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Collecting Compacts

Each week I receive at least one email asking me which compacts are best to collect.  I always recommend collecting those you love.  What good is a collection you're not really fond of?  You would soon grow tired of the dusting and cleaning, they would be packed away somewhere and your investment of time and money would not be well spent.  Stop and think about what attracts you to a particular compact.  Is the shape, the color, the possible future value - or maybe all those reasons?  If you're still not sure (and even if you are), I suggest investing in knowledge first.  Buy books about compacts and read them - don't just look at the pretty pictures!  When I was first starting out I had a compact book for a full year before it occurred to me to actually read it!  I was so taken with all the photographs that I just didn't go beyond that.  Once I started reading, the real learning began.  I was no longer limited to knowing that one particular compact had more value than another - I began to understand why.

When you have decided what you want to collect, start hunting!  Always try to buy in the best condition you can afford.  Check latches to make sure they work well.  Check for greening (corrosion) of the metal.  Check the mirror.  Some age spotting and clouding is inevitable with some of the old compacts.  If it is a rare compact you might not be able to find again and the price is right, I'd go for it.  If the compact is enameled or hand painted and there are large chunks of color missing, you may want to pass.  Rarity is the key in this case too.

Quite often compact companies manufactured compacts in series.  Two that come to mind are Kigu's "Bolero" series and Stratton's "Waterfowl" series.  Owning each piece of a particular series certainly adds to the value of your collection.

To sum up - collect what you love, educate yourself and take good care of your collection.  You own a little piece of the history of women.

Glossary of Compact Terms

Annulus:  Flattened ring; circular plate with a central circular aperture

Art Deco:  Artistic style prominent in the 1920s and 1930s.  Took its name from L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Decorative and Modern Industrial Arts), held in Paris in 1925.  Influences included Art Nouveau, Ancient Egyptian architecture, and Cubism

Art Nouveau:  Artistic style using curvilinear motifs derived from nature.  Popular from circa 1890 to 1925 and frequently revived

Bakelite:  Phenolic, acid based plastic, invented in 1907

Beauty Box:  Vanity case containing cosmetic items other than powder and rouge, such as eye makeup

Butterfly Wing:  Amazonian Blue Morpho Butterfly with wing span of 9" used for costume jewelry and cases 

Cabochon:  A highly polished dome-shaped stone with no facets

Cabriole:  An elongated S-shaped support

Cameo:  Gem shell or stone with design or figure cared in relief against a background of a darker or lighter color 

Carry-All:  1950 and 1960s term for a rigid case containing powder, lipstick, and feminine beauty aids

Cartouche:  Decorative, framed space in which initials can be engraved

Chinoiserie:  European decoration with a Chinese motif

Circa:  Approximate date an item was manufactured

Compact:  Small portable case used to contain face powder, usually comes with a mirror

Convertible Style:  Interior adapted for either pressed or loose powder

Cream Powder:  Or Crème Powder.  Face powder combined with cream or oils to make it adhere to the skin.  Used from the 1950s.

Engine-Turning:  Technique by which regular patterns are cut into the surface of a metal object held in a lathe

Faux:  Fake or false

Flapjack:  Term used in the 1930s and 1940s for slim powder compacts.  Cookie: to 2.5" diameter.  Baby: 2.5" to 3.5" diameter.  Standard:  3.5" to 5" diameter.  Super:   5" to 6" diameter.

Godet:  Metal pan used to contain pressed or cream powder

Inro:  A small compartmented and usually ornamented container that is hung from a Japanese obi (sash) to hold small objects such as medicines, perfumes or cosmetics

Kamra:  Case resembling early collapsible camera cases

Limoges:  Translucent enamel of colorful portraits or scenes on copper that originated in Limoges, France

Minaudiere:  Rigid metal, usually box-shaped evening bag with compartments for powder, lipstick, rouge, mirror, coins and cigarettes.  The name is supposedly inspired by Estelle Arpels - cofounder with her husband of Van Cleef & Arpels.  Her brothers used to say that no one could "minauder", or charm, in society like their sister Estelle.

