By Mark J. Price
Beacon Journal staff writer
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By Mark J. Price
Beacon Journal staff writer
Lucy Sawyer Stevens was an alchemist who poured her heart and soul into elixirs and potions.
Working in her home laboratory, the Akron entrepreneur created a cosmetics empire that helped put a glamorous face on the Great Depression.
She developed a line of perfumes, powders, creams, lotions, lipsticks and rouges as founder of Honey Gold Inc., which formed in January 1926.
Her success was a big accomplishment in an era when few women dared enter the business world.
Born in 1890, Lucy belonged to one of Summit County’s most prominent families. Her grandfather was Civil War Gen. Alvin Coe Voris (1827-1904), her father was Akron Mayor William T. Sawyer (1862-1953) and her mother was socialite Bessie Sawyer (1867-1934).
Lucy and her brother Robert Voris Sawyer grew up on the family’s 40-acre wooded estate overlooking the Little Cuyahoga Valley at the crest of North Hill on Frederick Avenue near Howard Street.
When the Sawyer family sent Lucy to study at an East Coast boarding school, the girl began to unlock the secrets of beauty by gathering wisdom from New York’s theater elite.
“I became acquainted with a dramatic critic who took me under his wing when I confessed great admiration for the stage and its beautiful stars,” she recalled later. “He took me behind the scenes to meet Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt and the other gorgeous actresses who held the stage at the turning point of the century.”
When she visited Broadway dressing rooms, she asked the actresses how they maintained their beauty and what kept them looking so young. The flattered thespians didn’t mind revealing cosmetic secrets to the young fan, who collected the beauty tips in a large scrapbook.
“Bernhardt at 72 had the most gorgeous skin,” Honey Gold’s founder later told an interviewer. “She was young — even under the ears. That’s where age shows, you know, and back of the neck. So one night I asked her: ‘What gives you this great charm?’
“Bernhardt called her maid. ‘Read off that prescription,’ she said. And that’s where I got my formula for my skin-fattening creams. Bernhardt was slim and had dieted. But her skin didn’t wrinkle. She prevented that by feeding it from the outside with these creams.”
Lucy Sawyer studied chemistry at Columbia University and learned the science of cosmetic compounds.
In 1920, she began to date Akron attorney Perry H. Stevens, a World War I veteran who attended Dartmouth and graduated from the University of Michigan Law School.
The couple recalled meeting a decade earlier on a streetcar to Ravenna — she never forgot his fiery red hair — but sparks didn’t fly until their chance reunion at an Akron gathering. They married in 1921 and built a house next to the Sawyer home on Frederick Avenue.
Once in a while, Lucy Stevens looked at her old scrapbook and dreamed of starting a business. She tinkered with recipes, set up a lab in her basement and filled it with jars, bottles, beakers, funnels and tubes.
Smell of success
Stevens created shades of face powder with exotic names such as Rose Glow, Moonlight, Dawn and Sun God. The 35-year-old housewife filled her car with cosmetic samples and traveled to New York, Philadelphia and other cities to make sales pitches to stores. The samples soon sold out.
Her signature product, Honey Gold, was a yellow lotion that inspired the line’s name.
“I would never think of selling something that is hard to sell,” she later explained. “It would be foolish. The thing to do is to have something so good that it will sell itself.”
At first, her husband wasn’t keen on the business, but he relented. In 1932, Perry Stevens was elected a judge of the 9th District Court of Appeals, a position he held until retiring in 1964. He died in 1965 at age 72.
Lucy Stevens opened a shop at 103 N. Main St. in Akron. She had the only woman-owned, woman-operated, cosmetic-making company in Ohio.
“I believe in beauty and youth,” she said. “And every woman has a right to both. When she permits either to slip away, she is losing a vital part of herself.”
The dark-haired, blue-eyed entrepreneur was nearly 40, but reporters noted that she looked like she was in her 20s.
Honey Gold hired sales representatives across the nation, promising that women could earn $200 a month “in spare moments.” Within a few years, there were 400 sellers.
In Akron, Honey Gold products were sold at the M. O’Neil Co., A. Polsky Co., C.H. Yeager and other shops.
Perfumes were packaged in black crystal bottles with gold boxes lined in red, green and lilac velvet. Stevens had a carnival barker’s flair for describing “the exquisite bouquets.”
She said Egyptian Dawn Perfume was “as intriguing as a college boy’s dream of the Far East, a bit sensuous perhaps, but oh so sweet and lovely. It makes one think of velvety eyes, veiled faces, dainty unclad ankles and little pink toes.”
For Night In Spain Perfume, she advertised: “If you were ever in a Spanish garden at night when it was a riot of flowers and the roses were at their best, and there drew near you a marvel of loveliness, a Spanish maiden whose lace mantilla released the mystic lure of sandalwood to mingle with the dominating fragrance of the garden, then you will know what she has endeavored to give you.”
In 1932, Honey Gold had an annual business of $50,000 (about $724,000 today). Considering it was the Depression, that was pretty amazing.
Foe of fluoridation
In the 1960s, Stevens made headlines as a fervent foe of Akron’s plan to fluoridate water to fight tooth decay. She called it “rat poison” and accused leaders of promoting “forced mass medication.”
Stevens said she suffered nausea from fluoridation and didn’t feel better until she drank spring water in Cuba. “I knew that if I continued to drink fluoridated water I would die,” she said.
Dentists and health officials called her campaign misguided, misleading and mistaken.
Stevens was glum when Akron began fluoridation Jan. 29, 1969. She continued to drink two quarts of spring water every day from Hot Springs, Ark.
As Honey Gold neared its 50th anniversary, Stevens turned over the business to her son, Karl Stevens.
She was 84 years old when she passed away Jan. 26, 1975.
A few months later, Quaker Square opened with Honey Gold Perfumery as one of its first tenants. It was a mainstay at the mall until moving out in 2002 along with My Little Red Wagon, a toy shop.
Karl Stevens died in 2010 at age 83. Today, his daughter Michelle Sahr carries on the family business.
She owns Off the Wagon, a novelty shop at 152. E. Main St., Kent, and its sister store, My Little Red Wagon, at 220 N. Main St., Hudson.
“I remember my grandma, but she did die when I was 5 years old,” Sahr said. “She was a pretty fascinating character.”
While doting over her young grandchildren, Stevens tried to instill a business sense.
“She was very concerned about us understanding money,” Sahr recalled. “She would do little things, [like] we could keep as many pennies as we would count.”
Sahr’s stores offer original Honey Gold scents, and she also sells them online at http://honeygold.flyingcart.com.
As her grandmother taught: “Have confidence in your product, make up your mind that you are going to succeed, and you will!”
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.