Named after the Spanish word for "mask," mascara is a type of makeup that is applied to the eyelashes to make them appear darker, longer, and thicker. Though women, and occasionally men, have applied darkeners to their eyelashes for centuries, modern mascara was first created and sold around 1915, the beginning of a time when cosmetics were becoming increasingly popular.

Though women have used powders to darken their eyelashes for thousands of years, mascara has been sold in stores only since 1932. Photograph by Kelly A. Quin. Copyright © . Reproduced by permission of the photographer.

At many different times women have used substances to alter their appearance according to the fashion of the day, so the idea of mascara is not new. For example, around 400 B.C.E. ancient Greek women rubbed powdery black incense into their eyelashes for a dramatic appearance. In the post–American Civil War (1861–65) United States, wealthy northern women shocked older society by wearing mascara on their eyes as a sign of prosperity. Mascara first became socially acceptable during the early 1900s, as women began to express their independence and seek an energetic, sexy new fashion. Along with the traditional dark mascara, made fashionable by popular film stars of the time, there was also brightly colored mascara with applicators that looked like crayons.

In 1915 an American named T. L. Williams noticed that his sister Mabel colored her lashes with a petroleum jelly called Vaseline, mixed with coal dust for color. He began to package and sell the product, calling it Maybelline. Williams sold his mascara successfully through the mail until the 1930s. Then, the heavy use of cosmetics had become so fashionable that more and more women wanted to buy mascara. In 1932 Maybelline created a special package of mascara that sold in stores for ten cents.

Early mascara was packaged in cakes with a tiny brush for applying it. A woman would wet the brush and then rub it on the cake of mascara to create a paste to carefully brush over the lashes. In 1957 famous cosmetics manufacturer Helena Rubenstein (1870–1965) invented a liquid form of mascara that came in a tube with a brush inside.

For women who use cosmetics, and for some men, such as rock musicians, who wish to create a dramatic impression, mascara has remained popular into the twenty-first century. Though the general use of mascara to thicken and darken eyelashes has remained the same, there have been various improvements, such as the creation of waterproof mascara, non-irritating mascara, and mascara that curls the lashes.


Maybelline. (accessed on August 18, 2003).

Peiss, Kathy Lee. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.

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