Collecting Vintage Cosmetics Tells Women’s History

Collectables, Storing Vintage

vintage cosmetics

Collector Joan Renner carefully pulls out a bright, floral-print powder box from her display-case coffee table, holding it like a cherished gem. The box is close to 100 years old, a treasure she found during her constant search to grow her vintage cosmetics collection.

“To me, these boxes tell the story of women,” she says, adding that she considers herself a caretaker of these pieces that represent a period in time. “It’s social history, it’s art history, they tell so much.”

Joan’s collection of cosmetics packaging ranges from the late 1800’s to the 1950’s. You can almost see the timeline in the box artwork. “Very early, it was thought only ‘loose women’ wore makeup, so the packaging was very plain and they called the product things like “a complexion beautifier,” Joan says, pointing to a plain manila colored box.  “In the 1920’s it was acceptable for women to be seen putting on makeup in public so the package designs got bolder. Then in the World War II era, it was all very patriotic as the home front relied on women to make themselves beautiful because it was considered a morale booster for the men who had to go fight. ”

collector shows off patriotic vintage makeup compact from wwii

Her fascination with these little boxes and compacts began over 20 years ago when she and her husband were at a flea market and she spotted a compact from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. “I was just intrigued by the design of it.”

Joan has keen research skills for discovering where and when all her collected cosmetics items are from. “I have some collector’s price guide books from the 1990s and sometimes I’ll find things in there. I pick up old magazines and look for the advertisements. I also have a subscription to ancestry.com and you can search newspapers in there. You have to be really dedicated and dig for it, but I like that part!”

Joan is also a well-known historian around Los Angeles. She’s given lectures on women in crime, been a guide for Esotouric Tours, a company that specializes in showcasing LA’s forgotten lore and crime scenes, and she organizes the archives of Police Daily Bulletins at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society. She was part of the research team for the recently released book, “LAPD 53” written by James Ellroy, featuring crime scene photos from the year 1953. She also runs her own blog,  Vintage Powder Room, where she writes about the items in her collection.

When asked about the connection between her passion for crime and cosmetics, she laughs. “My interests may seem totally diverse, but as soon as you starting talking about women behaving badly and your femme fatales, cosmetics play heavily into that, so they do intersect!”

As for actually finding the products, Joan says she finds most of her collectibles online these days because flea markets and estate sales no longer seem to have them. “Those sales just don’t have items that go back that far anymore.”

vintage makeup compacts

She said she’s often surprised to find the powder boxes in excellent condition, “Women will take care of something they think is pretty or special. Some of the most beautiful powder boxes came from the depression era because women would be willing to skip a meal to spend a quarter on something that made them feel good because it was pretty. Then they would tuck them away in a special place like a lingerie drawer – which is the perfect place for them because it’s dark and dry. That is probably why most of them still have bright colors and are in pristine condition, sometimes they were never even opened to use the product.”

As for preserving them, Joan takes special care to keep them in good condition. “I don’t let the sun shine on them because that will fade them. When they’re not on display, I wrap them in archival paper and put them in archival boxes. I keep them at room temperature. Most of them are just made of cardboard paper so light and dampness will destroy them.

As for the packaging of today’s cosmetics, Joan finds it all very uninspiring.  “Makeup packaging now is really bland and it all looks the same. There used to be pride in the packaging, but now it’s more about instant gratification, and people just throw away the packaging. I think they are really missing out.  I know when I go shopping, I find myself and others drawn to the items that have some eye appeal. I really like the brands doing more retro designs like Besame or Benefit. Back then, cosmetics companies were competing for women’s attention. The graphics were meant to capture the eye and are absolutely gorgeous.”