One of my most vivid early-childhood memories is browsing the Tinkerbell Cosmetics section at some department store.
I’m speaking, of course, about the play makeup products for girls younger than ten, featuring a logo with bubble letters—not to be confused with any of the many offerings that’ve been emblazoned with the pixie face of Disney’s Tinkerbell. The Fisher Price kitchen of cosmetics.
I must have wandered a short distance away while my mother shopped; I looked up and saw hot pink stretching for feet over my head. But of course, plenty of products were sitting at eye-level for me to grab and turn over in my hands, examining the mascot, a sort of cheeky-but-relatable fairy with a spiffy wand. The peel-off “nail polish” was probably their most popular product, but what I remember best are the little change purses, hot pink and satisfyingly plastic. It must’ve been my first proper shopping experience, scaling the adult world to a child’s level.
Nor was I the lone enthusiast. The brand has gotten the BuzzFeed Rewind Treatment treatment multiple times. There are homespun tributes scattered across the Internet—a Blogspot here, a Blogspot there. My research uncovered a Tinkerbell Caboodle and a set of bath bubbles priced to move at $49.25 on Ebay, as well as a “VTG Tinkerbell Cosmetics Coin Change Purse Adorable RARE” for $20.99. If you’re really dedicated, you might want the “sparkling fairy dust” going for $45. The flame is being kept alive most diligently at—of course—Pinterest.
It is only as a grown woman that I look back and wonder: What the hell was that all about?
The answer is almost too stereotypical to be true! Tinkerbell Cosmetics were the work of Tom Fields Ltd, a company founded in 1952. Ayup—smack in the middle of the baby boom, just as American society had finished hustling all those women who’d gotten jobs during World War II back into the kitchen and plying them with New Look-derived wasp-waisted fashions, somebody debuted a line of play cosmetics for kiddos.
Tinkerbell wasn’t the first brand in the space. According to Daniel Thomas Cook’s The Commodification of Childhood, they were predated by the “Little Lady” line from Helen Pessel, launched in 1946 and targeting girls 6 to 14. A November 1955 dispatch of the Pittsburgh Post column “Shopping with Polly” informed readers before name-checking Tinkerbell: “My there sure are a flock of little girl cosmetics on the market this year. Prettily packaged and prettily named, they should be able to solve lots of your giving problems. They serve a double purpose ‘cause they’re supposed to make the junior miss clean-up conscious by starting her on more-fun glamour first.”
The learning-to-groom angle was an important aspect of the pitch, carefully paired with the attitude that a certain level of interest from little girls is to be expected. Sugar and spice and everything nice, etc. In a 1955 story on Tinkerbell Cosmetics, the Pittsburgh Press suggested that “Nail Polish Package Deters Nail Biting,” adding that:
If you have a little girl in your house, you know how utterly fascinated she is in the various cosmetics you use.
At some time or other she has probably dabbled in your nail polish, smeared powder on her face, or spilled your favorite perfume. It’s only natural for little girls to be interested in such feminine activities.
Instead of reprimanding her, the logical move is to provide her with suitable toiletries, created specifcally for a budding glamor girl.
Perhaps she is a nail biter, or a reluctant bath-taker. If so, a package containing some nail polish (clear or pale pink), polish remover and hand lotion will undoubtedly encourage her to overcome the nail-biting habit.
Advertisements tout the product as perfect for perfect for little Miss Tinkerbells, which conjures up a pretty specific type of girl. The Salem News, 1958, via Newspapers.com:
The company even had Miss Tinkerbells who’d do official meet-and-greets with fans at “cosmetic parties.” From the Milwaukee Sentinel, 1959.
It’s interesting that, as the country barreled through the 1960s and ‘70s, the marketing of Tinkerbell grew more explicit about its pink canopy-bed branding. One Lakeland Ledger ad from 1976 says the brands’ products are “a special treat for little ladies.” This 1974 advertisement explicitly references the old rhyme:
It worked quite well. Perhaps the clearest indication of the brand’s place in the American imagination is the reaction that ensued when Tinkerbell faced increasing competition over the 80s and 90s. Time reported in 1981:
Tinkerbell’s conservative sales approach, though, is now under increasing pressure from tough new competitors. Major toy manufacturers, including Mattel, Remco, Ideal, Hasbro and Mego, have introduced broad lines of make-believe makeup. Toy and Hobby World magazine lists Remco’s Crayon Children’s Play Cosmetics as currently the top-selling brand. Remco also tempts the tots with Blue Ice Eye Shadow and Sweetheart Pink Lip stick. Hasbro offers a Fresh ‘n Fancy kit that allows the girls to mix their own makeup colors.
