During the late 1920s La Cherte face powder claimed to be “The World’s Most Exquisite Face Powder.” Its ads even promised “it will endure through hours of dancing,” and the woman on this powder box from my collection seems to be testing the veracity of the company’s claim by strutting across a stage beneath a single spotlight.
It takes a woman with uncommon panache to take the stage alone, and that is why the La Cherte face powder box reminds me so much of Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland, one of the most famous burlesque dancers of her era.
Betty was originally known as the “littlest burlesque star” because of her small stature, but her spirited performances earned the gorgeous titian-tressed dynamo the nickname “Ball of Fire”. Betty wowed audiences for years at the New Follies Theater on South Main Street downtown in revues such as “Panties Inferno,” “It’s Wicked,” and “Julius Teaser”.
A few years ago I met the Betty Rowland and it was a treat for me. Of course I had dozens of questions for her but I didn’t want to overwhelm the fragile nonagenarian, so I settled on one I didn’t think she had been asked a thousand times before: Did she have a signature scent? She paused for a moment before she responded.
Betty told me that her favorite fragrance had been L’Aimant by Coty. L’Aimant debuted in 1927 and it was the first perfume created by Francoise Coty. The scent is elegant and sophisticated, just like Betty. She told me that she wore it in her daily life and also on stage as a part of her act.
Before each of her appearances Betty would spray a liberal amount of L’Aimant all over herself so that when she “worked the curtain” her perfume would waft over the gents seated in the first few rows. I was awed by the anecdote. To incorporate the power of olfactory memory in her act was sheer genius. A large number of men must have seen Betty perform and carried with them 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.
As my conversation with Betty came to an end she 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 sent a bottle of L’Aimant to Betty, and I hope it transported her back to her glory days on the stage of the New Follies Theater.
Here is Betty in action:
NOTE: Betty ‘Ball of Fire’ Rowland recently celebrated her 100th birthday!
I found this Nupcial Face Powder box (c. 1920s) in a booth at an Orange County antique mall several years ago. I paid $30 for it. I’d never seen the brand before and expected never to see it again, but I was wrong. Earlier this week I discovered four Nupcial product labels for sale at an online auction site. I happily spent $95 for the labels in various sizes and shapes—they will look absolutely splendid framed.
What interests me about the powder box is its unusual mash-up of styles. Here, brightly colored geometric shapes, the hallmarks of Art Deco style, surround a classic 1920s bride. But while the graphics are era appropriate, they seem jarring. Brightly colored spears are attacking the poor woman!
The peculiar design of the Nupcial box sends a mixed message. Was the product meant to appeal to a traditional bride or to someone more fashion forward? The effect symbolizes the social chaos that characterized the Jazz Age, probably unintentionally so.
Inspired by the box to learn more about marriage during the 1920s, I did some digging.
Apparently the widespread fear of moral decay that resulted in Prohibition led California legislators to pass a “gin marriage” law in 1927. The law was well meaning—it mandated a three day waiting period to discourage couples from drinking in speakeasies then making a mad dash for a local preacher to unite them in matrimony while three sheets to the wind.
Enacting a law may seem like a drastic step, but concerns about inebriated brides and grooms weren’t entirely unfounded. On December 19, 1930, the Los Angeles Times reported the story of a failed gin marriage. A pretty blonde stenographer, Creola McCarter Milner, sought an annulment from her husband of a few months. Creola told the judge that she had become intoxicated on the eve of her marriage and awakened four days later to find herself married to someone other than her intended.
Many women’s and religious groups believed that the law would lead to more and better marriages. Instead, it drove couples out of state to places like Yuma, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada where they could marry on a whim; the marriage rate in California declined precipitously and the divorce rate increased. Legislators came their senses and repealed the gin marriage law in 1943.
Upon second reflection, I think the graphics on the Nupcial face powder box conveys a decipherable message after all. The design may be a jumble of traditional and trendy, but it works in its own quirky way. I think the same can be said of marriage. My husband and I are a mixed bag of idiosyncrasies, yet our marriage thrives. And before you ask, we were sober when we exchanged our vows.
I found the Radio Girl face powder box at a compact collectors convention in Las Vegas, it was one of was one of the first items I acquired when I began to collect vintage cosmetics ephemera nearly twenty years ago. I was particularly fortunate that year because most of the other attendees were focused on the compacts and vanity cases so I picked up this box, and several others, for under $25 apiece.
Advertising art reflects its time, and the colorful zig-zags of the Art Deco graphic combined with the silhouette of a woman with her arms raised above her head like a radio antenna, suggest to me that the Radio Girl box is a product of the late 1920s or early 1930s.
