When Jane Birkin—who passed away in July at the age of 76—spills out the contents of her Hermès Birkin bag in the 1988 docudrama Jane B. for Agnes V., among the many items is a very-familiar looking mascara. The name isn’t visible, but with its green cap and pink tube, it’s immediately recognizable as Maybelline Great Lash. There doesn’t seem to be any record of Birkin paying lip service to the product, but it can be surmised from this scene that she was a user. More than anything, it’s a testament to the enduring popularity of the mascara, which—given its mass availability and accessible price—was likely the first one many of us ever used. And not even Britishborn French icon Birkin was immune to its appeal or above embracing such a mainstream drugstore staple.

The story behind this iconic mascara dates back to 1915. When 19-year-old Thomas Williams observed his older sister, Mabel, enhancing her lashes and brows with Vaseline mixed with cork ash, he thought it made her look like the silent-movie stars of the time. Realizing that a product like that didn’t exist on the market, he decided to create it, despite the potential obstacles. “Back then, virtuous women would never put anything on their eyes,” says Sharrie Williams, Thomas’ great-niece and author of The Maybelline Story. “They would be considered prostitutes, so that would be a hard sell for any entrepreneur.”

Great Lash Mascara, Maybelline

Price: $6


But he went ahead and, with the help of a chemist friend, created Lash-Brow-Ine. The product, which was originally clear, took off, and women soon requested that a darkener be added. “They formulated it and put it in a beautiful little red, gold and black tin,” says Williams. He called his brand Maybelline (“Mabel” plus “Vaseline”) and sold the cake mascara for 10 cents. “Eyes were the one feature on the face that had never even been considered,” says Williams of the attitudes toward cosmetics at the time. “Maybelline became the first to promote the beauty of the eyes.” Ultra Lash followed in 1960; it was the first mass-market mascara in a tube and made it much easier to create those lash-heavy looks of the decade. But everything changed in 1971. That’s when Great Lash—in the pink-and-green tube inspired by up-and-coming designer at the time Lilly Pulitzer—was launched. For the first time, the formula was water-based, which was what made it such a big deal; other mascaras were solvent-based and water repellent, proving difficult to remove.

Yet in a market that is constantly introducing new mascaras—even Maybelline itself continues to bring out new ones, as the category remains a huge windfall for it—Great Lash, now 52 years old and unchanged, endures. Why? “It’s proper, opaque, dark soot black, not that semi-permanent dirty puddle shade so woefully common in cheaper mascaras,” writes Sali Hughes in her book Pretty Iconic. “Its finish is slightly wet looking, its formula is thin enough to be layered ad infinitum like mattresses stop the princess’s pea until lashes are thick and spiky, like sixties Twiggy.” And let’s not forget one final reason, which Birkin surely benefited from as well. “If it’s in your purse, you can always find it,” says Williams.