Bonne Bell introduced Lipsmackers in 1973, targeting a slightly older customer and opening the floodgates. Cosmetics-for-kids grew into a full-blown market category just as the press became newly obsessed with the very notion of THE TWEENS and whether they were okay. And so the name Tinkerbell took on a new cultural purpose. Even as the company was trying to hold its own against all these new players, reporters were turning “Tinkerbell” into a shorthand for worries about kids today versus the baby boomers’ supposedly more innocent childhoods. The brand became a vehicle for anxieties about whether tweens were maturing too fast. For instance, one 1990 Los Angeles Times report tut-tutted:
Until now, 20-year-old Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears shampoo has had the kiddie hair-care market cornered, and Tinkerbell play cosmetics, founded 38 years ago by Tom Fields, has been the leading name in kiddie-safe nail polish, fragrances and so on.
But now, with yuppies attempting to elevate parenting to an art form, giant cosmetics companies like Estee Lauder and French couturiers including Hubert de Givenchy are putting their names on luxury grooming lines for children, gambling that parents will be willing to spend extra dollars for pint-sized prestige items.
The AP was even more alarmed: “Kiddie cosmetics are here. They’re a long way from Tinkerbell’s “let’s pretend” cosmetics introduced in 1952 to help keep little hands out of mother’s potions. They’re for real.” And my favorite, the Dallas Morning News, 1998: “Once, kids’ cosmetics were limited to Tinkerbell bath powder and wash-off nail polish from the toy store.... Today’s Spice Girls generation uses glitter on eyelids and colored mascara in hair, and paints fingernails shiny green or blue.” From Tinkerbell to the Spice Girls—generational panic perfectly encapsulated!
It’s a funny little dosie-do, really. Inculcate little girls with the importance of growing up into appropriately “feminine” women who wear Revlon Snow Peach, but they shouldn’t start applying the real thing until the perfect moment.
The owners of Tinkerbell tried to play along. Tom Fields rolled out another line, Demoiselle, described by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990 as “slightly more sophisticated” than the flagship and boasting lipstick and blush.
But looking back at comments from Tom Fields cofounder Martin Greenfield, he sounds skeptical. In 1981 he he told the New York Times they weren’t interested in doing eyeshadow and mascara under the Tinkerbell name: “We don’t want to tell an 8-year-old that she should look like she’s 18.” In 1990 he also expressed doubt to the Los Angeles Times about all the high-end competitors springing up in their market. “My own feeling is that they may be sorry they got in it,” he said, adding that, “I see no reason why many parents would spend more money for expensive brands because it’s not important to children.”
The idea these were training wheels, not the real deal, remained an important element of their marketing. From the Spokesman-Review, 1985:
Another ad from the period touted Tinkerbell as “the next best thing to a hug.” A pretty childlike pitch, still.
As many women of a certain age will testify, Tinkerbell was still very much a childhood preoccupation at this point. (Those peel-off nail polishes! The branded Caboodle!) But even as I stood in that department store, bowled over by all those brightly packaged cosmetics, getting my first taste of the Sephora phenomenon, the brand was approaching the end of the line.
First the name was acquired by Renaissance Cosmetics, which specialized in revamping nostalgia brands. (They also bought up Love’s Baby Soft around the same time.) They plowed money into advertising Tinkerbell and attracted a flurry of press coverage, an Ad Age piece reporting they’d focus on girls 3 to 10, pegging its sales at $15 million to $20 million. But it never really seemed to go anywhere, even as Renaissance became New Dana. The market was only growing more crowded, as a 2001 Consumer Reports piece made clear (with the obligatory nod to Tinkerbell as pioneer):
At your mall now: Bronzed Babe Lip Gloss and Sparkle On Scented Body Glitter for girls 7 to 14 from the Limited Too clothing chain, along with Smackers Make Your Own Wearable Lip Gloss (age 7 and up) and Nail Art for girls (6 and up) from, of all places, Zany Brainy, the educational toy store.
Tinkerbell Cosmetics was a pioneer of makeup for little girls in 1952. Today the market is huge. Consider that there are some 28 million “tweens,” or children ages 8 to 14, according to MarketResearch .com, a marketing information firm. In 1999, they spent more than $9 billion on personal products, says the Marketing to Kids Report, an industry newsletter.
And so at some point, the brand simply faded out. What’s more, it was before the advent of the mass-market Internet, so it didn’t even get a frantic sendoff like Bonnie Bell’s original manufacturer. If you go searching for “Tinkerbell” online, you’re far more likely to uncover bright green makeup tutorials associated with the Disney character.
So long, Tinkerbell. Thanks for the lifelong addiction to bright pink packaging.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.