Radio was the biggest thing to happen to technology in the early decades of the 20th Century, and everyone was talking about it. During its infancy broadcast radio didn’t offer much in the way of programming—it consisted mainly of classical music and local preachers seeking acolytes; but the promise of radio was that it had the potential to bridge the gap between the West and East coasts. It should come as no surprise that one of the first national broadcasts was a sporting event—the 1927 Rose Bowl game was heard by fans from coast-to-coast. (For those of you dying to know who won, the game between Alabama and Stanford ended in a 7-7 tie!)
Today we pride ourselves on our mobility and the convenience of our smart phones, tablets, computers and the myriad of devices we carry with us each day. Portability was a concern for early radio listeners too. Sure, it was nice to gather the family around the Zenith console in the evening and listen to a college glee club or a repeat of the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera “Mikado”; but what if you were out during the day?
Women in Los Angeles obviously grasped the concept of portable entertainment devices very early on—as you can see in the photograph a group of young mothers discovered a way to take their youngsters out for a stroll while tuning in their radios. If you’re wondering where the electrical outlets were they weren’t needed, battery powered radio sets were available as early as 1922.
I am very lucky because whenever I crave an olde tyme radio experience all I need to do is to ask my husband, Scott, to turn on one of the tube radios in his vast collection. He has many of them set up to receive programming we select and transmit to them. There’s nothing quite like the warm glow of a tube-lit radio dial. I love to turn off all of the media in the house that postdates 1950, and then I mix a gin gimlet, put my feet up, and listen to an episode of “The Shadow” from the 1930s—it is my idea of a perfect evening.
One of the biggest advantages to blogging about my interest in vintage beauty products over the past several years has been having sellers contact me about rare items for sale. For example, on my birthday four years ago I received an email from a man in upstate New York; he had found me via my Vintage Powder Room page and thought I might be interested in a manufacturer’s catalog of face powder, rouge, and lipstick boxes. He described the 96-page catalog as c. 1922 with a brown paper cover and soft spine. He told me that the book was in excellent condition and that it contained approximately 300 images, with every other page printed in color and many with gold or metallic ink. He had just acquired the catalog that day and while researching it he came across my blog. He sent me a picture of the cover of the book and while it didn’t look like much, the pictures he attached of some of the inside illustrations let me breathless. I immediately offered to buy the catalog; it was my birthday present to myself.
E.N. Rowell Co., Inc. manufactured and designed some of the most exquisite cosmetics packaging of the 1920s. This slim volume was meant for cosmetics company representatives who were shopping around for the perfect containers for their products. Rowell’s pitch highlighted the quality of the company’s boxes and the excellence of their designs.
Since I purchased it, the catalog has become an invaluable reference tool. While I was excited to discover that I own many of the boxes depicted in its pages (including the Nylotis face powder box), it also reminds me that there are hundreds more face powder boxes I have yet to find. My quest continues.
Valentine’s Day is less than two weeks away, and there’s no beauty product in my collection more fitting for a holiday that exalts romantic love than the Soul Kiss box of powder samples. When I spotted this in an online auction six years ago, it was as if I had been struck in the heart by one of Cupid’s arrows. The name alone implies intimacy, and I was instantly smitten by the packaging: the image of a woman raising herself up to submit to the caress of the little cherub, suggesting as it does that anyone applying the contents could ignite passion and become an irresistible object of desire. This unique design has made Soul Kiss products highly prized among collectors.
Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson
The Soul Kiss line was popular in the early 1900s, when the Gibson Girl, created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, reigned as the paragon of American femininity. Although she was undeniably gorgeous, the allure of the Gibson Girl went much deeper than her physical attributes—it was her confidence and independent spirit that captured the imaginations of the women who sought to emulate her. But come the Roaring Twenties, women’s fashion had changed dramatically. The Gibson Girls’ towering piles of curls and cinched waists gave way to the bobbed hair and boyish silhouettes of the flappers.
The Gibson ideal may seem antiquated now, a vestige of traditional femininity, but she has something in common with the modern Los Angeles woman: Both are reflections of their era. Standards of beauty may have changed during the decades since the genteel Soul Kiss model was considered supremely aspirational, but a woman of intelligence, compassion, and wit never goes out of style.
Produced during the 1930s, the bold colors and high concept design make this Hi-Hat face powder box a minor Art Deco masterpiece. In addition to being absolutely stunning, the box introduced me to products made specifically for women of color. Face powders for dark skinned women were produced in shades with exotic names like Parisian Lavender Nite, Harlem Tan, and Spanish Rose.
