A Very Brief History of New York Perfume Houses - and a Prize Draw
In modern times, New York City has truly become the co-capital of the perfume industry along with Paris, with all the major players having offices in the U.S. and so many famous fashion designers of modern times such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass and Donna Karan introduced their own fragrances too. However, it was not always thus; at one time France ruled the perfume world and American houses were considered second-rate at best. Dozens of domestic cosmetic and fragrance firms rose and fell in the early decades of the twentieth century, many of them doomed to fail for reasons of both quality and competition, and American fashion designers of the time introduced their own perfumes just like the French couturiers did. Out of all this emerged some enduring classics, and more than a few which deserved more recognition but languished in obscurity.
Other New York based companies have long since passed into oblivion, but their names still echo in the minds of collectors and perfume historians. Blanchard Perfumes only released a few scents, but the names Jealousy and Evening Star still arouse longing in the hearts of vintage fragrance aficionados. The name Lander may be familiar to most Americans for their toiletries such as deodorant and shampoo, but the company also produced a number of perfumes including Cave Man (1943) and Golden Gardenia (1947). The Mary Chess line is no more, but this All-American firm was noted for its quality perfumes, including White Lilac (1932) and Tapestry (1934.) One of the least known names today is Nettie Rosenstein, a talented fashion designed who released only five fragrances, all of high quality. The most famous of these was a wonderful Oriental style perfume called Odalisque in 1953.
I have long been an admirer of the Helena Rubinstein cosmetic line, and I was very disappointed when the company was sold to L'Oreal and its products withdrawn from the U.S. market some years ago. Helena (née Chaja) Rubinstein, a Polish immigrant who gained considerable success in Australia before coming to New York, introduced a large number of perfumes, including the very popular Apple Blossom in 1936 and of course the enduring icon Heaven Sent in 1941. The latter's formula is now owned by Dana and the fragrance is still sold today, but of course it's not the same as it once was. Two fragrances that were introduced after “Madame” Rubinstein died in 1965 were Courant (1972), a lovely sophisticated floral chypre, and Barynia (1985) a little-known but very beautiful fresh aldehydic floral. I own and wear both of these excellent perfumes. Anyone with even a passing interest in the beauty business probably knows of her great and contentious rivalry with Elizabeth Arden; these two titans of business fought their way to the top and paved the way for female-run businesses. (Recently a new Helena Rubinstein brand perfume called Wanted was introduced as part of the line's re-entry to the U.S. Market, but I found it formulaic and uninteresting, although quite pretty.) The excellent television documentary called The Powder & The Glory, based on the well-researched book called War Paint: Miss Elizabeth Arden and Madame Helena Rubinstein — Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead is well worth watching, or read the book if you really want to dig into this fascinating study of two American beauty tycoons.
I am offering a drawing for a selection of vintage American perfume samples to one lucky U.S. reader – Prince Matchabelli Added Attraction and Stradivari eau de toilettes, Nettie Rosenstein Odalisque eau de parfum and Mary Chess Tapestry eau de toilette. Please leave a comment in order to be included in the draw, which will be open for one week only. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.)
Image credits: Prince Matchabelli Beloved crown bottle from collector site beckerstreet.com. Vintage Nettie Rosenstein Perfumes ad from EBay image.