Women and their vanity — err, vanity items. Yeah, that’s what I meant.
Vanity collectibles is a wide category. It spills with as many beautiful and odd items as any woman’s bedroom bureau and bathroom combined. It’s the clutter that makes many a man wonder, “Why does she need such junk?”, “What’s that for?” and “Does she ever even use it?”
Because both the questions and the objects themselves are easy to relate to (and often beautiful too), it’s a fascinating area of collecting.
There’s not much more telling about a woman’s life than the inhabitants of her handbag, her medicine cabinet, her boudoir dresser… These are the objects which make up vanity collectibles. These are the objects which speak directly about the lives of women. Were they vain, or merely living female lives as expected? Have women’s roles, their lives, changed? The standards of beauty may change, but what about the tools?
Women (and men) have been primping since at least ancient Egyptian times, and other than a brief stint in Victorian times when ‘painted women’ were seen as ‘professionals’ (of the street variety), cosmetics and beauty products have always existed. The 1920s flapper girl ushered in more than short hemlines, the bra (as we know it), and fooling ’round in cars — she brought her cosmetics with her too. But it wasn’t until WWII, when women began earning and spending their own money, that the beauty business began its big boom.
Prior to 1915, beauty had a standard (several really), but now the tools were more mass-marketed. It is the items from the 1920s through the early 60s which are most coveted by collectors, but these are not the only items collectors seek.
While some collectors are passionate about the sub-sets, such as perfume bottles or powder compacts, many of us find ourselves being much more general in acquisitions. There are fancy vanity sets, linens for vanities, bobby pins and other hair care items, and so much more.
Anything, and I mean any thing that would go on a vintage vanity, inside a purse, or be used for beauty, hygiene or general girly maintenance is acceptable to us.
I have a (pricey) vintage Lucite purse with built-in compact, yes, but I also have a kitschy (free) Lander’s Spice Stick Cologne too. I have fancy powder compacts, paper powder boxes and even powder mitts. But I also have facial cleansers and eyebrow tints.
Each is desired by me for their representation of practical needs. Yeah, sure, they are also more practical (cheaper) for me to get, but they do tell their stories as well. Stories of middle class citizens who, like me, had limited budgets. These are the products I would have owned had I lived then.
I also go for more modern items too. I’ll coo over the retro plastic hand mirrors as well as swoon over the vintage silver ones. (Little girls in the 60s needed their mirrors too.) I’ll be as giddy as a school girl over a retro Cutex Junior Manicure Set, even if I faint over an exquisite Art Deco Manicure Compact. Hey, both these women were as committed to their nails as their means allowed. I can respect that.
It’s easy to fall in love with vanity items. These intimate, everyday objects paint a vivid story of private lives as surely as the red contents of the vintage lipstick tube painted the mouth of the previous owner.