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Vintage Compacts Mirror the Past

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Compact Collage

Several vintage compacts dating from the 1930s through the 1950s

-Pamela Wiggins
Powdering a nose 50-75 years ago wasn't merely practical; it was an event.

Long before pressed powder compacts were available in drugstores, ladies carried fancy compacts in their handbags. In fact, most ladies had an array of compacts to choose from since they were often presented to them as gifts by husbands, suitors and friends.

The Most Collectible Compacts

Although many of these little accessories were rather plain and practical, designed to hold loose powder in a way that's transportable, many were far from ordinary. Collectors discover everything from art deco styled compacts from the '30s to rhinestone-studded examples from the '50s and everything in between when compact shopping.

Some of the rarest and most valuable compacts offer crossover appeal to collectors. Hatpins with compacts built into the head make a wonderful find for ardent collectors. These came complete with tiny ostrich feather puffs when they were new. Compacts with similar puffs were also concealed in bracelets, rings and other adornments back in the day, and those appeal to jewelry lovers in addition to compact enthusiasts.

Both vintage toy and compact collectors covet the hard-to-find Schuco jointed teddy bears and stuffed monkeys hiding powder containers within the bodies, too. Vintage evening bags dating from the 1920s through the ‘50s with built-in compacts are also coveted by compact and handbag collectors alike.

Figural compacts also tend to be categorized as rare, and they are valuable, but it may be more appropriate to deem them scarce. These examples, shaped to resemble everything from chairs to pianos to gloved hands, surface fairly regularly in the secondary marketplace but the steep prices and heavy competition keep many collectors from owning them.

More Affordable Compact Choices

In the more affordable range, some collectors prefer to focus on the extreme compacts known as "flapjacks." These collectibles get their name by actually resembling a flapjack, or pancake, in shape by measuring 6-inches or so in diameter. If a large mirror is in order, the flapjack surely fills the need with glare to spare.

At one time compacts were also favored souvenirs. All types of vintage compacts featuring everything from the Florida Everglades to Mount Rushmore can be found today, and these aren’t terribly expensive. Even plainer versions of compacts made by well-know companies such as Elgin-American and Volupte can be located at bargain prices.

Sweetheart compacts, also popular crossover collectibles since they feature patriotic and military themes generally related to World War II, can be found in the $25-50 range. These sentimental favorites make an interesting collection for display when grouped together.

Compact Prices Overall

Over the past 10 years to so, compact prices have steadily risen. Those who started collecting these little beauties 15 or 20 years ago gasp when they see that even the most common examples usually sell for $20 and up when in excellent condition. The rarer examples mentioned above can sell for hundreds, if not thousands, each when found complete and in excellent condition.

Even with some compacts garnering formidable prices, a nice collection featuring a wide range of examples can still be accumulated with no more expense than many other collecting areas. In fact, if you're seeking them more as curiosity pieces representing a nostalgic era rather than finding all the rarest pieces, you'll do pretty well amassing an interesting collection with only moderate cash output.

Where to Find Vintage Compacts

Most every antique mall, show or flea market holds a few compacts, especially those perfect for beginning collectors. It’s often the thrill of the chase that makes these venues so much fun. More experienced collectors often set up email notifications on eBay.com to alert them when a compact they’re seeking comes up for sale. They also frequent online sites specializing in vintage goods such as RubyLane.com or TIAS.com.

For collectors really serious about finding the compacts of their dreams, attending yearly conventions and subscribing to newsletters on the topic will help further a collection. Spending time with other compact enthusiasts builds a greater appreciation for this collecting niche that goes right along with shopping and accumulating a collection, and some dealers who are also collectors save their best pieces to share with their friends.

To learn more about the compact collectors convention or to join the compact collectors club, contact Roz Gerson at P.O. Box 40, Lynbrook, NY 11563 or email compactldy@aol.com.

Reading Up on the Topic

Two great books on compact collecting are Collectors Encyclopedia of Compacts, Volumes I and II by Laura M. Mueller for Collector Books. These titles feature not only page after color page of wonderful compact examples, but also include magazine reprints showing original advertising and a glossary of compact terms.

Roselyn Gerson, a well-known compact lover who organizes the Compact Collectors Club (see information above), has also produced a good Collector Books reference called Vintage Ladies Compacts. This book offers many beautiful examples and the history of compacts as well.

All these reference guides can keep a fan of ladies accessories busy for hours ogling pictures and marveling at all the ways a functional item can be transformed into something really special.

All in all, appreciating vintage compacts stirs memories of an era when powdering one's nose could be considered an art form. There's just something wonderful about that.

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