North American Almanac (1926)

Let’s Face It

Around the early 20th Century, there was a developing beauty industry in Indianapolis. And, as the whole country emerged from the ravages of WWI, there came a dramatic acceptance and use of cosmetics. The 1920s also saw the arrival of a particular beauty craze – complexion clays. Until the 1920s, the use of beauty clay was largely restricted to spas, salons, and barber shops, but around 1922, a number of companies in the US began to promote clay as a complexion purifier, each promoting its particular clay and aiming their advertisements at the individual consumer. The claims made by these companies generally concentrated on their ability to draw out “skin poisons.” Beauty clay left a behind a tightening sensation as it dried, convincing many consumers that long-lasting changes were possible.

The claims made by these companies generally concentrated on their ability to draw out “skin poisons.” (Beauty clay does leave behind a temporary tightening sensation as it dries, so convincing many consumers of long-lasting changes wasn’t too hard.)

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Complexion Clay does not cover up blemishes and impurities—but removes them at once. It cannot harm the most sensitive skin. There is a feeling almost of physical relief as the facial pores are relieved, as the magic clay draws out the accumulated self-poisons and impurities. You will be amazed when you see the results of only one treatment—the whole face will appear rejuvenated. Not only will the beauty of your complexion be brought to the surface but enlarge pores will be normally closed, tired lines and bagginess will vanish, mature lines will be softened. Complexion Clay brings life and fervor to every skin cell and leaves the complexion clear, firm, smooth, fresh looking.
— Advertisement, 1922

In 1923, the Chemical Laboratory of the American Medical Association (AMA) published a review of the complexion clays that were then on the American market. Their analysis, based on a report in the publication Hygenia, indicated that all clay facial products were essentially made from dirt and water. These findings were widely reported in the press. The criticisms were serious but probably not as damaging as the fact that the review included a formula for complexion clay. So, if you had access to dirt and could make a mud pie, you could make your own. No need for fancy bottling and unnecessary expense.

As the profit margins of complexion clays evaporated, many firms lost interest in them. However, complexion clays, in one form or another, continued to be sold. Clay packs – especially those that were salon made – have remained a staple spa treatment to the present day.

Complexion clays generated the first review by the AMA on a class of cosmetics. Until that time, the AMA had concentrated mainly on medical quacks and nostrums (which Indianapolis also had a-plenty) with only the occasional mention of specific beauty products. The complexion clay inquiry lead to a number of confrontations in other product lines, and it played a role in the eventual passing of the American Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, despite attempts by the cosmetic industry to fend it off.

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Indianapolis companies that manufactured a number of beauty products around the turn of the last century include Cushman Chemical, Boncilla, and the Madame C. J. Walker Company.

You may find the history of the Boncilla Company interesting. Check out the following links:

A Tale of Mud Pack Marketing

Boncilla Cosmetics




What beauty brands fill your cupboard?

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