6 Iconic 20th Century Women in Beauty (you’ve never heard of)

It would surprise most if not many that if you visited a hair salon in the early part of the last century your experience would’ve been very different: your hair would be “dressed” by a man, never a woman. Women’s empowerment made titanic strides in the 20th century and one of the career fields most accessible to them that opened the door for many was the beauty industry. Join us as we share some of the most iconic women who shaped everything from hair extensions to beauty products. They were pioneers in the field of beauty, who became powerful businesswomen at a time when it was largely unheard of.

MARTHA MATILDA HARPER: INVENTED THE MODERN SALON

martha harper beauty icon

Born in Ontario, Canada in 1857, Martha Matilda Harper revolutionized the art of hairdressing by inventing the modern concept of beauty hair salons for women. But that’s not all, she invented the concept of franchising in the business world! In 1882 she moved to New York, and started to make a hair tonic based on natural haircare products that weren’t as toxic and damaging as virtually all hair solutions. With her first savings of $360 dollars, she started a smart entrepreneur career, based on active marketing and a great sense of innovation. She opened her first salon, with the slogan "Health is Beauty ”, meaning that she left apart any idea of beauty as vanity, underlying the importance of good health as the reflection of a harmonic appearance. At the same time, she studied with tutors to improve her education, etiquette, and the art of elegance and good manners. In 1882 she moved to one of the most prestigious buildings in Rochester, New York.

martha harper method

Instinctively she knew that if you wanted to sell something, you had to be authentic and use it yourself. She grew her hair to legendary floor-length, keeping it always clean and shiny and marketed photos of her massive mane in ads. Amongst other contributions, she also invented the “shampoo reclining chair”. At that time women used to groom their hair in the privacy of the home, assisted by domestic workers, or by hairdressers visiting them at home. Martha opened her first salon for women in Rochester, NY, the "Harper's Salon”. It quickly became a smashing success. When other women wanted to open salons based on her model, she proposed to them a contract of franchising, along with a Barber School, which was called "Harper's Method". The contract included that all the purchases of beauty products should be made at Harper's Salon. She also established rules to hire and train new Harper Salons' staff. At the end of the century, there were 200 salons already opened in the United States, and in 1928, 500 Harper salons were operating around the world, most of them in the United States, Germany and Scotland. Harper passed away in 1950 leaving a lasting impression on the modern beauty industry…which saw an explosion of growth popping up on every street corner in the 1950’s.

VALERIA ZIMMER: THE FIRST MAIL ORDER EXTENSIONS COMPANY

valeria zimmer beauty icon

Over 130 years ago if you wanted hair extensions shipped to you, you’d look no further than Mrs. Valeria Zimmer, founder of the first mail order extensions company in America.Founded in 1891, the mail order “Hair Switches” business in Auburn, Indiana by Mrs. Valeria Zimmer…an extension love r herself who grew increasingly frustrated by the inflated pricing and inconsistent stock of hair switches. Her solution? Offer the women of America a mail order solution to clip, save and mail in their combings and cut hair…and in return for about $1.50 on average, Zimmer’s team would assemble all manner of braids, chignons and other designs and ship it back. Her business reached its zenith in 1910 at the DeKalb County Fair where she garnered national attention. So successful was the business that Mrs. Zimmer sold the business in 1915 where it became known as the Zimmer Hair Bazaar and diversified to offer salon & spa services out of their corporate headquarters. The business flourished until the 1920’s where the Sears Roebuck catalogue gained dominance and pre-made hair extensions became less scarce…dropping the price to become more affordable for all.

JEANNE DEVEREUX: THE FIRST LICENSED STYLIST IN NYC

Jeanne Devereux

Though female hairdressers were popping up everywhere, it wouldn’t be until 1927 that a woman battled her way into one of the most coveted cities for hair in the world: New York City. That woman was Miss Jeanne Devereux, the Big Apple’s first licensed female hair stylist. While in Europe women had been common in barber shops and beauty parlors, here in the United States it wasn’t until the 1920’s when women began to show up in the predominantly male run business. She is photographed here with her very first customer.

