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I’m following a trail of goo, an unctuous path that flows from the farthest reaches of the geopolitical corporate grasp to the most personal and intimate of domestic spaces.

The trail unfurls in a dark plume off the Louisiana coast, spawning an interconnected swirl of oil-drenched seabirds, fragile economies, vulnerable ecosystems and opulent boardrooms and winds in serpentine fashion directly into your home and into your bathroom medicine cabinet.

This drifting route recently oozed its way to Perkins Library at Duke, where images from the archive of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History unfold the story of how a permutation of this goo was made wildly popular.

About 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician Galen combined beeswax with some olive oil and rose petals and gave us cold cream. Industrialization replaced the olive oil with the petroleum by-product mineral oil, and the cold cream of modernity was born. Mineral oil, a bit player in this viscous odyssey, has appeared in the accumulating gunk of material culture, guest starring in the lava lamp and the fog machine.

As we all know, one jar of commercial unguent is more or less the same as another. It is the art and science of advertising that taps into our psyches to convince us, consciously and not, that we need to spend our money on this one jar rather than that other one.

The Power of Refined Beauty: Photographing Society Women for Pond’s, 1920s–1950s tells the epic story of how legions of consumers were hypnotized into a state of fervent brand loyalty through an ad campaign that held them in thrall for decades. This is, of course, a story that reveals profound truths about all of us, as we are now and as we were then.

In the April 1929 issue of The J. Walter Thompson News Bulletin, in an article titled “Personalities and the Public: Some Aspects of Testimonial Advertising,” J. Walter Thompson President Stanley Resor homes in on a publishing adage, “People like to read about other people.” Citing psychological studies and historicized precedent, Resor makes the case that people fundamentally want to be told what to do by authorities they respect. He also suggests that, essentially, we want to become those authority figures. And, with the kind of blithe sexism we’ve come to expect from Don Draper and his Mad Men cronies at the fictitious firm of Sterling Cooper, he points out those more susceptible to this phenomenon are, of course, women.

“The spirit of emulation is another reason why people want to know about other people. We want to copy those whom we deem superior in taste or knowledge or experience. The desire to emulate is stronger in women than in men. Lombroso, the celebrated psychologist, explains it in terms of woman’s ability to excite her imagination with external objects. It enables her to become princess or movie queen by using the cold cream or toilet soap they recommend.”

Despite this sadly problematic thinking, with its vaguely eroticized description of women’s capacity to “excite” their imaginations with “external objects” and the implication that women engage in a kind of alchemical transmutation through the use of beauty products, Resor had a right to speak with confidence about selling stuff to ladies. By 1929, JWT had bumped the sales of Pond’s creams by 17 percent since it began its campaign in 1923.

At first, this ingenious campaign was championed primarily by women employees of J. Walter Thompson. Notes from the exhibit catalogue tell us, “Women staffers argued that female consumers would pay a premium for glamour and the boost to self-esteem that came with it.” With what might be the early underpinnings of demographic market research, the company reckoned that the average American woman could not resist the glamorous authority of high society. In what amounts to nothing less than a cultural coup, JWT managed to convince the wealthiest women in America to testify to their sincere fidelity to the Pond’s line of beauty products, in particular Pond’s Cold Cream and Pond’s Vanishing Cream.

Some of the greatest photographers of the time, from Edward Steichen to George Hurrell, were brought in to capture these women in the most glorious, idealized light, adorned more often than not with flowers, pearls and furs, symbols of feminine luxury and pleasure. Many examples of these works are on view in The Power of Refined Beauty, a merging river of histories in black and white, a wellspring of significant portraiture over the decades and a mother lode of social codes.

For me, however, the trail of goo bubbles over most saliently in a single image, a 1933 portrait by Dorothy Wilding of Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt, also known as Gloria Mercedes Morgan. In the photograph, the patrician’s eyes are languid jet pools, her lips full and dark, her finely coiffed hair oiled to ebony perfection. However, a bit of backstory might explain the painful and hollow look Mrs. Vanderbilt can barely suppress. In that same year, she was declared by the courts to be unfit as a parent, and her young daughter was placed under the guardianship of her sister Gertrude. This would be Gertrude Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the child she raised, Gloria, partied with Andy Warhol and Halston at Studio 54 and began a stunningly successful line of designer jeans bearing her own name, Gloria Vanderbilt. (She in turn spawned two sons: The first committed suicide, and the second, Anderson Cooper, became another household name.)

It’s hard to feel sorry for Gloria Vanderbilt and other super-rich socialites, of course, but supreme wealth can be its own form of trauma. The Power of Refined Beauty reveals how the sleek veneer of privilege seduced generations of consumers to shell out their hard-earned cash for Pond’s. I wonder if somehow, subconsciously, those consumers saw the pain in the eyes of some of those upper-crust spokeswomen, and it was basic humanness and empathy, as well as desire for wealth and beauty, that won them over.