She was born Florence Nightingale Graham, the 5th child to her British immigrant parents, on December 31, 1878, in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada. They were a poor family. Her mother died when she was only 6 years old. She dropped out of high school to work and help support her family. She briefly pursued nursing in Toronto, where she befriended chemists at the hospital lab experimenting with lotions to eliminate skin blemishes. She worked odd jobs before moving to New York City in 1908, where she joined her elder brother, and worked briefly as a bookkeeper for the E. R. Squibb Pharmaceuticals Company. While at Squibb, Arden spent hours in their lab, learning about skincare. She next worked—again briefly—for Eleanor Adair, an early beauty culturist, as a “treatment girl”.
In 1909, Arden formed a partnership with Elizabeth Hubbard, another culturist. In 1910 they opened their own beauty shop, in the area of the upper class shops and department stores on Fifth Avenue. They were distinguished by their red door. The business relationship dissolved after six months. Florence scraped Elizabeth’s last name off the store’s sign, added the word “Arden”, apparently from Tennyson’s poem “Enoch Arden”, and founded what is now known as Elizabeth Arden, Inc. She had begun both an empire and a new industry.
Her fundamental belief was that beauty should not be a veneer of makeup, but an intelligent cooperation between science and nature in order to develop a woman’s finest natural assets. Her company would go on to manufacture more than 300 cosmetic products and gross $60 million per year.
Her list of accomplishments is as extensive as her line of cosmetics, she was the first to:
- create travel-size beauty products, in 1917,
- in the cosmetics business, to train and send out a team of traveling demonstrators and saleswomen,
- make a cosmetics commercial that was shown in movie houses,
- open a destination beauty spa in the United States, Maine Chance residential spa, in Rome, Maine, in 1934,
- formulate different shades of lipstick and foundation to appeal to a broader audience,
- coordinate colours of eye, lip, and facial makeup,
- create the “makeover”.
She was the second woman to grace the cover of Time magazine (the first being Queen Elizabeth II) in 1946, as well as being one of the biggest names in horse racing in the 1940s; her horses winning more than $500,000 in prize money in 1945.
During the early 1900’s, makeup had a negative reputation because theatre performers and sex workers were the primary users. Arden targeted middle aged and plain women for whom beauty products promised a youthful, beautiful image, with the idea that women could improve their appearance with a bit of makeup; her thoughts gradually gained acceptance. She believed and taught that “To be beautiful was the birthright of every woman.”
In 1912 she marched with 15,000 suffragettes in New York, many wearing red lipstick as a symbol of strength. Her company supplied the lipstick. That same year Arden also traveled to France, to learn beauty and facial massage techniques used in the finest Parisian beauty salons.
She persistently sought to bring a scientific approach to skincare formulations and in 1914 collaborated with chemist A. Fabian Swanson, for whom, in 1916, she set up a lab for in New York City, so that he could produce her Venetian Cream Amoretta, and other products in her Ardena line.
Elizabeth Nightingale Graham changed her name to Elizabeth Arden in 1915. She married Thomas Jenkins Lewis, her banker, that same year and in doing so became an American citizen. They were divorced in 1934.
Her uncompromising vision to create the newest and absolute best products, packaging, and services, that women not only needed, but desired, found her expanding her international operations, opening salons in both Paris and London in the early 1920s, and marketing her cosmetics internationally by selling them wholesale to pharmacies and department stores. Arden maintained her companies image of exclusivity and quality by selling her product for a premium price.
By the 1930s, she had opened more than 100 Red Door salons in international fashion capitals around the globe. She owned every one, and all of her company stock, was president and chairman of the board, and Fortune magazine said at the time that she “earned more money than any other businesswoman in the history of the United States.”
She married Prince Michael Evlanoff on 30 December 1942 and was divorced from him in 1944.
As the threat of a second world war loomed large, Arden stayed informed on the situation in Europe and planned ahead, in anticipation of losing her income in Paris and London, she opened salons in Central and South America.
In recognition of her contribution to the cosmetics industry, she was awarded “Légion d’Honneur”, in 1962, by the French government. She never retired, she maintained her strong style of leadership despite her frequent bouts of illness, and two minor strokes, in later years.
Although often first, Arden, was not alone. She had found a rival in Helena Rubinstein, who from Poland, by way of Australia, had also set up her company in New York in the 1910s.
They maintained a well documented feud, and although they lived and worked only blocks apart in New York for over 50 years, the two women never actually met. When one of them developed a new product, the other was quick to come out with a competing product. It was said that the rivalry inspired them both to greater creativity
Elizabeth Arden died of complications following a stroke at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. on October 18, 1966 at the age of 84. She was interred in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York, under the name Elizabeth N. Graham.
Today the company operates in more than 100 countries around the world and includes salons in the United States and Europe, with a presence in Australia and South America as well.
The Elizabeth Arden Company has been owned by a continuum of companies and corporations and in 2016 Revlon Inc. acquired Elizabeth Arden Inc. for about $419 million, with the hope that the purchase could reinvigorate two aging cosmetics giants brands.
Elizabeth Arden’s story remains alive through the company she created, as well as several biographies, among them, “The Powder and the Glory”, which was recreated in a 90 minute PBS documentary, and “War Paint” which was turned into a musical, and opened on New York City’s “Broadway” on April 6, 2017, and has earned four Tony Award nominations, including Best Actress in a Leading Role for Christine Ebersole’s portrayal of Arden.