Our fictional Miriam Josefsohn was 16 years old in 1912. Now, a hundred years later, most girls Miriam’s age in the U.S. wear lipstick—or not—and no one bats an eyelash. But back then it was a different story.

Levy Tube, circa 1915. Note the slide on the side.

First off, there was no such thing as “lipstick” in 1912. Women—and men in some eras—had been reddening their lips for thousands of years with home-brewed concoctions. Maurice Levy, of the Scovil Manufacturing Company in Waterbury, Connecticut, designed and produced the first tube of lipstick in 1915. It looked like a rather large bullet case with red gunk inside. A common recipe for American lipstick was beeswax, olive oil, and crushed insects.

Second, in 19th century America, polite and proper women didn’t wear lip rouge. They might bite their lips to make them red, or run dampened red paper over their lips, but that was as far as they’d go.

1912 NYC Suffrage Parade: What's behind that woman's glove?

Then came the woman suffrage movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—both well respected and ardent supporters of votes for women—wore bright red lip coloring to show their independence from the strictures men had imposed. During the New York Suffrage Rally in May, 1912, many of the women who attended colored their lips bright red as well. Fashion as a political statement? Absolutely.

No agency regulated lip colorings in the early 1900s. Women could—and often did—put the oddest concoctions on their lips. The Board of Health in New York State considered banning lipstick because it might poison the men who kissed women wearing it.

So, did Miriam wear lipstick? In my version of the story, she dabbed on a rosy concoction for the Halloween ball as part of her Marie Antoinette costume and became an ardent fan of Levy’s lipstick tubes in 1915. What’s your version?

For more on 1912 fashion, check out the Just For Fun Page.

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