As soon as I saw the roadster (a  Duesenberg?)  in the illustration on the hair net package,  I knew that the  jaunty young lady at the wheel had to be the world renowned girl detective Nancy Drew.   

When you were a child did you ever want to be Nancy Drew?  I did.  And all these years later I’m still so captivated by the idea of being a gal gumshoe, a dame detective, a she shamus, that I give crime tours with the LA-based company Esotouric on most weekends.  But even the tours aren’t enough to satisfy my longing be a PI, cop, or a stylish and witty helpmate, like Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films.   

Just because I never became a private investigator or cop (I like to believe that I DID become a stylish and witty helpmate) that doesn’t mean that I can’t pursue my crime busting dreams.   I’ve discovered a few ways in which to get my crime  fix – the aforementioned tours, and I volunteer at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society (LAPHS).   

Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel

The historical society has a fantastic museum which is housed in an old police station. I spend my time there organizing and digitizing a collection of Daily Bulletins, and Juvenile Reports.  The Bulletins began in 1907 and were distributed to each officer, every day (with the exception of Sundays and holidays). The Bulletins provide a daily snapshot of life in the growing city of Los Angeles, as reflected in the criminal behavior of its citizens. 

Nancy Drew did her sleuthing in River Heights, not in Los Angeles, and she began her amateur detecting as a 16 year old in 1930. The early books depict Nancy as a very modern girl — just as she should have been in the years following WWI.  She had a litany of accomplishments including: dancer, driver, cook, car mechanic, swimmer, seamstress, painter — and she was fluent in French!  If she’d had a leather cat suit, I’m sure she could have given Mrs. Emma Peel (of the  1960s series The Avengers) a run for her money.  

Mildred in mid-dive c. 1925

The woman who ghosted the Nancy Drew books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate from 1929 to 1953 was Iowan, Mildred Wirt Benson.  Mildred was nearly as accomplished as Nancy. At the University of Iowa she participated in swimming, soccer, and was a student journalist.  Following graduation  she worked as a general reporter for the The Clinton (Iowa) Herald.  

Mildred was only 21 when, in 1926, she answered an ad placed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate for ghost writers. Her first assignment resulted in the novel, Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario.   

Mildred appears to have remained as feisty as Nancy Drew ever was, because she began to take flying lessons at age 59.  I’m glad to report that Mildred lived a long life – she passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.  

Nancy Drew has gone on to have a long and eventful life too. There were some terrific films in the 1940s featuring Bonita Granville as Nancy, and more recently (2007) Emma Roberts played the girl sleuth. In 2002 the first Nancy Drew book, The Mystery of the Old Clock, sold over 150,000 copies!

  

 Oh, and if you think that Nancy Drew was a pre-feminist bimbo who couldn’t possibly have had an impact on intelligent and strong women, think again. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton cites her as an early influence, and so do Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor.  

For more information on Mildred Wirt Benson visit the University of Iowa Digital Library.

Vintage cardboard face powder boxes simply don’t lend themselves to travel – which was a huge dilemma (and source of irritation) for me until I began this blog. Every collector wants to be able to show off what they’ve found, and I’m no different. I thoroughly enjoy having this forum to shine a spotlight on the fantastic boxes, hair pin cards, advertising, etc., that I’ve amassed over the years.

I’m careful to photograph each item as well as I can to try to capture their fragile beauty, but the photos are no substitute for seeing them in person. Only in person can you get the feel for them as having belonged to someone — having graced a woman’s dressing table. I never get over the fact that these items were packaging, designed to catch a woman’s eye, but ultimately meant to be discarded. I’m grateful to the women who, over the decades, kept the boxes safe from harm in dresser drawers, or in sewing rooms (the empty boxes often became a place to store buttons or other small sewing necessities).

I consider myself to be both a social historian and a cultural archaeologist. This definition I found for archaeology says it best: “the study of the past through material remains.” The powder boxes, rouge tins, and other cosmetics artifacts I collect tell the story of women in the context of different periods of time (my earliest items are over 100 years old).

This coming Sunday I’ll have an opportunity to put a few of my items on display when I host a curated conversation about vintage cosmetics ephemera and the history of cosmetics at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. My presentation will be part of a special program at the May 30th LAVA (Los Angeles Visionaries Association) Sunday Salon (http://lavatransforms.org/salon510).

I’ve entitled my presentation “Pandora’s Boxes”, and I hope you’ll join me (the link above provides all of the details). Where else but LA could you satisfy your craving for confetti Jello, AND see a great display of vintage cosmetics items?

 

Photograph is courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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.