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A vintage compact – the beauty staple every woman needs

history of powder compact 1

For my birthday a few weeks ago, I popped into one of my favourite places ever, the treasure trove that is Fleetville Vintage Emporium in St Albans.  I didn’t find anything to wear, but I did come across this little beauty.

One of my enduring passions is vintage beauty.  There is something quite special about the journey of beauty throughout the ages and every palette, compact and pencil carries the weight of a woman’s aspirations, often not just for herself but her life.

The nostalgia of a traditional dresser, or remembering watching your mum get ready for a night out are an irresistible draw for me so finding an old piece of treasure always makes my day. 

Compacts are a particular thrill, representing as they do so much about real glamour and an age when women were ‘done’ even just for a trip to the shops. We all know that in every black and white movie there is one key prop the glamorous leading lady ALWAYS has – a beautiful, weighty powder compact.

open vintage stratton compacct

Whether being used to powder her nose, whilst disdainfully ignoring some foolish man who happens to be irritating her, checking for the merest hint of imperfections in her pristine make-up or simply to check for shine (a no-no in the days of old Hollywood glamour) the compact was not just a beauty tool, it was a metaphor for sophisticated perfection.  The CIA even had them made for spies to discreetly check out their targets!

In the real world, women have been using powder compacts in one form or another for centuries, but they first emerged heavily as fashion items in the refined Victorian era.

Emerging first in the USA, from the late 1890’s, a Massachusetts-based handbag manufacturer Whiting & Davis created lidded compartments in its bags where powder rouge and combs could be stowed.

Who else but Sears would took up the mantle, creating a small silver compact  containing a mirror, which it touted as small enough to fit in a pocketbook.[1]

Britains leading manufacturer of compacts was Stratton’s, initially a needle manufacturer, who by the war created over half of all the compacts in Britain, until the Blitz claimed four of it’s five UK factories.

The fifties saw the company boom however, with the introduction of the ‘nail-polish-proof’ clasp and many of the vintage compacts you will find today are Stratton’s  (including I suspect mine)!

vintage floral stratton compact

Design has changed throughout history – the twenties were inspired by the craze for Egyptian beauty, the sixties heavily art-deco, but the ultimate must-have has always been a solid gold compact as used by the stars. 

In the eighties compacts began to fell out of favour, as skin formulations changed to offer a more dewy texture and the desire for a ‘matt’ look dropped off.

Cosmetics brand Estee Lauder though have never allowed the desire for a truly elegant statement piece of cosmetics art to disappear though, maintaining a range of gorgeous annual launches.  This includes currently Humberto Leon’s miniature treasures (n.b.  the little coffee cup is TOP OF MY WISH LIST husband).

If you are going to buy a truly vintage piece there are some key points to look out for.

  1.  True vintage is older than 20.  Stratton’s stopped being manufactured in Britain in 1997 and there are a number of imitations lurking around
  2. This video from a Youtube collector gives an interesting guide to dating your compact

As beauty buyers become more discerning and beauty bloggers are driven to buy beauty that photographs as well as it works, will the compact have a true revival?  For the sake of feminity everywhere I certainly hope so!   

If you are interested in learning more about collecting compacts, Powder Compacts is a brilliant resource!



Estee Lauder

Powder Compacts

How to date your vintage powder compact

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