Motif:  In the style of or resembling

Necessaire:  Bolster-shaped version of the minaudiere with fewer compartments 

Party Case:  Another term for "Carry All".  Used in the 1950s and 1960s

Patch Box:  Small round compact with a set-in lid, akin to 18th century box used for beauty patches or spots

Pendant Case:  Compact or vanity case suspended from a chain or ring

Pli:  A make-up tube containing powder and a puff brush

Portrait Case:  Picture frame feature in compacts and vanity cases for snapshot insertion

Pressed Powder:   Compacted dry face powder, contained in godets.  Used during the 1920s and 1930s

Reticule:  Small handbag that is held in the hand or carried over the arm

Sifter:  Fine mesh or gauze, mounted on a rigid frame, which fits tightly into the powder-well of a compact;  allows access to small quantities of powder while retaining the majority of the powder within the well

Sifter Box:  1920s and 1930s term for a compact for loose powder

Vanity Case:  Rigid portable case designed to accommodate cosmetics and personal items

Wedgewood:  Fine English pottery best known for a white cameo-like relief ware on a tined matte background


Cleaning your compact:   Remove powder using a small dry toothbrush.  The perfume in face powder can discolor the lacquer used on the metal.  You can also brush the sifter and puff, shake them or tap them against a hard surface to remove powder.  Swans down puffs can be washed and dried carefully.  Other puffs should not be washed as they can and will disintegrate.

I have had several people express some concern about using a vintage compact that has had powder in it previously.  I clean each compact thoroughly.  Because of hygienic concerns, I have now also started to clean all previously used sifters and powder wells with an antibacterial agent.  You can do this yourself by cleaning the sifter in a mild antibacterial dish soap solution or liquid hand washing agent.  Be careful with the sifters as the mesh can tear from the rim.   

Goo Off or alcohol can be used to remove adhesive labels from metal or glass.

Mirrors can be cleaned with Windex or a similar glass/mirror cleaner sprayed onto a cloth - not directly on the mirror.

Do not wash your compact by immersing it in water as water will leak behind the mirror and damage the reflective coating.

Compacts can be buffed and polished with a good quality silicone polish and a soft cloth.

Replacing missing stones:  This can be done easily.  Be sure to match the original color and size.  Replacement stones are available online at jewelry supplies stores and are also sometimes available at craft stores.  Hypo-cement is my favorite glue for replacing stones.

Replacing missing or broken mirrors:   This is a tricky subject.  If you have a very valuable antique compact with a broken mirror, I would advise leaving it alone.  You could devalue your compact with a replacement mirror.  If you want to replace a mirror in a compact you use, please read the following information.

The mirrors in vintage compacts were much thinner glass than is available today.   Trying to put in a modern mirror can distort your compact case or break the hinge.  That leaves you with the only two options I can think of:  pirate a mirror from an old unusable compact of the same size and shape or find a reputable glass dealer with a supply of vintage mirror on hand.

Once you have your replacement mirror you can get to work.  Some compact mirrors are "framed in".  If yours is done in this style, study how the frame is closed and whether or not you are able to open it yourself.  If not, search for an agreeable jeweler who will do this for you. (Warning - they are hard to find!) Mirrors that are just glued in can be loosened with judicious use of a blow dryer to soften the glue and a dental pick to pry it loose.  Hypo-Cement can be used to glue your new mirror in place.  If you are going to offer a compact with a replacement mirror for sale, please be sure to disclose this to the potential buyer.

Replacing Vintage Puffs and Sifters:  If you are using the compact for your own personal use, any puff will do and can be easily found in stores that sell cosmetic supplies.  Trying to find a vintage puff and sifter that go with your compact can be trickier.  You will usually have to pirate a puff and sifter from a like compact that is unusable. 

Stratton compacts are still being made (though not of the same high quality).  I have searched long and hard to see if they have replacement puffs available.  I have not found a source.  I also have had customers in England ask where they could find Stratton puffs.  That shot down my hope that Stratton puffs were available in the UK if only I could find the right store!  

Storing your compact:   Before storing your compact, be sure to remove all powder.  Remove the sifter and puff.  Vintage compacts are best stored in acid-free tissue paper or a film-front bag

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