before she could engineer an escape.
That wasn’t the only tragedy of her life either: there is a whole tragic drama involving her daughters being turned against her (sob). You can read about it in her biography Dispensing Beauty in New York and Beyond: the Triumphs and Tragedies of Harriet Hubbard Ayer by Annette Blaugrund.
And then it was time for her next act. She landed the job as editor of the women’s pages for the major newspaper, the New York World. It was here that she helped launched women’s beauty media as we know it by providing tons of content on health, wellness and beauty and self improvement. She received 20,000 letters from readers a year. At the time of her death—at just 54 years of age—she was the highest paid lady journalist in the United States.
Given what she accomplished and her legacy–the modern beauty, advertising and women’s media industries–it’s CRAZY that she isn’t more well known. Cheers to you, Harriet!