In the 1920s, la garçonne, or the young flapper woman of the Art Deco era, with her short hair and sleeveless dress, took to wearing heavy eye makeup. Mascara and eyeliner were employed to create a “smokey” eyeshadow look. This emphasis on obvious makeup also made it socially acceptable for a woman to primp in public, to take out a mirrored compact at the table and check her face or powder her nose.
Thanks to this public show, what are now regarded as vintage compacts became accessories in and of themselves, beautifully decorated and, like most jewelry and other adornments, intended to flaunt the wealth and privilege of the owner. In earlier centuries, elaborate bejeweled parure cases, holding large sets of matching jewelry, had served a similar purpose, given as a gift to a lover or fiancé.
In the 20th century, U.S. servicemen stationed overseas sent their sweethearts compact cases from other countries. Vacation spots such as Miami, Florida, even cruise ships, sold their own souvenir compacts. These containers held lipstick, powder, or perfume, and were made to be refilled. They were also expensive for their time. Richard Hudnut’s “le De’but” compact sold for $5 in 1928, which bought a week’s worth of groceries at the time.
For the middle-class women, compacts were made in base metals or sterling silver decorated with enamel. High-society ladies carried compacts commissioned by fine jewelry makers, who fashioned their creations from gold or platinum and studded them with semi-precious stones. Often these personalized compacts were engraved with the owner’s initials.
Some of these cases, called miniaudieres, were fitted with a gold chain or silk cord. These special vanity bags, like the ones made by Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany, Cartier, and, more recently, Judith Leiber, held makeup, lipstick, and money, and had a place to tuck in a handkerchief.
Refillable compact cases were used until recent decades when makeup cases were produced in cheap, disposable plastic. Until then, though, designers poured their creativity into these little containers, with images of flowers, beautiful women, and animals, that were engraved, enameled, and set with pastes on their exteriors. Some were designed with abstract Art Deco motifs or while others were shaped like hearts or birds.
Costume jewelry makers like Ciner and pocket watch case makers like the J. M. Fisher Co. introduced their own types of compacts. An endearing example is the “Rendezvous” style compact, sold under the Le Rage line by Evans in the ‘50s, which had a clock face and movable hands that pointed to activities a woman of leisure might enjoy: “Tennis,” “Hairdresser,” “Cocktail,” “Lunch,” “Cinema,” “Dressmaker,” Milliner,” “Bridge,” “Dinner,” and “Theatre.”