For me, the Hi-Hat box evokes the Harlem Renaissance, when legendary African American entertainers drew crowds of “swells,”—men in top hats and women in evening gowns—into Harlem’s nightspots.
The silhouetted chorus girls that encircle the Hi-Hat box are representative of the beautiful women who worked in Harlem nightclubs during the ‘20s and ‘30s. The hostesses at the Savoy were legendary; they could take a “dead hoofer” (bad dancer) and have them jitterbugging in no time. Not only were they talented, but they were reputed to be the most gorgeous ladies in Harlem.
From 1920 to 1955, Central Avenue was the L.A. equivalent of Harlem, where boogie woogie, jazz, and R&B were blasted from juke box speakers through the wee hours of the morning. The avenue was known as “the heart of Saturday night Los Angeles.” One of the classiest places to go for an evening’s revelry was the Dunbar Hotel, L.A.’s answer to the Savoy and Cotton Club in New York. In its heyday the Dunbar was the hub of African American culture in L.A., and it offered entertainment from such artists as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway.
Imagine the dressing table of a habitue of Central Avenue —among her lipsticks, rouge pots, eye pencils and perfume atomizers, surely there would have been a box of Hi-Hat face powder.
The Woodbury Face Powder box depicts a young couple during the early 1920s — it’s not clear if they are on their way to a dance, if they have they become engaged, or if they are they embarking on a love affair. Whatever their relationship, for me they call to mind Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel, THE GREAT GATSBY.
The golden hue and soft pastels of the c. 1920 Woodbury box would ultimately give way to the bright colors and bold graphics of the Art Deco Era — just as stolen kisses and chaperoned dances would yield to frank discussions of sex, and uninhibited flappers doing the Charleston.
THE GREAT GATSBY is set in 1922, just as the “Roaring Twenties” were picking up steam. The end of WWI signaled the beginning of a social revolution characterized by enormous changes in the lifestyles, attitudes, and sexual habits of the generation who had survived the conflict. The younger generation had found the values of the older generation lacking in honesty and in fun.
Adding fuel to the revolutionary fire in the U.S. were two Constitutional Amendments: the Eighteenth Amendment which took effect on January 17, 1920 and established the prohibition of alcohol; and the Nineteenth Amendment which was ratified on August 18, 1920 and which gave women the right to vote.
In THE GREAT GATSBY Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan represent a collision between old and new money and, additionally, the different ways in which men and women sought to achieve the American Dream. The nouveau riche Gatsby earned his wealth rapidly, in part through bootlegging; Daisy was a privileged daughter who made an advantageous marriage to become an even more privileged wife.
When Daisy was told that she had given birth to a daughter she offered up her interpretation of the American Dream for women:
‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'”
Gatsby’s dream is to win Daisy, and he believes that in order to manage it he is going to require money — one hell of a lot of money. Nick Carraway, the narrator in the novel says of Gatsby:
“He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes.”
The dichotomy of old and new money and the pursuit of the American Dream are also represented by West Egg and East Egg. The two Long Island communities are separated ideologically by the condescension and suspicion of old money for new, and physically by a lake. Gatsby watches the lights of the Buchanan’s East Egg mansion from the shore of his West Egg estate as he holds fast to his dream of once again winning Daisy’s love.
Gatsby wouldn’t survive to play out his personal dreams; nor would he be around to witness the crash of the collective American Dream on “Black Tuesday”, October 29, 1929 when Wall Street would free fall into a decade of oblivion.
We can only hope that the sweet looking couple on the Woodbury powder box weathered the financial uncertainties of the Great Depression — I hate to think of them in standing in a bread line.
The Adoration Face Powder box dates from the 1920s/1930s, and because the design on the box appears to be that of a spider web it brings to my mind the spooky goings on of Halloween.
Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve” and it is an annual celebration observed in many countries on October 31, the eve of the feast of All Hallows (or All Saints).
Scholars believe that the celebration was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead. The end of the harvest season is a symbolic death — the fields are left fallow for a period of time in order to restore their fertility — to be resurrected in the spring.
In A HARVEST OF DEATH, Civil War photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan captured the image of dead soldiers on a battle field waiting to be collected, or harvested, for burial.
A Harvest of Death
The dead have a powerful hold on the living, and festivals of the dead have been observed in many different cultures for centuries.
One of the best known festivals of the dead is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday and is held on November 1st (honoring deceased children) and November 2nd (honoring deceased adults). The living go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed. Private altars are built at grave sites and may contain favorite foods, beverages, photos, and other memorabilia of the departed.
