This Week in History: Mary Kay Ash was born in 1918


© Tommy Hultgren, AP Photo

American cosmetics entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash was born on May 12, 1918. Mary Kay, as she was commonly known, founded the multibillion-dollar cosmetics empire Mary Kay Inc. She built her business from humble beginnings in a tiny storefront in Dallas, Texas, into a global enterprise with an independent sales force in more than 35 countries.

Mary Kathlyn Wagner was born in Hot Wells, Texas. She married Julius Ben Rogers at age 17, and they had three children. In 1939, when few married women with children worked outside the home, Mary Kay became a salesperson for Stanley Home Products, a direct sales company. She demonstrated Stanley products at home parties hosted by other housewives as a way to generate sales for herself.

In 1952, Mary Kay began working in sales for World Gift Company in Dallas. When her second husband, George Hallenback, died suddenly, Mary Kay struck out on her own to make a living. She started her dream company, Beauty by Mary Kay, a direct sales cosmetics business, with a $5,000 investment and the help of her 20-year-old son, Richard Rogers. She bought her original formulas for skin lotions from the family of an Arkansas tanner and opened her first store with five products and nine salespeople. A tanner is a person who makes hides into leather by soaking them in a special liquid made from tree bark.

Much like in her early sales career, Mary Kay’s company sold cosmetics through at-home parties and other events. The sellers bought their cosmetics from her at wholesale prices and sold them directly to customers at retail prices. By the end of its second year, Mary Kay Cosmetics, as it was then called, had sold about $800,000 in products. In 1966, Mary Kay married Melville Jerome Ash, a salesman. Their marriage lasted until his death in 1980.

Mary Kay began her cosmetics business as a way to provide opportunities for women to help support their families and achieve success in a business career. Her slogan—“God first, family second, career third”—stressed that women should keep a balance in their lives. She became known for her love of the color pink and packaged her products with the color theme, which is still used in the company’s packaging today. Mary Kay annually rewarded her top directors with the use of a pink Cadillac (an American luxury automobile). She also drove a pink Cadillac herself and built a vast pale pink mansion in Dallas.

Mary Kay’s deep Christian beliefs guided her personal life as well as her business career. She believed in praising people as a way of helping them to achieve success and awarded successful sales directors with jewelry, vacations, and other rewards. Today, Mary Kay Inc. is a global corporation that makes more than 200 skincare and makeup products, which are sold by millions of independent beauty consultants worldwide.

Mary Kay’s success won her numerous awards. She also wrote several books, including three best sellers: Miracles Happen (2003), an autobiography first published as Mary Kay in 1981; Mary Kay: You Can Have It All (1995); and The Mary Kay Way (1984 and 2008). Mary Kay helped run her empire until she suffered a stroke in 1996. She died on Nov. 22, 2001.

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