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The mysterious little box

Updated: Feb 22, 2022

“Through knowledge of the secrets of makeup gives you the power to alter your appearance in a most surprising way. If you study your type carefully, admitting defects while recognising the opportunities for beautifying, you will soon be rewarded with a complete transformation.”

— HOME BEAUTY COURSE by Marjorie Oelrichs, 1927

Some time ago, I decided myself to finally buy on Amazon an acid free box to store and protect my vintage curiosities, old magazines and newspapers. These small treasures I have inherited from my grand-mother who, in turn, had been passed from her mother. The importance of keeping them in safe place, far from dust, heat, light and humidity that could cause weathering is a recent affair for me. I did not give so much importance to the value of these vintage objects and ephemerals until I turned 30 and found myself interested in antiques. If my grandma’s preoccupation was that of storing her vintage collection in order to hand it down to me one day, making the stuff surviving to atmospheric factors that could destress them (for almost 90 years!) it is my own responsibility now to invest the same time and take the same care she did to preserve them in good condition.

The little black and gold box I am holding in my hand did not ring any bell in my mind some years ago, probably because I did not look at it so close like I am doing now to observe its intricate details. I remember I was 17 when my grandma showed it to me for the first time. She tried to tell me a sort of story related to this black box but her efforts to catch a little of my attention were in vain. As a teenager, my only preoccupation was to get out and buy Spice Girls new album before it got sold out.

My great grandmother vintage "misterious" box

This is my great grandmother Shalimar “Tea Rose” lose powder pot by French company Guerlain. It was a present her cousin bought to her coming back from Paris in 1930s. She was so fond of it (my grandma told me) that she barely used it, that’s why some of the original content is still there! In fact, if you smell it, you can still get the soft notes of that alluring old-times powdery perfume. This gets me mesmerized every time I smell this and a vivid image of my great grandmother comes in to my mind: an image of her sitting in front of her mirror’s vanity desk applying her coat of powder on the face, surrounded by a dusty perfumed cloud. The pure incarnation of femininity!

Bottles of perfume and Guerlain Shalimar "Tea Rose" lose powder box, late 1920s.

Guerlain "La Poudre" advertised on The New Yorker magazine, 1927

Guerlain Shalimar powder "La poudre c'est moi!" advertising, 1931

Shalimar lose powder, 1933

Shalimar "La poudre c'est moi!", 1934

It was in the late 1920s that make-up actually started to go mainstream. Before that time it was just actresses, dancers and prostitutes who cared about not to leave the house without any powder and lipstick on their face. Nice girls did not wear any make up (or "paint" like they used to call it) and preferred to keep their face skin looking like porcelain dolls.

It was thanks to the silver screen and the silent movies stars that horde of young women had begun huddling to beauty stands of departments stores. They wanted to look like Clara Bow they watched at the cinema the night before, to enhance their natural beauty with lipstick, blush and of course powder, a lot of powder!

After the 1920, the industry of cosmetics literally exploded to cover the growing demand of make up.

So, thanks to the flappers and the enchanting flawless appearance of silent movie stars thousands of women realized they needed a “facial” at a “beauty salon” the night of their first appointment. A new need was created and beauty industry, which ride the wave opening 18,000 beauty parlours just in America, started rubbing their hands.

Pioneers of cosmetic such as Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Guerlain worked with chemists to make some of the first liquid rouge, eye shadows and lip sticks. They were just few dozen in 1920 but as the decade progressed the quality improved and so did the number of products on the market: 450 by 1924 and 1300 different brands in 1929. Make up industry filled their coffers with 52 million of dollars in just a decade.

Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), one of the most famous rising stars of silent movie era. Her look inspired thousends of young women making their first approach to make-up products.

Bourjoi’s Manon Lescaut Cosmetics, 1928

Pond’s Extract Co.’s Pond’s Cold Cream and Vanishing Cream, 1925

Double Compacte Coty Rouges, 1928

Beauty salon advertising of 1926. 18,000 beauty parlours opened just in America by the end of the 1920s.

Tangee lipstick, late 1920s

Coty – CotyTan The Smartest Coat Of Tan, 1929

La Dorine, 1920

"Through knowledge of the secrets of makeup gives you the power to alter your appearance in a most surprising way. If you study your type carefully, admitting defects while recognising the opportunities for beautifying, you will soon be rewarded with a complete transformation."

— HOME BEAUTY COURSE by Marjorie Oelrichs, 1927

Maybelline, 1920s

Rigaud Paris, 1920

Dermatological Laboratorie’s Terra-derma-lax, 1922

Bourjoi’s Java face powder, 1922

Dorin, 1922

Pompeian Bloom's rouge, 1926

Elizabeth Arden, 1926

Make-Up Womens Skincare, 1920

Pond's the two creams, 1925

Bourjois, 1925

La Dorine, Paris, 1921

My great grandmother’s “La Poudre C'est Moi”, scented with Shalimar, was from 1930s but it debuted in 1925, the same year of Guerlain’s Shalimar. The smell is soft but after almost 90 years it is still present! Whilst the fragrance is still produced to delight women today and it is considered like the most oriental scent of its category, the Shalimar powder has been discontinued. It was relaunched 10 years ago as a limited edition, though there is no comparison between the vintage box with that of year 2006. 

In general, I cannot compare today’s make-up plastic packaging with glamorous arabesque old ones. The vintage ones were often made of metal silver or gold plated and could be refilled. The top of the metal case was carved with floral motifs by skilled artisans. They were little treasures and built to last! A perfect example of pure bliss from bygone days.



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