Helena Rubinstein was born Chaja Rubinstein in Krakow, Poland on December 25, 1870. The eldest of eight children of Augusta and Horace Rubinstein, she had widespread eyes, at times pensive, other times enquiring.
Driven by courage, intelligence, and a will to succeed that would make her neglect her husbands, children and family, she built an empire that was both industrial and financial.
Her mother, Augusta, would use a face cream made from plants, spermaceti, lanolin, essence of almond and extracts of Carpathian conifer bark to protect the girl's faces from the redness caused by wind and frost. It was concocted for actress Helena Modjeska by Jacob Lykusky, a Hungarian chemist.
Her seven sisters—Pauline, Rosa, Regina, Stella, Ceska, Manka, and Erna—nicknamed her "the Eagle."
At the time of her birth, Poland was in the throes of modernization. Railways, factories and apartment buildings were being built, cities were expanding, and streets were being widened, paved with stones and fitted with streetlamps and gutters.
In May 1896 at the age of the 24, Helena set off to Australia aboard the Prinz Regent Luitpol with a parasol, twelve jars of face cream and twelve talismans. She changed her name as soon as she left Poland. On the passenger list, she was registered as Helena Juliet Rubinstein, aged 20 (four years younger than she really was).
“Everywhere she went she would look at the women, fascinated by their changing beauty. The blonde, the pale Italians of Liguria; the plump Neapolitans; the Egyptians and Yemenites, who were invisible save for the eyes that burned beneath the veil; the Ethiopians with their fine features; the Asians with their gentle faces. All of them—old, young, ugly and even the little girls clinging to their mothers—had their own particular charm, a way about them, with kohl-rimmed eyes, sparkling teeth that made their olive skin darker still, heavy jewelry around their necks, arms or ankles, bright clothing, and perfume so rich and pungent it made her head spin."
Needing a way to make money, she began to outline a plan that she would perfect as weeks went by. She would leave Coleraine and go to Melbourne where she would open a beauty salon. She would teach women to look after their skin and to protect it.
She would take a job at the dispensary the next town over for a pharmacist, Mr. Henderson, to earn the funds needed to recreate the face cream. His old-fashioned shop was cluttered with jars of herbs, bar, oils, potions, salves and ointments. She would also receive of loan of $1,500 from Helen MacDonald.
Learning as she went, Helena mixed spermaceti and lily bulbs, paraffin and almond peel, wax and herbs, lavender and honey.
In Australia, she was in the right place at the right time in a country where women were beginning to keep step with women's progress. In later years in London, Paris and New York, the scenario would be the same.
She would receive the recipe for the cream written as a postscript in a letter from her mother and every night before going to bed, she would try some version of the day's mixture on her face. It was either too liquid or not enough, too dry or too sticky. Dr. Lykusky would come to Australia and teach her how to remake the original cream, which she’d call Crème Valaze.
Before she even had the premise for her shop, she put her jars of Crème Valaze on sale at local markets, went door to door to pharmacies, and left them with stock to sell. Women also bought directly from her.
Helena opened her first beauty institute in Melbourne in 1902 at 243 Collins Street. That same year Australian women were among the first in the world to obtain the right to vote thanks to activism of feminists like Louisa Lawson. Aborigines were left out and would wait another 65 years to be granted full citizenship even though they lived in Australia for over 50,000 years.
She would always be a firm supporter of women in their movement for equality, which meant not only for fighting for their most basic rights, but also for the liberation of their bodies—first by freeing them from the shackles of the corset, then from the taboo of wearing makeup… until the 1920 cosmetics were only worn by prostitutes and actresses.
In 1904, she began to run advertisements in Table Talk in Melbourne, and in The Advertiser in Adelaide. She also began promoting mail order sales.
In 1907, Helena opened her second salon,in Sydney at 158 Pitt Street. In 1908, she opened an equally successful salon in Wellington, New Zealand.
She capitalized on women's burgeoning independence and turned equal rights into a marketing opportunity for her products.
At that time, women entrepreneurs were few but many had made a name for themselves in fashion. Lane Bryant designed plus-sized clothing and maternity clothes. Hattie Carnegie was the first American designer to launch a ready-to-wear label, and Carrie Marcus had set up Neiman Marcus, the first luxury department store.
The growing market for cosmetics was a boon for many emerging female careers. By 1914 there were 36,000 hairdressing salons 25,000 manicure salons, 30,000 massage and skincare parlors throughout American. One of the most successful women entrepreneurs of the time was Madam CJ Walker. Another pioneer was Harriet Hubbard Ayer, who manufactured and marketed a face cream called Luxuria.
Helena considered Elizabeth Arden her main rival in the United States. The women were alike in many ways—both lied about their origins, and routinely about their age. Both were of modest beginnings; Elizabeth Arden's mother was a nurse, her father a farmer. They were considered bold, authoritarian, tyrannical and hard as nails and genius in their own way.
In 1928, she sold the company to Lehman Brothers for $7.3 million. Its stock dropped from $60 to $3 per share during the Great Depression. She bought back $1.5 million in stock and increased the company valuation to $100 million.
Helena Rubinstein died April 1, 1965 of natural causes and is buried at Mount Olivet in Queens, New York. At the time of her death, the Helena Rubinstein brand was established in more than 30 countries.
Work has been indeed my best beauty treatment. I believe in hard work. It keeps the wrinkles out of the mind and spirit. It helps keep a woman young.
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- Alpern, Sara. “Helena Rubinstein.” Jewish Women's Archive.
- Fabe, Maxene. Beauty Millionaire: The Life of Helena Rubinstein. Simon & Schuster, 1966.
- Fitoussi Michèle. Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty. Gallic Books, 2013.
- Rubinstein, Helena. My Life for Beauty. Paperback Library, 1972.