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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,362

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This is the grave of Mary Kay Ash.

Born in 1918 in Hot Wells, Texas (nice name!), which is basically a neighborhood in the outer reaches of San Antonio today, Mary Kathryn Wagner grew up in a pretty regular household of the time. Both parents worked, her mother as a nurse and her father as a restaurant manager in Houston. She graduated from high school a bit early, in 1934, and then married the next year. The guy was a radio DJ and played in one of the Hawaiian-influenced bands popular in these years. She quickly had three children. The marriage was bad. He came back from World War II and they divorced soon after. He is the one who wanted the divorce, although she later admitted the marriage was terrible.

Despite the vision in many of our heads that wives and especially mothers did not work much before the late 1960s, this wasn’t true at all. Women worked outside the home all the time in these years. In 1939, Ash took a job with a company called Stanley Home Products, which was a sales job where you visited people’s homes. To me, this sounds like the worst work imaginable (or almost anyway). If you’ve never seen the 1969 documentary Salesman , directed by Albert and David Maysles, as well as Charlotte Zwerin, it’s a great look at a long lost kind of work and kind of consumption that never made sense to me. Some random dude comes to my door to sell me something. How about you back up before this slammed door breaks your nose? But it was a different time. She worked there for a long time, nearly a quarter century. It seems that she was pretty good at her job. But she faced the significant sexism of the time, the glass ceiling. In short, she quit in 1963 when a man she trained was promoted over her.

So this might have been the relative end of a career that had stalled out. By this time, she had remarried into some money; the brother of Mary Crowley, the direct sales home furnishings company that was successful. Creating sellers out of buyers and getting them to hold parties in their homes with friends to then buy this junk–heck I remember my mom and her friends doing this stuff still when I was kid in the 80s, selling cosmetics or tupperware or god knows what. Total scam. But common.

So Ash and her husband George decided that they could make some money this way too. At first, Ash’s strategy after quitting was writing a book for women in the professional workplace. But they figured they’d make way more money selling cosmetics in the home like her sister in law and all the other companies that did this at the time. But then her husband died of a heart attack. This was one month before the company was to open. By this time her sons were grown and they decided to invest with their mom. Mary Kay Cosmetics was born.

Again, this was a total scam because if you were a saleswoman and you didn’t move the goods, you were stuck with them, or that was often the case anyway. But it sure made Ash a lot of money. I also don’t want to completely denigrate the selling in home to your friends thing. That’s not because I don’t think it is a bad thing. I mostly do. It’s because there was obviously a greater need for this kind of salesmanship at this time. It was building community at the same time that it was taking advantage of community. For a whole generation of women–maybe two generations of women–this was a major part of their consumer histories. I am sure some historian has looked at this in more detail and can provide the contextual framework that I don’t have. So let’s just say I’m interested in the whole phenomenon.

Well, let’s just say it worked for Ash. She made buckets of cash. By 1967, the company made $1 million. It kept growing from there. This stuff wasn’t cheap. But it was glamorous, or was marketed that way. Ash herself played up the glamour. She was perfect for the role–a middle aged woman making it on her own, looking amazing, raising children, I mean this was the ideal for a lot of women. She was very big into selling overseas and was happy to contract out through the Global South as well. I don’t know Ash’s personal racial positions–though given her time and place I may very well not want to know–but I can say that she had no problem selling her products to Asians, Africans, or Latin Americans. Skin care became the real money maker for the company and because it tended to target older women more than women in their teens and twenties, it found a market. Women with expendable income who were concerned about their looks as they aged? That’s pretty much a endless stream of buyers right there.

Ash’s tastes were……well, let’s just say she was very Texan. She lived in Dallas and embodied its ridiculous over the top culture. She drove a pink Cadillac. She lived in a 30 room pink mansion with 28 foot high ceilings. She was personal friends with Liberace and took his decorating advice, which tells you all you need to know. In fact, one of the bathrooms in her mansion was a direct copy of one of Liberace’s bathrooms. Diamonds? Festooned!

Ash also ran business classes, which are almost always just ways to take money from marks. I don’t know if she really believed in these classes. Heck, she probably did. I don’t think she was dishonest, or I’ve never seen anything about that. She was a true believer in her form of capitalism. And since the world loves a rich person, she immediately became an expert on everything she got involved in and she was a big charity person. At these seminars, she would reward top earners with pink cars. It’s like being made in the mafia, but in pink.

Ash framed her success as a feminist story. She stated: ”In 1963, the social forces that now support the financial and legal equality of women had not gained public favor. And yet here was a company that would give women all the opportunities I had never had. I don’t think God wanted a world in which a woman would have to work 14 hours a day to support her family, as my mother had done. I believe he used this company as a vehicle to give women a chance.”

The company went public in 1968. Then she and her family and partners took it private again in 1985 when it made financial sense to do so. She was active with the company until 1996, when she had a stroke. She died in 2001 at the age of 83 and the company still exists today. The era of selling from your home to your friends is mostly over in the U.S. but it is very much not in other parts of the world, so the family is still raking in the bucks.

Mary Kay Ash is buried in Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park, Dallas, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other Americans involved in the cosmetics industry, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Annie Turnbo Malone is in Chicago and Helena Rubinstein is in Queens. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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