The Beauty of the Miniature: Helena Rubinstein in New York City

Madame Helena Rubinstein
Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965) was a revolutionary force in the world of beauty. She was an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, and a marketing genius. During a long and successful career that spanned six decades and made her one of the richest women in the world, Rubinstein operated salons all over the world and launched scores of products that were sold globally. She was a magnificent purveyor of the idea that all women can find personal satisfaction through the pursuit of beauty.

Rubinstein’s signature products and “Days of Beauty” at one of her many salons made her the symbol of the modern woman, out in the world, looking her best.
Rubinstein was born in Krakow, Poland. In 1891, she moved to Melbourne, Australia, where she opened her first salon.  She later lived in London and Paris (where she opened a salon in 1912) before moving to New York City with her first husband, journalist Edward Titus. The year was 1914, and the couple, along with their two children, came to the city to escape the Great War in Europe.

Rubinstein’s Salon, Paris, 1913
“A Pretty Complexion” Ad in 1913 La Petite Illustration
In 1915, Rubinstein opened her first New York salon, the “Maison de Beaute Valaze” at 15 E. 49th Street, and soon, she was the talk of the town. Vogue magazine, in particular, could not get enough of this amazing woman whom everyone called, “Madame.”
While Rubinstein would own five homes around the world, and would always have a special place in her heart for Paris, she made a significant impact on New York City. From a first apartment on West End Avenue to a Central Park West flat in the 1930s, Rubinstein eventually moved to the East side, and settled in on Park Avenue. (First at 895 Park Avenue and later 625 Park Avenue. She also had a private residence above her Fifth Avenue Salon.)
Madame and the Prince: New York Digs, 1941
A Vision of Beauty: Rubinstein’s Residence (above her salon at 715 Fifth) MCNY, see more here
Rubinstein’s Park on Park Avenue: A Royal Garden
1928 Compact by Dali

Known for her tremendous dinner parties and swanky guest list (after a divorce from Titus, she married a Prince, Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia). She was also know for her decorating skills. Life Magazine observed that her Park Avenue residence was “perhaps the most arrestingly decorated apartment in New York.” An avid collector of art, Rubinstein showcased Picassos and Renoirs, African Masks, and lavishly decorated rooms, from a gold and white baroque dining room to a “dream room” modeled after the work of surrealist Salvador Dali. (Some of Dali’s artwork was also displayed in Rubinstein’s apartment, including several murals; she and Dali were great friends and the artist designed a compact for her in 1928).

Organizing the Beautiful: Rubinstein and Her Jewelry

There is no question that Rubinstein was a collector of things: art, jewelry, rugs, American glass, artifacts–and she collected with an eye to choosing a range of quality–from the most expensive items (in 1941, her jewelry was valued at one million dollars) to the “junk store” variety. And she was famous for decking out her salons with artwork and beautiful rugs. As a collector, according to Life, she was “a female small-scale Hearst.”

Here the term “small-scale” is applicable to Rubinstein’s love of ordering and decorating spaces (whether that space be an apartment or a female face). Along with all of her other collections, she also collected miniatures and crafted spectacular rooms of various styles. (The rooms are now housed in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, see a slideshow here.)

A Rubinstein Miniature: Queen Anne Dining Room

Rubinstein’s love of the delicate and small object was, no doubt, related to her love of beauty, of arranging all the smaller parts to make a stunning whole. And her apartment, style, and proclivity for collecting, mirrored her approach to beauty.

A Careful Arrangement: Rubinstein and the Miniature

Rubinstein offered customers much more than a pot of face cream (although she launched her empire with a single face cream treatment, called “Valaze.”) She not only offered “treatments” (along with a line of products) but she also sold a kind of philosophy. Her products were not simply part of the vast array of available creams and tonics on the market. “If you wish merely to play make-believe with your complexion,” read one of her clever ads addressed to New York City women, “there are to accommodate you hundreds of more or less pretentious ‘make-up parlors’ all the way from lofty Fifth Avenue to the humbler downtown sections of New York.”

Rubinstein’s approach was different from others in the beauty industry at the time.  She herself was out in the world seeing what it had to offer. She was a stylish globetrotter, part scientist, part artist. And she used the image of herself as a modern woman squarely within her product line and approach. (She was famous for posing for portraits and, especially in the first decades of her business, she usually used self portraits to advertise her product, hence connecting her very own “image” with the items she sold.)

1920 Ad, with a likeness of Madame

Rubinstein’s approach asked women to see the pursuit of beauty as necessary for themselves. Women needed to attend to themselves, their appearance, their complexion, in order to attend to themselves as full citizens in the world. Beauty was a means to freedom, as it were.

A Mecca in New York City
“Visit her now,” read an ad in a 1916  issue of Harper’s Bazaar, “or write her. . . to free yourself from the freckles, the sunburn, the hateful sallowness–the fine lines and the coarse wrinkles, the black heads and open pores,–let her tell you how that coarseness of skin may be made delicate and fine, and the sweetness and fascination of purity and color be made once more your own.”

The idea of making beauty “one’s own” was a powerful elixir in an American culture on the verge of liberating women, not only by granting women suffrage in 1920, but by opening up the possibility that a woman could take control of her own life. As a woman in business, in charge of her own empire, Madame Rubinstein indeed epitomized what she was selling.

