Born Florence Nightingale Graham, Elizabeth Arden grew up on a farm just outside of Toronto, the middle of five children. Reports of her exact date of birth have varied greatly (ranging from 1878 to 1886),14 largely because Elizabeth herself lied about her age she once said that even she couldn’t remember the truth, as she’d changed her story so many times!
What’s in a Name?
You can see why Elizabeth or Florence, as she was known up until 1909 might have wanted to change her name from Florence Nightingale; the pioneering nurse had recently died, and besides, the association might have been confusing. But there was surely more to it than that. Elizabeth’s competitor Helena Rubinstein had also made up her own name, and it seems impossible not to feel that these women wanted to completely remake themselves and control every aspect of their image and brand. It was also an irresistible opportunity to suggest a slightly more glamorous version of the truth (think of the Westmores’ fib about their illustrious English heritage). It follows that popular mythology, encouraged by Elizabeth, has it that she chose her new surname while reading Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden.15 However, there’s been a suggestion that the real inspiration was rather more prosaic, and that she came upon it when reading an obituary of a millionaire racehorse owner whose country estate was named Arden. Considering her love of horses, the latter explanation doesn’t seem that unlikely.
Arden believed whatever shades of makeup a woman chose to wear depended on her personality and style rather than her hair color, challenging Max Factor’s Color Harmony philosophy.
Her mother died of tuberculosis when Florence was just four and her father struggled to care for the children, with young Florence taking on the care of the family’s horses. It sounds like a tough upbringing, but it seems to have been paramount in shaping her later life. Not only did it nurture her love of horses, but it also encouraged a desire to escape into another, better, richer world.
When she was twenty-six, Florence moved to New York.16 She began working as a cashier at Eleanor Adair’s salon on the illustrious Fifth Avenue. Her two years there had a great effect on her, introducing her to the benefits of yoga and massage and the importance of describing a product in order to really sell it. In 1909 she left Eleanor Adair to go into business with Elizabeth Hubbard, who had her own small skincare range. They opened their salon, which was also on Fifth Avenue, clearly pitching it and their products to an affluent luxury market. Unfortunately or rather, unfortunately for Elizabeth Hubbard they fell out, and the partnership dissolved after only six months. Not only did Florence keep the premises, but she also adopted her ex-partner’s first name!
In 1910, Elizabeth opened her new salon, naming it Salon d’Or. It was luxuriously decorated, with a striking red door that would later be integrated into the brand’s identity. The decorations must have been expensive, and because banks didn’t give loans to single women at this time, one wonders how Elizabeth must have struggled to get it together. The fact that she did, and knew that the expenditure was worth it, just shows how savvy she was, and how she understood the emerging market that she was entering. In the years to follow, she’d repeat this belief that one must spend money in order to make money.17