Tonight is part two of my Q&A with writer, social historian and author of the Vintage Powder Room, Joan Renner.
FNB: Where do you find your pieces?
JR: When I first began to collect I could find face powder boxes at flea markets and estate sales, but the Internet has changed that considerably. I still find items in those places occasionally, but mostly I rely on Internet sites such as eBay and Etsy (and the generosity of friends).
FNB: How were you able to research the original prices and how/where was the makeup typically sold, upon its release?
JR: I’ve used multiple sources to research pieces in my collection. My favorites are vintage magazines and newspapers. Via the Los Angeles Public Library I access the Proquest database to view early issues (1880-1980) of the Los Angeles Times online. Ancestory.com also makes it possible to search vintage newspapers from around the country.
For a peek into the early days of the cosmetics/perfume industry I think that the publication AMERICAN PERFUMER AND ESSENTIAL OIL REVIEW can’t be beat. I’m fortunate because the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library has a good collection of them.
Then, as now, the pricier brands of makeup would be found at the cosmetics counter of the finer department stores. Women on a tighter budget could find a wide array of makeup choices at their local drugstore or five and dime.
Many of the early cosmetics companies were regional and either went out of business years ago or they were absorbed by bigger companies. A few of the largest brands are still in business; for example Coty is over 100 years old and continues to manufacture Airspun face powder in a box designed by Rene Lalique! The box is festooned with little powder puffs and it is simply gorgeous. You can purchase it at a drugstore or online for just a few dollars. Amazingly inexpensive for a piece of cosmetics and design history!
FNB: Are any still made today/ have you ever worn or used any of your collection?
JR: I’ve used some of the compacts that I’ve collected, but never any of the cosmetics – that would be way too risky. Over the years cosmetics have contained some toxic, potentially lethal, ingredients. Early cosmetics contained a wide variety of nasty ingredients such as lead or arsenic.
FNB: How has the merchandising and marketing of makeup and beauty products changed over the last 60 or so years?
JR: Cosmetics companies still advertise in fashion magazines and other magazines geared toward women, but now you have TV and radio advertising, both mediums were in their infancy 60 years ago. Surprisingly, even in the early days of makeup, there were celebrity endorsements and the celebrity branding of cosmetics.
During the 1910s and 1920s Mary Garden, a Scottish born opera singer, partnered with Rigaud to offer a line of cosmetics and perfumes using her name and image. Another woman who would leverage her fame into a line of cosmetics was Edna Wallace Hopper. Hopper was an actress/singer who would never reveal her age. She said that her birth records had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake! She was always described as eternally youthful looking, so that was the hook for her brand of cosmetics and skin care.
FNB readers are in for a wonderful treat this week. Writer and vintage cosmetics collector Joan Renner has graciously agreed to share highlights from her collection of more than 500 items.
I’ll start today with Joan’s impressive bio and part one of our Q&A, conducted via email. Part two will post tomorrow. Joan has also provided images of some of her favorite pieces.
Joan Renner is a writer and a social historian. She has a passion for vintage cosmetics ephemera, and crime. Her blog, vintagepowderroom.com, explores history, women, art, and provides her with a transparent excuse to add to her collection of over 500 items. Vintage Powder Room also has a Facebook page. As a tour guide for Esotouric she has developed a personality profile of Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia) based upon her choice of makeup.
She is a board member for the non-profit Photo Friends (affiliated with the Los Angeles Public Library), and is on the board of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles. Additionally, she volunteers for the Los Angeles Police Historical Society, and the Los Angeles Conservancy. She has been an invited lecturer at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and has lectured at the Queen Mary Art Deco Festival. She is currently appearing in a segment on film noir for the Turner Classic Movies series Film Fanatics; as well as appearing in an episode of the ID Discovery Channel’s series Deadly Women (the episode is entitled “Outlaws”).
FNB: How long have you been collecting and how/why did you get started?
JR: I’ve always had an affinity for the past. As a teenager, well before I had a notion of collecting anything specific, I would bring home bits and pieces like vintage clothing, photographs, books, even furniture. My early collecting efforts mimicked a crow picking up shiny objects and taking them back to the nest. I believe I began to collect because everything that I brought home made me feel comfortable – like being in the company of dear friends.
FNB: What’s the oldest piece and what dates does the entire collection span? Is it mostly made up of 1940s pieces or does it span several decades?
JR: The oldest pieces in my collection are face powder boxes which date from the late 1800s, and I don’t collect anything much later than 1955. The face powder boxes produced during the “Golden Age of Commercial Art” (which was from the 1880s through the 1920s) are among my favorites. Many of the designs are exquisite.
The boxes from 1880 to 1900 are particularly lovely because they are subtle in design and muted in color, very different from the boxes that would appear during the 1920s through the 1950s. The cosmetics ephemera created after 1920 frequently featured bolder designs in a riot of colors.
FNB: Do you have a favorite category, say lipsticks or compacts, or favorite piece?
JR: If I had to pick a favorite category it would be face powder boxes. There’s something magical to me about them. They represent more than just a cosmetics container; the boxes held the hopes and dreams of generations of women who endeavored to put their best face forward.
FNB: Do any of your pieces have a personal history or story attached?
JR: Much to my surprise, no, the boxes and other ephemera come to me so far removed from their original owners that the sellers don’t seem to know much about them. That’s okay with me; I have an active imagination and invent my own stories for them.
The rest of our Q&A and more pictures will run tomorrow.