Monday, May 16, 2011

Savoir Fact (Or Fiction)

Ah! Madame Rubinstein, how much did we really know about her? Everything we practically knew about her was either invented or embellished by Madame, so that it was hard to know where fact left off and fiction began. Read her autobiography and you would be forgiven for thinking that she was well born, well educated, and a genius where it came to the formulation of new skin care preparations. One thing was certain, however that she gave the illusion of all these things with savoir faire, as seen below in the series of photos of Madame, playing the role of chemist, in her laboratory and factory, or as he called them her ‘kitchens’.

Story goes according to Madame that she was born (we know that much, but when is under debate) in Cracow Poland (Fact) to a wealthy wholesale food broker (Fiction?). Her mother supposedly had a strong interest in feminine beauty and again taught her young daughter the important lessons of looking after one’s skin. Even more critical was the 12 jars of moisturizing cream from a chemist Jacob Lykusky (no records have been found for his existence) that she packed in her luggage when venturing forth to Australia in the later half of the 19th century. Supposedly after making her fortune in Australia she was able to ‘study’ with the best dermatologists and chemists that Europe had to offer. Whether she did or not the photographs below gives one the impression that Madame knew what she was doing and took a hands on approach that gave her company and advertising copy the personal touch. Women were more than happy to buy her products after seeing Madame at work.

Fact of fiction, she knew what she was doing when posing for photographs like these. She was selling an image and sell it she did!


  1. Very interesting- Those photos are marketing genius- I agree, she knew how to appeal to her clients.

  2. A very savvy lady indeed. I read that she once said "There are no ugly women, just lazy ones". That's motivating, right?

    Your blog is different than many of the other ones that I read- I truly enjoy it! I'm giving you the Versatile Blogger Award- read my post today for the details :)

  3. I've always been intrigued by people who "invent" themselves. Madame Rubinstein certainly did. Another that comes to mind is Cary Grant. But then, if we live our lives well, we're all becoming somebody new.

  4. Helena is fascinating for so many reasons. But so many in the beauty industry...Laszlo, Arden, Lauder, etcetera mythologized themselves. Rubinstein was by far the most interesting, and I also feel she created the most luxurious and therefore aspirational image. I think that is part of the some concoction of paraffin and rose water which costs pennies, and making a fortune doing it.

    The photo of her juicing cucumbers is hilarious. She looks mesmerized by the process.

  5. don't kid yourself, she's cooking borscht in that pot.

  6. She could teach today's marketeers a thing or two!

    Norma, it is either that or chilled cucumber soup!

  7. Nice Post!! My dad was head of R&D, plant manager, and a vice president of HR during the time most of these pictures were taken. The last 6 pictures were taken at the HR plant in Greenvale (Roslyn) Long Island. It was located on Northern Blvd (25a). The plant was "state of the art" and opened in 1953 after being completed for a total cost of about $4 million. There was no outsourcing in those days, everything was done in-house. There was even a train stop at the factory on the Long Island Rail Road to allow raw materials to be transported there. The company was primarily family run. The packaging of their products was so far ahead of its time, equivalent is some ways to how Apple packages their products today. Madame knew how to connect with consumers. Pall corporation bought the plant and converted it to meet their business needs. They sold it

    There are all kinds of cool stories about her. Though she was one of the richest women of her time, her roots as a Polish peasant were in the background. She would purchase really expensive art at Manhattan Art galleries by bringing in cash in a paper bag. There is a story about how robbers broke into her penthouse in New York. They couldn't find her expensive gems and reportedly threatened to kill her if she didn't hand them over. Her response was "shoot me then." They didn't harm her and left empty handed, albeit frustrated. The gems were supposedly located in manila envelopes in a file cabinet.

    My father never spoke negatively about her, and thought very highly of her. He would play bridge with her when they had the chance. These were the best years for my father. Social life there was really good. Unfortunately, the golden era came to an end when HR was sold to Colgate right around 1973. Costs were becoming way too expensive to operate a plant of that magnitude. Colgate had no clue how to deal with such a company and they wound up selling it at a loss some years later. My dad is to the to the left of her in the cucumber picture.

  8. The above post has a editing error on my part. Pall corporation bought the HR Plant after it was acquired and sold by Colgate. Pall sold it, and last I checked the property was to become a condo community.


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