Archive for February, 2008

Kiss of death.

February 12, 2008

You can blame my other half and her fascination with vintage fashions for this one. It’s not pseudohistory by any means, but it’s something that screams “myth”! In fact, I’d love to see Adam and Jamie of Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters” do some exhaustive testing. No, wait! Argh, where’s my Mind-Bleach(tm)?

Anyway, on with the entry. Said Other Half had been perusing the website of popular US cosmetics company Besame, and spotted this strange little factoid;

They may seem smaller, but they are recreations of a 1940s 55mm. bullet lipstick, crafted this way to fit in most bags of the period. Also, it is believed that the same molds were used during the war to make bullet casings.

Marketing hype, uncritically repeated myth, or historical fact? My interest was piqued enough to try and find out. The big question here is “what are they talking about”? Do they really mean a bullet cartridge case? These are certainly not moulded or cast, but neither would a lipstick casing be – it’s a tube of metal open at one end; this must be either rolled or drawn. The other possibility is that they might mean the actual lipstick tip, i.e. the lump of coloured cosmetic inside, which like a simple lead bullet, could indeed have been cast in a metal mould. With nothing better to do, I thought I’d try working out the approximate dimensions of an authentic 1940s lipstick tip, and seeing how it compares to the calibres of ammunition in mass production at the time.

This breakdown on the manufacture of a Besame lipstick shows an apparently original tube next to a scale, making it 50mm in total length. This is our first snag, as it’s clear that vintage lipsticks varied in size – the one in the technical drawing scales to 55mm long, which tallies with Besames’ description. It’s very tempting to use the 50mm figure in concert with the technical drawing, because by a nifty co-incidence, this works out at the same length as a .45 ACP pistol cartridge, standard ammunition in the Second World War. Looking at the cross-sectional drawing, the casing is almost exactly three times the length of the tip itself, making the charge 16.7mm long (rounded up from 16.6 recurring).

lipstick-scale.gif lipstick.gif

The 1940s vintage images used to calculate

the length of the lipstick “bullet”

How does this stack up against the main US rounds of the Second World War? Namely, .50 BMG machine-gun, .30-06 rifle, and .45 ACP pistol? Well, the first two have totally the wrong shape, being long, boat-tailed bullets intended to fly at supersonic speed over long ranges. They (or some lipsticks made from the same moulds) are also physically too long to fit in a lipstick case like the one above – the .50 is bigger than the whole lipstick! The .45 ACP FMJ pistol bullet however, clocks in at between .657″ and .667″ long, a range which more than takes into account the thickness of the copper jacket (no more than 0.07″ at the tip). A quick online conversion later and amazingly we have 16.7mm!!! This is rounded up from 16.69. Taking into account the variance in bullet length and the rather rough-and-ready method I used to establish the length of the lipstick charge, this is as good a match as one could hope for. Supporting evidence proved difficult to find online, but tantalisingly, this novel does mention the similar size and shape of a lipstick (whether tip or casing isn’t specified) to a .45 slug.

Let’s not get carried away. As I said, the stick in the photo is 50mm long, the one in the drawing, 55mm. We have no way of knowing whether 16.7mm was any kind of standard length. There are some other pretty big warning signs that this might simply be a coincidence. The tip of the lipstick was (and remains) a distinctive chisel shape to facilitate application. Of course, you could achieve this after moulding, but then why not make the die that shape to begin with (as they now do)? I think it’s significant that the nickname of “bullet lipstick” is clearly applied to the brassy, domed outer casing; I’ll come back to this shortly. Crucially, the diameter of the tip does not match a .45 bullet; It’s less than 10mm, whereas .45 equates to 11.46mm.


To get anywhere near to the bottom of this one we need to take a look at the manufacturing processes involved. Military bullets were not actually cast during the Second World War, as you might see in a Western where a gunfighter pours hot molten lead into a moulding tool, letting the cooled bullet blank fall out. Bullets today with their thin outer jacket of copper, are made as in WW2, where the metals are forced into a die (rather than mould) under high pressure (but not heat) in a process called “swaging”. Lipsticks, on the other hand, are moulded by pouring or injection. It is difficult to imagine that industrial swaging machinery would be of any use to a cosmetics maker, but conceivably the die could be adapted for use in casting lipstick tips. Assuming that Besame really were talking about the bullet-shaped lipstick casing, well, bullet cartridge casings aren’t made using either of the above methods. They are “drawn” from a metal disc. Perhaps it’s a simple misunderstanding of a similarity in manufacture process of lipstick casing and bullet casing, and the one being “moulded” from the other. it’s easy to imagine a myth growing up based on the bullet shape of a lipstick casing, ignorance of how they were made, and a misconception that bullets were still being moulded rather than swaged.

So, despite the apparent correlation between lipstick charge and .45 bullet, I think what we really have here is something like the statement “lipstick cases were made in a similar fashion to bullet cartridge casings”, becoming the phrase “it is believed that the same molds were used during the war to make bullet casings”. A bit of myth-creep. Throw in the obvious but superficial similarity of the finished lipstick to a complete round of ammunition, and you have your origin story. That’s just my assessment of course. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to stop writing about makeup, and buy some. Valentines Day presents don’t buy themselves.