Monday, January 4, 2010


By Polly Guerin, the Fashion Historian

Functional, flirtatious and designed with mysterious compartments, vanity cases that go by the collective name “compacts” were an essential part of a chic woman’s equipment in the 1920s to the 1950s, and for those nostalgic collectors among us they are having a comeback. These little gems of personal deportment reflect on a time when liberated women needed to transport their cosmetic essentials discreetly encased in a glamorous container that was part a jewel of an accessory that also served a functional purpose. Prior to the birth of compacts a refined woman had to ingeniously conceal her cosmetics.
Since “makeup” in the early 1900s was considered daring and perhaps not-quite-respectable, early compacts were sometimes disguised as lockets or lapel pins or hidden in the top of hatpins, umbrellas, or walking sticks. With the advent of World War I a massive change took place. As more and more women were working outside the home they no longer had the pleasure or time to linger at the dressing-table mirror. Convenience and practicality ruled the day and the compact became a woman’s necessity. More social freedom spread throughout the women’s movement with the liberated woman at the wheel of an automobile, smoking, dancing and attending movie and nightclub entertainments. The high flying flappers personified the age of rebellion and vividly made-up actresses became style icons. In the roaring 20s and 30s compacts went public and were very much on display.
They were made of sterling silver other simulated gold or silver metals, plastics like Bakelite and even wood and most often jeweled or embellished with initials or designs. Small compartments for rouge, powder, lipstick and mascara, and even secret a compartment for love letters were ingeniously squeezed into the small spaces. Some were equipped with wrist chains which made it easier to carry them. A vanity often substituted for a handbag, especially for dressy occasions. In 1925 International Sterling took a half-page advertisement in Vogue to promote their newest solid-silver vanity case. Described by their overzealous copyrighter: ‘ “Stunniest of vanities!” exclaims mademoiselle when she beholds this newest creation. So slim! And of solid silver!...She opens the case! It holds the very newest combination. A compartment for rouge! And then…another compartment with another mirror for her own choice of loose powder! A clever sifter device dusts the power out, just as mademoiselle wants it.’
Manufacturers kept coming up with new gimmicks to attract new converts to compacts.Vogue described a new one as being ‘made of black metal, with a single bright line of color at the top and a smart marcasite motif.’ The vanity contained rouge, powder, lipstick, and mirror, as well as allowing space for cigarettes. Consider this extract from an advertisement for the Trejur, Queen of Compacts, 1924. “Powder, Rouge and Lip-stick Complete! A case as lovely as a gem. It opens at the touch! Inside---a full size mirror and powder of true quality, scented seductively with Joli Memoire. Below—a drawer which yields to a magic touch, revealing the best of rouge and lip-stick! In your bag—securely closed; in your hand—three swift allies to fresh charm. $1.25.” Lucille Buhl’s cosmetic gimmick was doubles—a face powder box containing two drawers of powder, one for day and one for evening.
Eventually compacts were combined with watches, cameras, cigarette lighters, embellished with floral designs, personalized with initials, phone numbers and even photographs. My prized possession among compacts I have collected is a little black enamel shell shaped compact etched in gold with a 2 x 2” small watch inside, whose face can be viewed though on opening on the cover. Inside reveals a place for rouge and powder with the replacement inscription: “send 25c and shade desired to Elgina, 358 Fifth Ave, New York City. Another charmer I own is a chic 3 x 5” silver and black enamel compact, the cover incised with a floral bow. Inside it is attributed to Kathleen Mary Quinlin and features a compartment with the remains of ruby red lipstick, strawberry pink rouge, the power puff inscribed with the name Quinlin, this divided by a 2 sided mirror with creamy white powder and Quinlin puff. I wonder what flapper once owned this little gem for it seems to be missing its chain for easy portage but must have seen many entertainments in the jazz age.
With the advent of WWII many famed compact makers converted to manufacturing shell cases. It wasn’t the total demise of the compact because fashion-conscious women could scoop up military-themed novelty compacts embellished with flags, anchor, officer’s hats and service insignia. One such compact that I cherish is a gold metal compact with royal blue enamel and in the center of the blue cover sits a miniature white enamel life preserver and gold anchor. Despite its chipped condition I love to use it with my summer outfits. By the 1950s, compacts were taking a setback. For one thing, the powder, once an important cosmetic item, was replaced by cream or liquid makeup that wasn’t easily carried or applied in public. In response to this cosmetic makers produced solid makeup which was sold in its own plastic container, further abetting the demise of a beautiful compact. In an effort to generate sales, cosmetic makers came up with small compact collectibles in beautiful animal or floral shapes, which contained only one item, a solid perfume or solid powder. They were a sort of gift with purchase idea.
The golden age of compacts may have ended, but there is avid interest in these little gems. So much interest in collectible compacts that I was able to sell on the Internet a particularly handsome Italian enamel case displaying a decorative engine-turned picturesque design coated with translucent colored enamel. Both Sotheby’s and Doyle New York have conducted auctions in which signed Tiffany and Cartier gold or gem-set compacts hit the hammer at prices from $2,000 to $7,000. If this feature has perked your interest the Internet is loaded with information. One popular site is the Compact Collectors Club

Bio: Polly Guerin honed her skills as an Accessories Editor at the trade fashion bible, Women’s Wear Daily and later taught product knowledge as professor at The Fashion Institute of Technology, where her definitive textbook and video production, Creative Fashion Presentations, is used even today. In 2009 she was a vice-president of RWA/NYC and currently serves as a board liaison. Visit her at

1 comment:

  1. My grandmother was Lucille Buhl. I was wondering if you own the compact you mention above and would it be possible to get a picture of it?