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I stepped out of the Vintage Powder Room for the month of June.  Why?  Well, I was establishing VPR on Facebook.  When I am doing resarch for the posts for this blog, I frequently find some terrific tidbits that don’t justify an in-depth post, but are simply too wonderful not to share. 

I’ve found that Facebook is perfect for the shorter posts, as is Twitter. So, if you have only a few moments to spare for the Vintage Powder Room and want to see some fabulous photos, videos, or items from my collection,  look for me on Twitter (vtgpowderroom), or on Facebook (search for Vintage Powder Room).  You’ll find links for both by scrolling down this page.

Now it’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

1920s obsessions: drinking, smoking, cosmetics

The 1920s and 1930s found women experimenting with make-up as never before. School administrators were scandalized as their female students and teachers appeared in class in the latest fashions with their knees exposed, hair smartly bobbed, eyebrows and eyelashes tinted an inky black. Preachers raged from their pulpits that “powder and paint” were condemning a generation of women to eternal damnation. The preachers may have been right in a way that they could never have predicted.

In those early years there was nothing to prohibit unscrupulous manufacturers from whipping up toxic potions that would turn a tidy profit. The manufacturers worried only about their bottom line, and not about the contents of the poisonous cosmetics which could result in blindness, disfigurement or even death.

On the road with Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1933 Consumer’s Research was trying to gain support for a federal law that would establish and enforce standards for everything from malted milk to cosmetics.  An exhibit was created to demonstrate to Congress the need for legislation to proctect consumers – but it ended up going on the road with none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  A reporter dubbed the exhibit the “Chamber of Horrors” and the name stuck.

Here in Los Angeles there was a popular eyelash dye which was available in salons under the name of Louise Norris.  Despite the fact that the product had long been suspected of being dangerously toxic, it remained on the market for years.  In 1940 the Los Angeles Times reported that 44 year old Louise Norris had been busted by state health authorities for distributing poisonous eyebrow and eyelash dye through her cosmetics company.

From the Chamber of Horrors exhibit



The most horrifying case of damage done by a commercial dye was that of “Mrs. Brown.” In 1933, the lovely pseudonymous socialite had attempted to enhance her beauty by applying Lash Lure. It took three excruciating months for Lash Lure to destroy Mrs. Brown’s corneas, causing her to become permanently blind.  What she hadn’t known was that the primary ingredient of Lash Lure and similar products was aniline dye.


Aniline is a highly toxic substance, more appropriate for tinting leather than coloring human hair. It is extremely dangerous if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. And before you get too smug, you should note that aniline is not a relic of the Deco era. It is currently used in polyurethane to manufacture rigid foam, in sealants… and condoms.


Men, be afraid. Be very afraid.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning. ~ T.S. Eliot

Wishing you and yours the very best.

See you in 2010.

I’ve always wanted to be Nora Charles (as played by Myrna Loy). She was a sharp, classy (but not stuffy) dame who looked gorgeous and cracked wise. My marriage is pretty darned good — but Nick & Nora had a PERFECT marriage. The way that they interacted and shared adventures entertains me to this day.

Because we’re into the last weekend before Christmas, many of you will be out trying to finish your shopping; and that made me think of Nora Charles, her arms piled high with holiday packages, dragging along behind Asta (the cute-as-a-button terrier) as she made her grand entrance into the film “The Thin Man”.  As she attempted to collect herself after taking a tumble, Nora pulled a vanity case out of her handbag to check her makeup. She was a woman after my own heart.

Thinking of the Charles’ also made me crave a martini (well, in my case a gin gimlet).  In a little while I’m going to go and fix myself a cocktail, put my feet up, and watch Nick & Nora celebrate the holidays in their own inimitable style.

Holiday parties are just around the corner.  If your face isn’t a perfect oval (few of us are so lucky) and you’re not sure how to identify the best hairstyle or makeup to enhance the shape of your face, watch and learn from this delightful tutorial from the 1940s.


Video is courtesy of the Prelinger Archive.

Hmm -- I think maybe I'll just have a salad.

The above drawings represent the “Evolution of Garbo” as interpreted by Anne Rodman in her beauty book, “Lady, be Lovely”. I can’t say that I immediately identified the subject of the drawings as Garbo, but I can certainly appreciate a Hollywood Miracle when I see one. Below is a portrait of Greta Garbo which looks similar to the first of Anne’s drawings.

An early portrait of Greta Garbo

An early portrait of Greta Garbo

On page 12, Anne Rodman uses Ginger Rogers to demonstrate how women may develop their beauty with “thought and study” and the “aid of clever make-up and eye catching coiffures”. 

Rodman’s advice makes sense to me — well applied makeup and a flattering hairstyle can make or break a look; but then a couple of paragraphs later she baffles me with the statement “…do not be a slave to fashion. Change your style every season if you would be young.” Huh?

Even though I’m obviously confused about what constitutes being a slave to fashion, I agree with Anne’s advice to women that they emphasize their individual beauty. Find your unique qualities and enhance them.

