Stylish compacts kept ladies’ powder dry

Italian silver and enameled compact decorated with a hand-painted courting scene, 1934-1944, 2 5/8in. x 3¼in. Marked 800 and having the 1944-1968 lozenge mark for the region of Florence. Realized $800 + buyer’s premium in 2006. Image courtesy of DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Though cosmetic paints and powders were once dangerous or deemed vulgar, the fair sex has long used them to brighten and lighten their looks.

During the Victorian era, many women discreetly concealed imperfections with homemade rouge, lip salves and rice or oatmeal-based facial powders. Others lavished themselves with lustrous, ready-made “pearl” powders. These floury compounds were often stored in decorative dressing-table containers deep enough to hold plush, swans-down powder puffs.

Yet only light hands, delicate dippings and taps barely touching the face, cautioned popular magazines, would create powdered skin “the delightful surface of the peach … .”

Gold powder compact, oro giallo 750/1000, realized €2,600 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

By the late 1880s, commercial powders, promoted to improve complexions rather than paint them, had become common. Pozzoni’s Dove Complexion Powder, which imparted “a delicate, soft, smooth whiteness” and his Medicated Complexion Powder, which did not “roughen, burn, chap or blister the skin,” were hands-down favorites.

Toward the turn of the century, when women joined the workforce, many-layered pouches with powdered cotton and tiny puffs, for timely touch-ups. Others tucked thimblefuls of loose powder into lockets or roomy hatpins. As expendable income grew and public preening became more acceptable, the Cleopatra Vanity Box Co. and the Scovill Manufacturing Co. issued glamourous, gold-tone, purposed, portable powder boxes. These, however, were not only bulky but also leaked. In time, five-and-dimes offered small, hinged cases containing puffs, loose powder and mirrors. Due to their size, these became known as “compacts.”

One of a pair of Russian Faberge silver and guilloche enameled locket-style compacts, each 1¾in. diameter, 1908-1917. The circular domed cases overall enameled in blue and moss green translucent enamel over wavy and sunburst guilloche grounds. Interiors are hallmarked St. Petersburg, 88 standard, workmaster’s initials in Latin ‘A.R.’ Realized $15,000 + buyer’s premium in 2009. Image courtesy of Jackson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

In 1915, Pozzoni’s fancy, lozenge-shaped Boodle Boxes, featuring cakes of more convenient, pressed powder, reached the market. Their coarse puffs, however, caused cracks and breakage. Even when puffs became smoother, powdery centers wore away, leaving rims that crumbled to bits.

Despite these drawbacks, decorative cases had become integral in marketing cosmetics. Over time, they reflected women’s fascination with beauty, changing fashion trends, as well as design evolution.

During the Roaring ’20s, bobbed-hair flappers often slipped enamel, oriental-themed beauties from beaded pouches to primp and preen. Others, without missing a beat, celebrated wonders of King Tut’s tomb with pyramid, obelisk or sphinx-shaped compacts. Many dangled carved, lightweight celluloids from finger-rings, flashed delicate Bakelite wrist-compacts or flaunted ornate, Evans or Elgin sterling silver models. Others preferred sleek, geometric Art Deco styles accented with diamonds or sapphires.

Foster & Brothers Tango Purse, green and black enameled sterling silver, perfume with dauber, powder and rouge compact, pop-up mirror, lipstick, silver tassel, finger ring. Marked F&B Sterling, 7½in. long, 1920s. Realized $800 + buyer’s premium in 2004. Image courtesy Perfume Bottles Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Within the next decade, manufacturers marketed innumerable unbranded compacts, in varied styles, shapes and shades, to perfumeries, mail-order houses, cosmetic companies and retail jewelers.

During the Depression, when durable pocketbooks replaced flapper pouches, flat, round, roomy compacts, dubbed “flapjacks,” became stylish. Though they remained popular for decades, fashion magazines soon promoted smaller, sleeker, more sophisticated models as well. From then on, their styles changed regularly, reflecting timely popular trends. Compacts, once practical packaging for cosmetics, were now fashion accessories.

Art Deco enameled silver compact, circa 1930, of stepped outline, depicting a sailing ship flanked by multicolored lunettes all on a black ground, 2 5/8in long. Realized $400 + buyer’s premium in 2009. Image courtesy Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

Middle-class women often owned several – suiting them to their outfits or their fancies. Classic metal and enameled rounds, rectangles, squares and shell-shaped ones were perennially popular. So were novelty compacts, shaped like anything from playing cards to praying hands. Moreover, as rail service expanded and automobile access increased, compacts depicting tourist sites made popular souvenirs or gifts for friends back home.

Wealthy women, on the other hand, often preferred bejeweled compacts, symbols of privilege and wealth. Many chose prestigious, branded gems by fine jewelers like Cartier, Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels, or rare novelties like Pygmalion’s “Piano” or Coty’s “Sleigh Bells.” Others commissioned unique creations in any design their hearts desired.

Boucheron Art Deco silver, ruby, 18K gold and silver inlaid case with a raised, reticulated gold panel of twin engraved parrots in a flowering tree inlaid with five rubies, 3in. x 2¼in. x ½in. Realized $1,000 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

After World War II, when military plastics were adapted for civilian use, compact production rocketed. Acrylics, originally used in aircraft turrets, for example, easily duplicated costly, handcrafted models. As a result, compact design, like cosmetic packaging in general, became increasingly elaborate.

All changed in the early 1950s, however, when enterprising cosmetic companies, including Max Factor, introduced convenient, refillable and disposable compacts. In addition, facial powder was upstaged by longer-lasting foundation, lipstick, eye shadow and mascara. Finally, when the “natural look” became popular, compacts were usually relegated to grandmothers’ dressing drawers.

Decorative compacts are not only highly collectible but also make delightful, romantic gifts. Who could resist colorful, enameled Italian silver models, depicting courting couples? Who could resist heart-shaped charmers?