Spending quality time with the souls of the departed wasn’t enough for the Victorians, they wanted to speak with their deceased loved ones. Elijah Bond, an American lawyer and inventor, made chatting with the deceased a reality — well, if you believe in the power of the Ouija board. On July 1, 1890 the Ouija board was introduced by Bond, and he received a patent for it in 1891.
The Ouija board was originally regarded as a harmless parlor game; but following the carnage of WWI many people were desperate to reach loved ones who had been killed during the conflict, and they searched for ways in which to communicate with their sons, brothers, and husbands. Many of the survivors of the Great War, including the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, found comfort in spiritualism.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Pearl Curran was an American spiritualist who popularized the Ouija board as a divining tool. By all accounts she was an ordinary girl with no special gifts or particular ambitions. She married John Howard Curran when she was 24. The couple’s upper middle-class lifestyle afforded Pearl the opportunity to spend her free time playing cards and calling on friends.
In 1912 Pearl and her friend Emily Grant Hutchings paid a call on a neighbor who had a Ouija board. During the visit Emily claimed to have received a message from a relative. Emily purchased a Ouija board and took it to Pearl’s house with the plan of communicating further with the spirit of her deceased relative.
Initially Pearl was indifferent to her friend’s new obsession, but she finally agreed to participate at the board. On June 22, 1912 Pearl received a communication from a spirit who identified herself as only as Pat-C. Then on July 18, 1913 the board became possessed with unusual strength and energy and Pat-C began to reveal further information about herself. She said “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth my name. Wait, I would speak with thee. If thou live, then so shall I.”
In 1916, Pearl Curran wrote a book publicizing her claims that she had contacted the long dead Patience Worth. By 1919 the pointer on Pearl’s board would just move around aimlessly, but it didn’t matter. Pearl had progressed to pictorial visions of Patience Worth. She said “I am like a child with a magic picture book. Once I look upon it, all I have to do is to watch its pages open before me, and revel in their beauty and variety and novelty…”
Pearl became Patience’s amanuensis, and she faithfully transcribed the stories that came to her through Worth’s spirit. Together the pair wrote novels including: Telka; The Sorry Tale; Hope Trueblood; An Elizabethean Mask as well as several short stories and many poems.
Of course there were the inevitable naysayers who didn’t buy Pearl’s story of a long dead writing partner. Some of the skeptics noted that Patience was somehow able to write a novel about the Victorian age, which came 200 years after she had lived.
However it happened, the literature produced by Patience Worth was considered by many to be first rate. Worth was cited by William Stanley Braithwaite in the 1918 edition of the Anthology of Magazine Verse and Year Book of American Poetry by printing the complete text of five of her poems, along with other leading poets of the day including William Rose Benet, Amy Lowell, and Edgar Lee Masters!
Here is one of Patience Worth’s poems, The Deceiver:
I know you, you shamster! I saw you smirking, grinning
Nodding through the day, and I knew you lied.
With mincing steps you gaited before men, shouting of your valor,
Yet you, you idiot, I knew you were lying!
And your hand shook and your knees were shaking.
I know you, you shamster! I heard you honeying your words,
Licking your lips and smacking o’er them, twiddling your thumbs
In ecstasy over your latest wit.
I know you, you shamster!
You are the me the world knows.
Pearl Curran’s husband, John, passed away on June 1, 1922. It was John who had kept meticulous records of the Patience Worth sessions, so with his death the records became sporadic and fragmentary.
Pearl married two more times but the marriages were short-lived. In the summer of 1930 Pearl left her home in St. Louis for good and moved to California to live with an old friend in the Los Angeles area. On November 25, 1937 Patience communicated for the last time; she said that Pearl was going to die very soon.
Even though Pearl had not been in ill health, she developed pneumonia in late November and passed away on December 3, 1937.
A thorough investigation of the Pearl/Patience case was conducted during Pearl’s lifetime by Dr. Franklin Prince. In 1927 the Boston Society for Psychic Research published Dr. Prince’s book. As a part of his investigation Dr. Prince wrote an article entitled The Riddle of Patience Worth, which appeared in the July 1926 issue of Scientific American. He asked that anyone with information on the Pearl/Patience case to contact him, but no one ever did.
If you’d like to learn more about Pearl Curran and Patience Worth, visit the website dedicated to her (them?)
