Tainted Tints

An Everywoman’s 1950s Cosmetic Set from Minmi

When long-term Minmi resident Christina Palfreyman (nee Mitchell) (1910-1999) peered at her reflection in this powder compact mirror to apply her makeup in the 1950s, did she consider what she was about to put on her face? As she dabbed her skin with the powder, highlighted her cheeks with the rouge, and finally, painted on the colourfast, striking red lipstick, she was likely unaware that the cosmetics contained toxic substances that could cause serious problems for her health.

The makeup from this fancy gold-tone Cashmere Bouquet cosmetic set, manufactured by American company Colgate-Palmolive, might have made Christina feel glamorous. Certainly, it enabled her to fulfill the mid-twentieth century expectation for women to have luscious red lips and a flawless complexion, accompanied by perfectly coiffed hair. Lipstick holders, rouge, and face powder compacts like these were essential tools carried in the everywoman’s handbag. Cashmere Bouquet sets were advertised in Australian newspapers of the time as highly affordable for all, costing less than 10 shillings.

Throughout history, cosmetics have nearly always included questionable ingredients that are now known to be extremely harmful to the wearers, such as arsenic, mercury, lead and even rat poison. Fortunately, by the 1950s, the chemistry of cosmetics had progressed, and products contained more acceptable ingredients… mostly.

The red lipstick in Christina’s set likely contains oils, petroleum derivatives, waxes, pigments, and lead (as do many lipsticks made today). Powdered cosmetics and talcum powder from the twentieth century, including those manufactured by Cashmere Bouquet, are now known to have contained trace amounts of asbestos, which after decades of use, caused cancers for their unsuspecting victims.