THE RAHVIS SISTERS: INNOVATIVE HAIR & FASHION DESIGNERS

It’s almost unthinkable in the 21st century to imagine a time when both the hair and fashion industries were a male dominated category. This road to recognition didn’t come fast…or easy. It was only a few years ago in 2012 that Hollywood gave hairstyling it’s due recognition, creating the first Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. In the 1950’s a titanic shift began occurring as women post-war were fully out of the kitchen and more empowered to make their own way. This lost footage gives a small glimpse into the world of fashion and hair design at a shockingly sexist time when women were still battling for recognition in their own right. 


When this footage was shot, a woman named Rose Evansky was a rising star in hair history. She was the first female hairdresser to become a true household name…even teaching to hair legends such as Nigel Davies and Leonard Lewis. Vidal Sassoon himself was inspired by her. 

ROSE EVANSKY: PIONEER HAIRDRESSER

Born in 1922, Rose Canaan early life is the stuff of legend…before she became hairdressing royalty. Born in Germany as a Jew, Rose was one of the last children to get on the famous Kinder Transport that helped children escape from Nazi Germany. After arriving in England, she then had to endure the London Blitz…however all was not all darkness and despair. She met and married hairdresser Albert Evansky on Valentine’s Day 1943 and following the end of World War II they opened Evansky’s in Mayfair. She was skilled in making human hair wigs as well custom hair wefts and pieces from which she created all manner of custom styles for her high end clientele. 


By the time the 60’s rolled around and Mayfair was the place to be for hair, there were two things she hated: the bulbous overhead dryers …and straightened, tightly permed styles. One Wednesday in 1962 she was strolling past a barbershop in Brook Street and saw the barber drying the front of a man’s hair with a brush and a hand held dryer. The image struck her…and she thought, “why can’t I finish or shape women that way?”

On Friday she found herself a willing client and began experimenting. As fate would have it, Lady Clare Rendlesham (editor of Vogue magazine and later champion of 60s style-setters) walked in and shouted, “What are you DOING Rose!?” She then ran out of the salon. Figuring her career was over, Rose was crushed…but later confused when Rendlesham reappeared with Barbara Griggs of the Evening Standard newspaper. She then disappeared AGAIN and began bringing in people off the street who had never seen such a thing.

By the next day the new “blow wave technique” was in every newspaper in the city and Rose was the talk of the town. Her husband Albert however wasn’t so pleased…he ended up throwing out the 20 new hood dryers they had just purchased.

Her legacy went beyond just the technique she invented. It was Rose who inspired and taught Nigel Davies and even the legendary Leonard Lewis (aka Leonard of Mayfair) who in turn trained John Frieda, Nicky Clarke and Daniel Galvin. Not one for the spotlight however, she retired…vanished from the scene and retired to the English coast line.

She passed away at the age of 94 on November 21st, 2016…followed shortly thereafter by her greatest student: Leonard Lewis (Leonard of Mayfair).

GRAZIA DE ROSSI: HAIRDRESSER TO THE STARS

Grazia De Rossi

As Rose Evansky was doing her thing over in England, here in the United States a woman named Grazia De Rossi and her husband Albert were making a name for themselves in Hollywood. By 1958, author Truman Capote was a rising star with his novella “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”. Paramount Pictures purchased film rights and immediately cast Hepburn in the role. Her character Holly Golightly was presented as the modern, eccentric café society girl, whose look was crafted by famed Hollywood hairdresser Grazia de Rossi. She envisioned a full, bouffant backcombed hairstyle with hair extension pieces that were called “flashes”' at the time. This look was a sensation in 1961, with Heburn’s dark brunette hair with light blonde streaks being practically unheard of. It became the #1 style for weddings, proms and special occasions for decades and still remains a timeless classic. Her makeup artist? Her husband Albert!

hair extensions quizhair extensions quiz