Makeup on the Move

Vanity cases, or compacts, were first used by women at the end of the 19th century. Originally, the ladies who used them had to be a little careful where the vanity cases were used, because respectable women were not supposed to be wearing makeup at all.


Nevertheless, powder, rouge and lipstick became more and more acceptable for women in all walks of society and soon the vanity cases were becoming not only commonplace, but the better ones were comparable to a nice piece of jewelry.

Most compacts were made of metal - embossed, impressed, polished, brushed or engraved - whatever type of decoration could be used on metal might show up on a compact. The finest compacts where of sterling silver with repousse work or 18-carat gold with engine turned designs. Some where attached to a metal or ribbon chain to wear on the wrist at parties.

Fabrics such as satin and velvet were used, as were other fabrics, petit point or needlepoint. Natural materials like alligator skin, leather, mother of pearl or pony hair formed the case of some compacts. New man-made materials such as Lucite were also used.

Add to these the cases which were decorated with cloisonné, lace, rhinestones, enamel, papier mache and just plain glitter and one begins to see the wide variety available if one is interested in collecting vanity cases.

There were also an assortment of shapes and sizes. There might be one or more compartments. The powder, which was almost always loose, might be in either a sifter or a well with a door, and there would be a puff with which to apply it. There might or might not be a place for lipstick.

Rouge, the forerunner to today’s blush, was in common use earlier in the century and there was a place for it in most vanity cases. It might have a little lid on its well or it might not. Almost all compacts had mirrors on the inside cover. While the inside of the case did not show as many variations  as the outside of the case did, there were still plenty of them to choose from.

Some compacts also had additional compartments that held more than makeup. For example, some had holes where a nickel and dime could be held. Every girl should always have money for a phone call with her, and in the 1920s and ‘30s, a nickel or a dime would be sufficient for that purpose.

There were many manufacturers of compacts and sometimes the only place they put their name was on the powder puff, which is usually long gone. This practice was used because so many of the pieces were made by a metal manufacturer and then sold to a cosmetics firm which would then fill them and repackage them under their own names. If the manufacturer’s name does appear, it will be in an unobtrusive place such as along the rim or on the door of one of the compartments.

Dating compacts is not too easy, except in the few that contain the manufacturer’s name along with a patent number. Design is probably the best clue. Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles are fairly recognizable. Others are less easy to pinpoint. Old catalogs of jewelry stores or advertisements in some of the old women’s magazines maybe helpful.

Vintage Stratton compact with budgies.

Ciner embroidered & beaded compact with matching lipstick case.

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