Storefront for Beauty: 715 Fifth Avenue

After World War One, Rubinstein moved into a new salon at 46 West 57th street. “From the moment you enter the door,” read a 1919 ad for the new salon, “you realize that you are in a different atmosphere . . . The whole place is an inspiration to the actress, to the writer, to the woman of beauty.”

In 1937, she would move her salon to 655 Fifth Avenue, and later, to 715 Fifth Avenue (where she maintained a private residence on the upper floors). It was that “sleek little salon in New York,” Life Magazine reported in July 1941,  that would serve as “the capital of the worldwide beauty business.”
A Clean Well-Lighted Place: The Fifth Avenue Salon

Keenly aware of the ways in which the commodity of “beauty” was sold, Rubinstein offered her clients many things, from cosmetics to facials, but she also offered things that were not tangible: a promise and an escape. To visit her salon was not only to “free yourself from… hateful sallowness,” but it was also an escape from the daily world to be indulged and inspired. Beyond that, her salon was also a no-nonsense place where one could be “fixed,” as it were.

“Behind its slick facade,” Life Magazine continued, “the Fifth Avenue salon is a super-garage and repair shop for feminine faces and bodies. Here, in the Rubinstein ‘Day of Beauty,’ ladies are stretched, exercised, rubbed, scrubbed, wrapped in hot blankets, bathed in infra-red rays, massaged dry and massaged under water, and bathed in milk–all before lunch.”

Repair Room: Beauty is Efficient
Keep Your Powder Dry: NYC Class for Salesgirls at Rubinstein’s Salon

In 1941, a “Day of Beauty” treatment cost $25 (no small fee given that minimum wage at this point was roughly 41 cents per hour). The salon certainly appealed to a high-income clientele, but at the same time, Rubinstein was a major employer for working class women of all ages, training 2,700 women a year as salesgirls.

A Laboratory of Beauty: Madame’s Elixers

Beyond her salons, her products were displayed in department stores, drugstores, and pharmacies across the country, and any woman or girl could peruse the selection, (assisted by a salesperson who just might have been coached by one of Rubinstein’s traveling instructors). There was something very real-world and down to earth about this approach: confront the consumer at the potential point of sale not only with the item, but also with the promise and the philosophy.

 Small & Delicate: “Heaven Sent,” 1941

Rubinstein’s artistic eye is most certainly revealed in the careful designs of her products. They are smart and lovely. They are beautiful and artistic. But they are also utilitarian and portable. Who could blame a woman for wanting to purchase one these enticing items so beautifully crafted? Who would not want all 629 items in her catalogue of products?

I’ll take it! Compact & Lipstick, c. 1930
Four-Cast for Beauty, 1940s
“Apple Blossom Time, Jewelled Perfumette,” 1938, with Carrying Case

Unlike Elizabeth Arden (who was always cast as Rubinstein’s arch rival, but may simply be viewed as a competitor in the same industry) Madame’s products were most often purchased by women for themselves. (Arden’s, it has been asserted, were more likely purchased as gifts.)

Making a gift to oneself was a central theme of Rubinstein’s philosophy. To pamper and primp and to care for and cultivate one’s own appearance was, to Rubinstein, an act of artistry. And in her careful arrangement of the rooms she inhabited, in her collections and arrangements of things in space, Rubinstein viewed the world as a thing to be ordered. The face, the body were both “canvases” upon which cosmetics could be applied, turning a blank surface into a work of art.

Face time: Rubinstein Demonstrates her Artistic Skills
Confronting the World: The Product’s Promise

Instant. All Day. Easy. Glamor. The promise of these things was made real in a small bottle, a scent, a compact, a cream, a portable, stylish object. Helena Rubinstein understood the need to cater to women with the beautiful, the delicate, the inspiring. Care for yourself, she seemed to suggest with each product line. (She also literally asked women to care for themselves, opening a gym in her salon and offering tips for healthy eating.)

What Rubinstein offered was clearly what many women wanted. The range of her career–from the 1910s to the 1960s–spanned a time of major changes in the status of women in terms of economics, politics, social boundaries and much more; Her salon was a refuge; her products a gift. Now, women could face that changing world with a sense of control.

Madame at Work: She retired at age 90

As she oversaw the success and expansion of her business throughout the years, she must have marveled at the changes witnessed. After all, once upon a time, women did not vote; they did not dine out by themselves; they did not run multi million dollar enterprises, and they did not, heaven forbid, paint their faces.

Helena Rubinstein was just one voice that extolled women to think differently. She may have lived for many decades in New York City, but she truly was a woman of the world.

~Jenny Thompson

Madame: A Woman of the World ( Library of Congress)


  1. I found a red jeweled bottle of Apple Blossom Time in my collection of perfume bottles and have not been able to find any others like it online except your blue one. This one is still 3/4 full of perfume. Any idea whether the red were made at the same time or a later issue?


    • Well, it looks like the Apple Blossom Time “jewelled perfumette” was sold in the 1930s, possibly 1940s. But in the 1950s, the perfume “Apple Blossom Time” was re-launched in different packaging. The bottle is much different! I would imaging therefore that your red bottle was from that same vintage as the blue (1930s). But it’s just a guess.


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