Colours Perspective

A Short History of Eye Makeup: From Kohl Black, Grease Makeup to Mascara

People have been using eyeliner longer than most people think. It’s a part of ancient history that had practical everyday use than making your eyes look larger. People have been lining their eyes with black eye makeup since Ancient Egypt. The techniques and materials changed with the advancements of technology.

Black Kohl

The Egyptians used Kohl black to outline the rim of their eyes with thick black lines. From everyone to pharaoh to peasant, men and women. The original Kohl was a blackish grey cosmetic. They used it to prevent eye infections, protect from the sun and dust from the desert. The word “Kohl” etymological root comes from the Arabic word the powder of antimony. They would apply a thick coat of makeup around the eyes to protect them from the sun. Eye infections from the dust blowing in the wind would cause conjunctivitis, cataract, trachoma and trichiasis. Floods from the Nile would also cause insect and bacteria growth on the water injuring nearby populations. In Ancient Egypt’s oldest and most important paper, Ebers Papyrus, had chapters about eye problems and treatments for good health.

Furthermore, the outlined black eyes made them stand out, distinctive and attractive. Men and women would also wear kohl black for aesthetic reasons. They would apply it with evenly drawn lines on the top lid and bottom lid of the eyes with a slight arch at the ends. Artwork from the Ancient Egyptians would showcase this makeup style throughout their culture.

Toilet box and various vessels of Merit with a decorative blue bottle of black kohl and applicator. Source: Wikipedia
Photo of toilet box and various vessels of Merit with a bottle of black kohl and applicator. Source: Wikipedia

There were two types of black eyeliner used depending on the wealth and social status of the user. If they were poor, they might have used a mixture of soot and animal fats. If they were rich, they might have used a customized mixture of galena (the dark metallic mineral form of lead sulphide) and stibnite that was crushed with pearls, gold, corals or emeralds for an extra sheer. The rich might of added in a fragrance like fennel, Frankincense, cinnamon bark or saffron. Some Ancient Egyptians used black kohl eye makeup on the upper lid of the eye and the lower lid with green malachite – grepond eye paint. Frankincense was used by Queen Hatshepsut to prevent eye infections from flies.

Portrait of Wodaabe man during Gerewol at Cure Salee, Niger.
ID 53067064 | © Grodza

Kohl black was believed to have magical protective properties to ancient Egyptian society. The eyeliner was associated with deities Horus, Ra and Hathor and was seen in artwork, symbols of the deities and used in rituals. Many people were buried with jars of kohl to bring with them to the afterlife. Many other cultures would use kohl black for ceremonial reasons and superstitious traditions. In some traditions, mothers would use black eyeliner on babies and newborn infants to ward off the evil eye or any evil auras. The evil eye is a superstitious belief of a malevolent glare to an unsuspecting person which causes misfortune and injury. In Wodaabe tribes in Chad and Niger, men wear kohl black on their eyes, chin and lips in a courtship ritual competition called Gerewol. The colours and decor they wear have symbolic importance and magical properties for their week-long ceremony.

The eye fashion fell out of style for centuries until the Egyptomania of the Victorian era that had the Tomb of Tutankhamun discovered in a French expedition. But most countries in modern times prevented the sale of kohl black due to the eyeliner compound containing lead.

Grease Makeup

Lampblack and soot from the candles were used as the eyeliner and eyelash makeup. In the Victorian era, natural beauty was desired more than a full-face makeup look. People would wear white foundation and rouge with slightly painted eyelashes and eyebrows. Belladonna drops were used to make the eyes more desirable to avoid wearing eyeshadow even though they made people blind.

Original Poster of Cleopatra (1917) starring Theda bara
Original Poster of Cleopatra (1917)

During the 20th century, makeup changed with advancements in new technology. In the 1910s, kohl black was used to create the smoky eye that made the actor Theda Bara have a mysterious look for the role Cleopatra in 1917. She was called “The Vamp” which means seductive woman and used kohl black to accentuate her eyes throughout her career as cinema’s first sex symbol. She played mysterious femme fatale women in most of the films she starred in with some less than five films remaining from the 1937 fire at 20th Century Fox’s nitrate film storage vaults. In the early days of the silent film era, actors had exaggerated makeup to look more dramatic in the film and to fix not-so-great lighting issues. Filming sometimes happened outdoors in sunlight or used klieg lights that were blindingly intense bright light. The film stock that was used during the silent era was orthochromatic. This was film stock that was made with silver halide crystals and was sensitive to blue light. Faces were not that distinct and sometimes looked dirty.

Movie Still of Cleopatra (1917) with Theda Bara as Cleopatra and Fritz Leiber as Caesar
Movie Still of Cleopatra (1917)

This makeup technique was transferred over from the theatres that were not well lit with candlelight making actors wear heavy makeup to exaggerate their facial features. When theatres started to use gaslight to replace candlelight, the makeup had to be applied even more expertly to avoid flaws seen from the stage.

The invention of grease paint makeup was used the same way black kohl was used. It made the eyes and eyebrows darker making the eyes look larger. It was invented by Ludwig Leichner, a Wagner opera singer, who created round sticks that made applying light and dark lines easier for character makeup. His makeup line was lead-free after hearing the number of people who died of lead poisoning. Grease makeup used lard, suet, tallow, beeswax and lanolin to apply the makeup on and butter to remove the paint. The grease makeup was most popular with men since female performers at the time didn’t want to make themselves older for a character thus sticking with the powders instead.

It also made the actors look more glamourous. The use of makeup made the actors’ faces show up on film. Kohl black was still used to outline eyes to stand out but made more radiating with the chalk-white foundation makeup for the actors to look “youthful.”


In the 19th century, Eugene Rimmel invented the first mascara which used petroleum jelly in the mix. The word mascara was used for the first time meaning mask or stain with the exact origins of the word is not clear. It was a blend of coal black and petroleum jelly. The gel mascara preceded the mascara cake.

In 1957, what we see as mascara today was invented. Helena Rubinstein invented a lotion-based mascara that can be sold in a tube with a brush inside. The brush was built in a screw cap of the tube with the lotion mascara inside. The device was called the Mascara-Matic launched with a slogan “the first automatic mascara that needs no brush.” The mascara was fitted to go with one of the first waterproof mascaras. The invention was the first patent for mass production while the first brush-on lotion mascara was used by Parfum Ronni, Inc. of New York in 1939 but disappeared from the marketplace.


Clair, Kassia St. “Kohl.” Secret Lives of Colour, Hodder & Stoughton, 2017, pp. 264–265.

Silentology – Silent Film Makeup: What Was It Really Like?

Glamor Daze – Edwardian Makeup – 1900’s and 1910’s

Cosmetics and Skin – Leichner

Byrdie – Here’s What Eyeliner Looked Like 100 Years Ago

The Vintage Woman – History of Vintage Eye Makeup

Beauty of Afghanistan – The Mystery of Kohl

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