One of my favorite legends surrounding St. Lawrence Market is the one about a very determined 5-year-old girl with the unlikely name of Florence Nightingale Graham who would help her father a local farmer from Woodbridge Ont. sell his goods at the market back in the 1890’s.
This little girl standing amongst the squealing pigs, noisy chickens and barrels of carrots was thrilled to be part of the hustle and bustle but most of all learning the art of making a deal.
It was in this vibrant market environment that the seed was planted eventually propelling the precocious youngster to become one of the wealthiest women in the world, helming a vast cosmetics empire known today as Elizabeth Arden.
Born on Dec 31, 1884 in Woodbridge Florence, after working a few seasons at St. Lawrence Market, attended then dropped out of nursing school.
In 1909 she joined her brother in Manhattan, taking a job as a bookkeeper for the E.R. Squibb Pharmaceuticals Company.
It was there Florence started to learn about skincare and eventually got herself a job with Eleanor Adair, an early beauty culturist (forerunner to the modern esthetician) as a “treatment girl.”
In 1909 Florence formed a partnership with Elizabeth Hubbard another treatment girl and it was after the partnership dissolved, that she took on the name Elizabeth Arden using the first name of her former partner and from Tennyson’s poem, “Enoch Arden.”
Her brother seeing that the newly reborn Elizabeth Arden was well worth the investment loaned her $6,000 to set up her first salon on Fifth Avenue.
What made Elizabeth’s beauty parlor different than others of the day was the fact that Arden made the beauty business respectable for the everyday woman, pricey yes, but that was also part of the appeal.
In the late 19th and early 20th century face makeup and beauty products were mostly used by actresses, showgirls and prostitutes and rarely if at all by the general population. The thinking of the day was that a Victorian woman’s chastity was her most cherished asset and a clean porcelain-like face free of any greasy face paint except for the tiniest amount of blush was a reflection of her modesty.
So much so that when the Canadian Criminal Code was enacted in 1892 any women could be suspect of “being a common prostitute if found in a public place and does not, when required, give a good account of herself.”
In other words wearing heavy makeup in public was a good enough reason to arrest a woman. With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the coming of the more stylish Edwardian Age before the First World War, a “painted face” was becoming a bit more acceptable to the fashion conscience women of the upper classes but still considered a tad scandalous if worn during the day.
Also a woman who ran her own business in the 19th century was rare nevertheless here in Toronto in 1897 only two years after the opening of his massive new store at Queen and Yonge Robert Simpson died leaving his wife Mary and daughter Margaret to run the company.
In an era when women couldn’t vote and weren’t even considered persons, managing a company was difficult even for the most formidable females as most salesmen were uncomfortable dealing with women in a business situation.
It was into this extremely patriarchal environment that Elizabeth Arden would succeed like no other woman or man before her.
Just like other geniuses of business Elizabeth Arden’s timing was perfect for when she started her beauty enterprise women were demanding more freedoms.
She understood what women wanted, something her male counterparts still hadn’t discovered yet.
With the help of a chemist friend Arden invents a game-changing “face cream” for the everyday woman; almost unheard of before.
Rich, fluffy, lightly perfumed and in an elegant package she called it Venetian Crème and with it a whole line of Venetian skin care products was born.
She also starts to use the word “salon” rather than the folksy-sounding “parlour” and to make her salon on Fifth Ave stand out amongst the hundreds of other business in the area, paints her front door bright red and with that a legend was born. While visiting Paris for the first time in 1912, Arden meticulously scrutinized the makeup French women were wearing and on her return to New York she started selling the brightly coloured cosmetics she saw in France to her rich Fifth Avenue clientele. Shocked but intrigued at first the women of New York after realizing the Mademoiselles were doing it, they too had to be just as vogue.
Once New York society women started wearing make-up complete with eyeliner (during the day no less!), the working girls followed and with it Elizabeth Arden’s fortunes started to grow. By the 1930s the name Elizabeth Arden was as famous as Singer Sewing Machines and Coca-Cola.
At her height Elizabeth Arden owned over 100 salons world wide and her name became synonymous with beauty and it remains so to this day.
Perhaps it was her short time selling carrots and corn husks at St. Lawrence Market that started Arden on the road to unparalleled success but there’s no doubt it was her farming past in Woodbridge that gave her a life long love of animals. One of her friends said of her: “She treated women like horses and horses like women,” for she only used her own high-end beauty products instead of commercial horse liniment on her beloved animals.
In 1947 one of her horses, Jet Pilot, won the 1947 Kentucky Derby, making Arden the first woman owner to do so and put her on the cover of Time magazine. Elizabeth Arden died at the age of 82 in Manhattan on October 18, 1966.
— Bruce Bell