Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Elizabeth Arden: Canadian Built an American Cosmetics Empire

A girl from small-town Canada immersed herself in the cosmetics trade and then initiated a company that grew into a world wide phenomenon – Elizabeth Arden.

On December 31, 1878, a baby girl was born to the Graham family in Woodbridge, Upper Canada. The baby was named after a beloved and renowned nurse, Florence Nightingale Graham. Emigrated from England, parents William and Susan carved out their living as farmers in southern Ontario, raising a family of four children. Graham’s father had a passion for raising racehorses, but had no success in Canada. Contracting consumption, Susan died when Florence was only six years old.

Developing Cosmetics in the Kitchen

Building on her name, Graham began the study of nursing herself. The care of the ailing may have been the life’s work of the original Florence Nightingale, but it wasn’t her namesake’s cup of tea. Graham dropped out of the Toronto nursing program in 1909. Instead, Graham was interested in cosmetics, attempting to develop creams to sell by mail from her parents’ kitchen. Needing an education or a job, the young woman followed her older brother to New York City.

The E.R. Squibb Pharmaceutical Company hired Graham as a bookkeeper. The laboratories captured her attention, spending much time absorbing information about skin care. Moving on in a short time, Graham briefly held a job performing skin treatments at one of the salons of Eleanor Adair. Considered one of the top beauty experts with her own products and treatments, the Irish Adair owned salons in England and France before setting up shop in New York.

Make-up Mogul Elizabeth Arden

Cosmetics Mogul Elizabeth Arden

Business Name ‘Elizabeth Arden’

In New York City, Graham closely observed women’s fashions and trends. Absorbing the basics of the business, Graham “was an eager learner and soon exceeded Mrs. Adair in her popularity with clients,” said the Elizabeth Arden Biography on Famous Women and Beauty. “The dream of Florence was no longer to sell the beauty cream by mail, but to have her own beauty salon.” In 1909, Graham opened a salon with a business partner named Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard. A “culturist,” Hubbard developed her own line of tonics and cosmetics, and Graham performed treatments and sold the products.

The partnership did not last. “When the partnership dissolved, she [Graham] coined the business name “Elizabeth Arden” from her former partner and from Tennyson’s poem ‘Enoch Arden’,” said “Elizabeth Arden Information and Designer History” of Your New Fragrance. The Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Salon opened in New York in 1910. Building her skills, the new businesswoman Elizabeth Arden sailed to France two years later to learn new methods of facial massage. She returned home with new techniques and a new range of cosmetics she devised in France that included rouges powders and eye make-up. The colourful make-up was sharp turn in beauty for women; in that era, it was entertainers who generally wore much make-up.

Chemist Devised Arden Cosmetics

Furthering her collection, Arden teamed with chemist A. Fabian to create the luxurious “Venetia Cream Amoretta,” “Arden Skin Tonic,” nail polish, lip colours, rouges, and foundations in shades to match skin colouring. Arden’s blends brought science into the cosmetic world. Opening a second salon in Washington, DC, Arden also sold her appealing products in department stores with great success, becoming a familiar name to women looking for beauty products and healthy skin care.

Arden opened salons around the world from 1915 onward, becoming one of the most famous names of the times. Working hard in her business, Arden’s workdays “lasted 18 hours, but even in the most busy time she never missed her own facial treatments before going to bed,” said the Elizabeth Arden biography. The busy woman still had time for a private life. Marrying banker Thomas J. Lewis in 1915, there was suggestion that her drive for business success was too much of a burden on her marriage. Divorcing in 1934, Arden married Russian Prince Michael Evlanoff in 1942. The union lasted only two years.

FBI Opened File in 1941

Arden’s rapidly expanding business caught the suspicious eye of the American government. The FBI opened a file on Elizabeth Arden in 1941, under the suggestion that her European salons were hiding Nazi operations.

Elizabeth Arden Enjoying the horse races, photographer and date unknown

Elizabeth Arden Enjoying the horse races, photographer and date unknown

Sharing an interest in horses with her father, in the early 1930s Arden bought Maine Chance Farm, a thoroughbred breeding and racing facility in Lexington, Kentucky. Collaborating with equestrian professionals, Arden was credited for having “a good eye for horses herself and chose a number of successful runners on her own,” according to Your New Fragrance. In 1947, one of Arden’s horses, Jet Pilot, won the Kentucky Derby, landing the proud owner on the cover of Time Magazine. In later years, more of Arden’s horses reached top honours.

Arden Buried in Sleepy Hollow

On October 19, 1966, Elizabeth Arden – Florence Nightingale Graham – died in New York City at age 87. She was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the name Elizabeth N. Graham inscribed on her headstone. One of the wealthiest women in the world, Arden was worth between $30 and $40 million when she died. In 2003, the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inducted Elizabeth Arden Graham posthumously for her racing industry contributions. The Elizabeth Arden company continues to create products that delight consumers.

Elizabeth Arden built an American cosmetics empire through her comprehensive vision and unfailing determination, becoming one of the most recognized business names around the globe. No small feat for a small-town girl from Canada.


This article first appeared on in 2011   Copyright Susanna McLeod

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