HERE are many, many things I know absolutely nothing about. One of them is the history of the powder compact. Once every woman’s must-have fashion accessory, but now a plastic shadow of its former self.
What alerted me to the collecting potential of the things was an auction sale that included a Yorkshire couple’s devotion to the subject.
Over 25 years they amassed a collection of hundreds, purchased from fairs and specialist gatherings across the country. Dating from the powder heydays of the Thirties to the Sixties, there were compacts by such luminary companies as Stratton, Volupte and Schuco, which are now clearly hugely desired by collectors of vintage clothes and memorabilia.
Bidders from America, Germany and London responded when they were offered at Wright Marshall’s rooms in Knutsford, Cheshire. One dealer travelled from Bath for the auction but won only two lots, such was the demand.
The compacts sold for a total of £18,500, the most expensive, being a fine quality Austrian silver Edwardian example with a green guilloche enamel hinged cover surrounded by a jewelled border and sold for £460. Import marks dated it to 1928.
I needed to know more and spoke to someone who does: Danielle Boyd, who, with her business partner, Eleanor Bennett, runs the online Vintage Compact Shop.
Danielle explained that compacts date from the early 1900s, but the decorative little containers for face powder can trace their roots back to the 16th century when the lady of the house wore a chatelaine around her waist, many often made from silver and even gold.
Attached to the status symbol chains were things like the keys to the great house, scissors and sewing implements and later, little “vanities” – tiny mirrors or powder tins.
“In the Edwardian era, powder cases, bowls and jars would be more likely to be seen on dressing tables and the portable powder container was yet to be a common sight”, Danielle says. “Wearing make-up or ‘paint’ was not condoned and no woman would ever be seen applying it in public.”
However, in the 1900s, the Massachusetts handbag manufacturer Whiting & Davis, responded to the need to carry face powder, rouge and even tiny combs by incorporating compartments in the lid of the hinged, silk-lined metal mesh bags that were popular at the time. One of the earliest was called the Dylesia.
“The vanity box was small and portable but not practical as it had a lift-off lid,” Danielle says. “Hinged lids were necessary if these portable vanities were to become useful items that could be opened and used with ease.
“Ladies needed small discrete portal powder containers so that they could powder their faces whilst away from home. This became more of a necessity as women joined the workforce, most notably during the First World War.”
The compact mirror, as they are often known in America, or powder compact, as British manufacturers named them, were much in evidence by the 1920s and the Art Deco period provided the most exquisite and eye-catching designs imaginable.
“Luxury jewellers like Asprey, Mappin & Webb, Boucheron, Marin and Cartier would often commission master silversmiths to make unique pieces for wealthy clients,” Danielle says.
Art Deco pieces with clean angular lines, geometric shapes and symmetry are highly desirable collector’s pieces, one example from Danielle’s collection being imported from France by Asprey. Adding a touch of luxury, its thumb catch is adorned with diamonds and emeralds, which, when pressed, releases a spring-loaded catch to allow the lid to glide open.
Dating British vanities made from precious metal is easy because hallmarks applied by an assay office will include a year letter, while imports will bear the import mark, sponsor’s mark and the date letter of the import. “Size and style can also aid dating,” Danielle explains.
Two of the major manufacturers were Kigu Ltd, founded in Budapest by goldsmith Josef KI-aschek and his son GU-stav, who claim to have made the first ever powder compact and Jarrett, Rainsford & Laughton Ltd, later known as Laughton & Sons Ltd, owners of the Stratton brand, based in Birmingham, who went on to acquire Kigu.
“Specialist dealers and collectors are able to access factory archives that show the known years of availability of many of the models and original catalogues and old advertisements are also a good way to date powder compacts,” Danielle said.
“Usually condition matters, but sometimes items are so rare that the desire to own, hold and adore the item is an overwhelming obsession.
“Eleanor and I know collectors who name their powder compacts and yes, the names are always feminine.”
Novelty powder compacts enjoyed their heyday in the 1940s. Manufacturers vied with each other to produce intriguing little vanities such as compact mirrors that resembled globes with all the countries of the world engraved on and cases that resemble handbags, balls, baskets of flowers and hats among others.
Musical compacts date from the 1950s and are valued highly.
“The most desirable are the ballet-themed Stratton ‘Musica’, which are fitted with mirrors and powder compartments. The handpainted lids are a joy to behold,” Danielle says.