by Jessica Kosinski
These days we all take our compacts and makeup cases for granted, but the compacts we buy in retail stores are nothing compared to vintage compacts, which can be extremely collectible. Let’s take a peek at vintage compacts, how they developed, and why they became so popular.
Behind the Scenes Beauty Techniques of the Past
The first thing to understand about vintage compacts is that they aren’t that old, at least not when compared to many other antiques and collectibles. Compacts as we know them today only go back about a century to the 1920s.
Prior to the 1920s it wasn’t considered socially acceptable for women to “powder their nose” in public here in the United States. They still had vanity tables at home, but everything was done behind the scenes. There was no need for elaborate compacts and makeup cases because nobody else ever saw the process. Nevertheless, there were elaborate vanity sets used in their private homes.
The Need for Change
By the 1920s, people were becoming far more active. Some women were even starting to join the mainstream work force. Women obviously couldn’t take their vanity tables with them on long trips, or even while they were out and about for a single day. That facilitated the need for portable compacts as we now know them.
Compacts as Status Symbols
Throughout history it has been common for various cultures to develop status symbols that separate the rich from the lower classes. For example, one of the predecessors to the vintage compact as we know it now was the parure case, which was a jeweled case that held matching jewelry pieces or matching jeweled objects. The term “parure case” was used at points to describe entire makeup sets that contained lipstick, a compact, and often a cigarette case. Parure cases of either type were not just status symbols, but also elaborate gifts often given by men to women during courtship.
In the 1920s a revolution of sorts also took place among women both in Europe and in the United States. Many of them started wearing makeup that was much more obvious and showy. They also started to touch up their makeup in public more. One of the earliest types of makeup to be put in compacts was rouge, which is more commonly known as blush today.
The Impact of World War II on Compacts
There were some major changes to the world of compacts during World War II. The first was that some countries, including Great Britain, had shortages during the war that slowed production of certain products. Many manufacturers also had to switch to making war-related products at that time, which limited the time they had to devote to frivolous products, whether there were materials shortages or not.
The second thing that changed during World War II is that men who were in the armed services and did come across compacts while serving in different places started sending them home to their spouses as gifts and keepsakes. Eventually that trend led to the “souvenir compacts” we see a lot of today, which are any compacts that advertise certain countries or places.
Almost the moment compacts started to become common in the 1920s companies began to make them in increasingly elaborate forms. Much like the early parure cases, they became status symbols that European and American women alike loved to display to the world.
One of the most famous companies making compacts in England at the time was Stratton. Stratton compacts are still prized by collectors today. But in America the Evans company was definitely the innovative leader in compact design. Pocket watch makers like the J. M. Fisher Co. and Elgin American soon joined in as well. Eventually popular cosmetics and perfume companies like Estee Lauder and Max Factor worked with fine jewelers such as Tiffany & Co., Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier to create high-fashion options for women. Elaborate pieces were designed to fit in a purse while others were actually attached to chains and meant to be worn and constantly on display as part jewelry and part makeup cases. Some look fairly simple on the outside, but reveal surprises on the inside. For instance, there are musical compacts and those that have several layers of items including applicators and multiple mirrors.
Collecting Compacts Today
It’s important to be aware that many companies still produce elaborate compacts to this day. But a vintage piece can usually be recognized and dated based on the company and style. Some even have identifying marks, allowing collectors to recognize them right away.
There are many vintage compacts that are particularly collectible today. One of them is the “pancake compact,” which is large and flat like a pancake. One of its most prominent features is the extra large mirror inside. It was yet another way for women to show off and advertise their status in the 1900s. Most of these compacts are inexpensive today, making them great for individuals who are just getting into vintage compact collecting.
There are also a lot of collectible compacts that are designed in unusual ways. They are often built into something else. For example, there are vintage compacts that are actually built into purses. There are also some that are combined with hatpins or other objects. Finding them can be like finding a needle in a haystack. They are hidden jewels to serious collectors.
Compacts shaped like or featuring images of people, animals, or common objects are also highly collectible, especially since they can appeal to multiple types of collectors. For example, a compact depicting a piano is a perfect gift for either a compact collector or a musician.
The value of any compact depends greatly on how many collectors it appeals to. Some vintage compacts can sell at auction for a couple hundred dollars or more. Others are only worth a fraction of that in terms of money, but can be priceless to a sentimental collector.