Let’s keep this party polite
Never get out of my sight
Stick with me baby, I’m the guy that you came in with
Luck be a lady tonight
A lady never flirts with strangers Shed have a heart, she’d be nice A lady doesn’t wander all over the room And blow on some other guys dice…
Capricious and captivating, Lady Luck is the dame that every guy wants to meet and make his own – at least that is what Frank Sinatra had in mind when he sang LUCK BE A LADY.
Lucky face powder was made in Tennessee for women of color, and was very likely part of the tradition of hoodoo. Cosmetics were manufactured and/or distributed by companies such as Famous Products and Valmor. A contemporary company, Lucky Mojo Curio Co., adopted the abandoned trademark of Lucky Mojo for their own products, and they sell a variety of spiritual supplies.
Not to be confused with the religion of voodoo, hoodoo is folk magic practiced primarily, but not exclusively, by people of African descent. There a many synonyms for hoodoo: conjure, rootwork and witchcraft are but a few.
Sources cite homemade potions and charms as the basis for old-time rural hoodoo; however, there have been many successful commercial companies that have sold spiritual supplies which include herbs, roots, minerals, candles, incense, sachet powders, colognes and even cosmetics.
One of the colognes associated with hoodoo is Florida Water, and it is still in production today. Florida water is an American eau de cologne that varies slightly from the older European version. The American version is citrus based, but instead of lemon and necroli it relies on sweet orange with added spicy notes from clove and lavender.
People practice hoodoo because they believe it allows them access to supernatural forces whose power they can harness to improve their lives. If you want more luck, money, love, and good health, hoodoo may be for you. As a believer in hoodoo you might expect to make contact with ancestors or other spirits of the dead, and you would recite Psalms from the Bible. The Christian tradition is strong in hoodoo, forming the basis for its worldview.
An important component of hoodoo is music, especially the blues. Examine classic blues lyrics and you’ll find evidence of the influence of hoodoo. Conjure terms like hoodoo and mojo are ubiquitous in the blues, but there are lots of lesser known conjure words too, like jinx, goofer dust, and black spider dumplings.
Goofer dust is most often used maliciously and may cause swelling in the extremities, blindness and sometimes death. Willie Mabon, in his song, I DON’T KNOW, sang: “Getting sick and tired of the way you do; good, kind mama, gonna poison you; sprinkle goofer dust all around your bed — wake up in the morning, find your own self dead.”
Goofer dust can be, but is rarely, used as a protection spell. Recipes for goofer dust vary in their ingredients which can include graveyard dirt (from a loved one), salt, pepper, ash, sulfur, and powdered bones. One of the most intriguing ingredients in goofer dust is something called anvil dust. Unless you know a blacksmith you’re not likely to find anvil dust, it is the fine black iron detritus found on a blacksmith’s floor.
A mojo is a magical charm bag used in hoodoo; essentially it is a spell or prayer in bag that you carry with you. Over the years mojo has become synonymous with sex-appeal, and for that much of the credit (or blame) goes to DOORS front man, Jim Morrison. MR. MOJO RISIN’ is an anagram for Jim Morrison.
If you have a mojo it is intensely personal belonging. It should not be seen or touched by anyone else or its magic may be lost. In the song SCAREY DAY BLUES, Blind Willie McTell sings about his gal trying to keep her mojo hidden.
Blind Willie & Kate McTell
My good gal got a mojo, she’s tryin’ to keep it hid
My gal got a mojo, she’s tryin’ to keep it hid
But Georgia Bill got something to find that mojo with.
Cosmetics are a modern woman’s mojo. The magic inherent in the lure of cosmetics can be compared to the appeal of magic potions concocted by believers in hoodoo. Both cosmetics and hoodoo rely on a fundamental belief that they can work miracles. Consider the juxtaposition of cosmetics and hoodoo – a faithless lover brought home, an unwanted wrinkle removed.
In her book HOPE IN A JAR, Kathy Peiss describes how women throughout the ages have created cosmetics and passed the recipes to daughters, neighbors and friends – no different than hoodoo charms and spells passed from person to person.
To paraphrase Clint Eastwood from the film DIRTY HARRY, “But being as this is Alpha Lipoic Acid, the most powerful antioxidant in the world, and would blow your wrinkles clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya?”
If you’re feeling especially lucky, find an old jar of Tho-Radia, a radioactive face cream! Yes, I said RADIOACTIVE!! Tho-Radia was a line of cosmetics that was introduced in the early 1930s by a pharmacist, Alexis Moussali and a Parisian doctor, Alfred Curie (no relation to Pierre or Marie).
So, ladies, apply the balms, creams, and potions – and let the magic begin.