I have to admit, writing about make up compacts was kind of odd to me. I don’t really think about makeup at this point in my life. However, these decorative compacts did intrigue me. And, well there was a chance to research something new I had never considered before.
When I began examining my personal relationship with makeup I can see there were many phases in my life. My first attempts at wearing makeup started when I was in middle school. My family had a strict rule that makeup wasn’t allowed until we were 16 years old. Obviously, I had to sneak to wear it to school before that! (Don’t tell my mom!) I thought I was so subtle with it. Maybe, just maybe, it was a little bit heavy. I wish I could say my technique improved when I was finally allowed to wear makeup, but it didn’t. My friends in high school were the drama nerds and punks. Even the boys wore eyeliner, so girls wore even more!
A Little Bit of History
It’s funny how my early experiences with makeup are mirrored in history. While we know that make up has been worn in some fashion or another for a large part of recorded history, modern makeup has its foundation (kind of a pun there) in the late 1800s. At that time, ladies were wearing makeup, but they were trying to be very subtle about it.
Only actresses and prostitutes worn obvious makeup. Everyone else tried to hide their use of cosmetics because it was socially unacceptable to be seen wearing it. Makeup could be found in special hidden compartments of walking sticks or jewelry. My young self tried to be subtle, but I probably looked more like an actress! I have always suspected I missed my calling with that!
My last two years in high school were at a small Catholic school where heavy makeup was viewed much the same way it had been in the Victorian era. Just not acceptable. When I went off to college I was free to wear makeup however I wanted to! And I did! I loved to wear bright red lipstick when I went clubbing with friends. Not only did I feel a little rebellious but I felt like I was in control of my choices. That is exactly how the early suffragist felt at the turn of the century! Many of these women would wear bright red lipstick in public to show their liberation. The suffragist owned wearing makeup and turned it into a statement of power for women. Wearing obvious makeup, like lipstick and rouge, showed the world these women were in control of their choices and what happened to their bodies. Not only did wearing makeup become ok, applying it in public became a statement of a woman’s independence. And as always, someone found a way to profit from this new socially acceptable trend. Women couldn’t
just cart around a vanity table with pots of powder and rouge everywhere they went, especially to their new jobs. The timing couldn’t have been better for the watch industry! Up until the turn of the century, meaning the 20th century, men mostly wore pocket watches. However, when they went off to war, men wore wrist watches that were better suited to their new military life leaving the watch companies with pocket watch cases. Thus the emergence of the makeup compact. Watchmakers, like Elgin American, simply removed the watch components, added powder and a puff and they were back in business.
Aren’t They Clever?
Women, being the exceptional individuals that they are, wanted these new conveniences to be pretty, clever and as unique as they were. Several companies stepped up to the vanity table to cater to the newly independent customers. Manufactures like Evans, Rex, Volupté, Dorset and Zell found ways to incorporate lipstick, rouge and powder into one little handheld compact. Early styles included chains so compacts could be worn and displayed instead of hidden in purses. Later versions incorporated the styles of popular jewelry, including rhinestones and painted enamel. Compacts became popular souvenirs and mementos. It wasn’t long before compacts left the round or square shapes of the watches and cigarette cases of their origins to take on just about any shape imaginable! Companies employed designers to keep up with the continued demand for creative decorative compacts. (Besides the resources at the bottom of this post, check my Pinterest page for some examples of these creative compacts!)
They really are quite amazing! It wasn’t until I began this research that I found some of the hidden compartments on the decorative compacts I own! Several designers obtained patents for their designs. And they should, but it leads to another, not too surprising fact. Many of the patents were held by men. With few exceptions such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, once the makeup industry began to make noticeable profits (by the late 1920’s the makeup industry was bringing in $700 million a year!), men began to be much more interested. And with profits now being the main motivator, cheaper mass produced products flooded the market. The beautiful unique compacts that had once been the exclusive product of department stores and beauty salons could now be purchased at the grocery store. Decorative enamel and metal compacts gave way to plastic containers meant to be disposed of when they were emptied. (So, since plastic in landfills is a bad thing, maybe there is place for a comeback of the decorative compact now?)
In the end…
In another odd coincidence, about the time decorative compacts began to give way to cheaper made products, society began to idolize “natural” beauty. In other words, it was expected that women just woke up looking gorgeous and it became gauche to apply makeup in public. Add another decade and women began to view makeup in general as a way the patriarchy was trying to control them. I think a lot of women go through this phase on a personal level when they realize much of what we do is to meet someone else’s expectations. But then we learn the only expectations we have to meet are our own. I suspect the makeup industry is there now also. Consider how many makeup commercials show a woman smiling at herself in the mirror. I think women’s relationship with makeup will continue to be complicated, especially when we still live in an era that puts more value on a woman’s appearance than on her intelligence. However, I am still captivated by these beautiful decorative compacts and how cleverly they were made!