In any case, Ginger Rogers managed to develop a look that suited her perfectly, and she dazzled film goers for many years.

I confess, once I started paging through “Lady, Be Lovely”, I couldn’t wait to post a few more pages from that delightful book. 

Today we’ll learn, among other things, that beauty has a viewpoint, that the queen of beauty is love, and how to be courageous.

There’s also a quote from the sanskrit, accompanied by a drawing that is obviously Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. I will devote more time to the Duchess in a future post on unconventional beauty.

I have an extensive collection of books on every subject of feminine interest from vintage fashion to cosmetics.  One of my favorites is “Lady, be Lovely” by Anne Rodman, published in 1939.  According to the introduction Anne worked as a copy writer for some of the leading cosmetics firms in the U.S.  She also had a background in commercial art.  Taking as her inspiration the notion that beauty could be taught to women from the viewpoint of an artist, she began to create “before and after” cartoons so that “a woman could see at a glance how to improve her appearance, just as if she were seated before the mirror of the best salon expert on Fifth Avenue.”  What a wonderful concept!

Anne Rodman’s book reminds me of the film “The Women“. Both the book and the film were released in 1939 and each deals in its own way exclusively with women.

The Women

The Women

The film was based upon a play by Claire Booth Luce, and was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. The sets were glorious — designed by Cedric Gibbons; and the women themselves were utterly divine — dressed by Adrian.  Adrian’s designs were highlighted in a Technicolor fashion show sequence which was frequently cut from modern screenings.  With the exception of the fashion parade the film was shot in B/W. I would love to have seen Norma Shearer’s famously “Jungle Red” fingernails in color, but that is something left to the imagination. There is a NARS lipstick in Jungle Red that may be fun to try.

Because Anne’s book is so delightful, I’m going to share bits of it here on a regular basis. I don’t know about you, but I can always use beauty advice, even if it is 70 years old!  Get ready to “Kiss and Make Up” — the topic which begins Rodman’s book. 





















Scent, Memory, and Burlesque Queens

I don’t normally write about perfume, even though I love it, because I don’t collect it. But this past August I had an occasion to discuss perfume and burlesque with a wonderful woman who knows a great deal about both. The woman I’m talking about is none other than legendary burlesque queen, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland. I met her because she was a special guest on Esotouric’s “Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice” tour.

She began her professional dancing career as a Minsky’s girl in New York city; and she may have stayed there if it hadn’t been for a crackdown on the burlesque houses beginning in 1935. The citizenry and, perhaps even more importantly, Mayor LaGuardia, considered burlesque a corrupt moral influence. The mayor and the citizens groups couldn’t shut Minksy’s down without a good reason — there would need to be a criminal charge against Abe Minsky.  At last, in 1937, a dancer at Minsky’s was busted for working without her G-string and the law stepped in.  New licensing regulations would allow the burlesque houses in New York to stay open, provided that they didn’t employ strippers! Not surprisingly, that bit of legalese put a bullet through the heart of burlesque in the city.

Betty and her troupe of dancers headed west to begin a limited engagement at the Follies Theater on Main Street in Los Angeles. It may have started as a limited engagement but Los Angeles audiences loved Betty and she would continue to dance at the Follies for about 15 years. 

Before she was dubbed the “Ball of Fire”, Betty was known as the “littlest burlesque star”. That appellation may have described her stature (she is very petite), but “Ball of Fire” captured her spirit. Is she still a ball of fire?  You bet!

Because I had an opportunity to chat with her, I decided that rather than ask her to reminisce about celebrities she’d known, or places she’d worked,  I’d ask her if she’d had a signature scent, particularly something she’d worn when she performed. She seemed a little surprised by the question, saying she’d never been asked that before, but she responded instantly. Her favorite fragrance had been Coty’s L’Aimant; and it was part of her act! She told me that before she appeared on stage she’d spray a liberal amount of the cologne all over herself so that when she “worked the curtain” the scent would waft over the first few rows.

I told her that I thought it was absolutely brilliant of her to have conceived of using a fragrance in such a creative way. There has been an enormous amount of scientific research done on olfactory memory; but you don’t have to be a scientist to know that certain aromas trigger powerful personal memories. I cannot smell leaves burning without recalling my midwestern childhood.

As far as I was concerned, autumn had officially arrived when leaves, raked into neat piles, were burned in nearly every yard in my neighborhood.

I’ll bet that there were men who saw Betty perform who subsequently carried with them forever the memory of her perfume. I wonder how many wives and girlfriends received gifts of L’Aimant from those men over the years; and I also wonder if the men knew why they’d selected that particular perfume at a counter crowded with choices.

Betty lamented that Coty had long ago discontinued her favorite scent — but if you know where to look you can still find a vintage formulation of the famous floral.  I’ve ordered a bottle for Betty, and I hope it prompts her to relive some of her most precious memories.

If you’re interested in seeing one of Betty’s performances, all you need to do is to go to YouTube. I’ve also written a little different story about Betty for In SRO Land.

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