Vintage Compacts: Guide to Elegant Pieces of the Past

Published December 17, 2020
woman applying lipstick

Whether you're touching up your makeup or trying to do some reconnaissance on the person following behind you, vintage compacts can serve a multitude of purposes. These definably small makeup mirrors have taken some truly wild shapes and designs over the years, and they remain a popular collector's item today. So, before you head out on your top secret spy mission, be sure to take a closer look at the vintage vanity accessory which you might find in your bag of gadgets.

A History of Vintage Compacts From the 1920s - 1970s

The first powder compact was created during Louis XIV's reign by French perfumers in the 17th century and moved across the channel into the hands of English jewelers. It wasn't until the 1920s, with the rise of the cosmetics culture that makeup compacts were being produced en masse. Many collectors consider the Art Deco era (1920s-1930s) to be the peak for makeup compact design. The burgeoning middle class consumer culture of the post-war period brought the compact back after it took a dip in popularity during World War Two. By the 1970s, liquid foundation, cheaply manufactured powders, and a natural face being the most fashionable marked the end of the statement compact mirror.

Collecting Vintage Compacts

Before you can begin collecting vintage compacts, you must first familiarize yourself with how to identify one, care for it, and estimate its value.

Woman powdering her face

Identifying Vintage Compacts

Vintage compacts are pretty easy to identify on sight since most of them kept a consistently circular shape, albeit with differing designs. However, some vintage compacts were molded into unusual shapes, like sphinxes, clams, pyramids, and so on, but you're less likely to come across these in the wild. All compacts have some sort of hinge, and most open to display a mirror set into either the compact's top or bottom (or sometimes both). Compacts from the '40s, '50s, and '60s may very likely have a place inside for loose or pressed powder and could also have leftover remnants of said powder hiding inside.

Vintage Japanese small purse mirror

Vintage Compact Manufacturers

There are many iconic beauty and fragrance manufacturers who began creating compacts during the 20th century, but a few stand above the rest. Elgin American's silver and gold tone compacts were particularly popular throughout the early 20th century, such as the company's unusually shaped decagon compact entitled the Doucette. Cosmetics leader, Estée Lauder, is well-known among compact enthusiasts for releasing yearly limited edition compacts since 1963; most recently, the French manufacturer has released a Golden Alligator Compact whose case resembles an alligator's scales. Meanwhile, Volupte's association with the Hollywood industry in the 1940s and 1950s would solidify its elegant compact designs among the list of collector's favorites. Other notable vintage compact manufacturers that you might come across include these ones below.

  • Cleopatra Vanity Company
  • Pozzini
  • Zinn Corporation
  • Coty
  • Stratton
  • Max Factor
  • Helena Rubenstein
Vintage Elgin American Woman's Compact

Caring for Vintage Compacts

Another important step in collecting vintage compacts is properly maintaining them and keeping them in pristine condition. These are a few steps to take to appropriately care for your vintage compacts.

  1. Remove any leftover powder residue using an old eyebrow wand or mascara wand and a dry microfiber cloth since the perfumes baked into the powder can cause lasting damage to the compact's lacquer.
  2. Carefully wipe down the compact with a damp cloth, being sure to keep any excess moisture from entering the inside as it can damage the compact mirror's silver backings.
  3. Use a silicone spray to wipe down lacquered compacts to protect the coating from further deterioration.
Hand holding a broken makeup compact

Evaluating Vintage Compacts

Since vintage compact mirrors are a go-to gift due to their petite size and artistic appeal, they are particularly easy to find. One vintage compact collector, Laura M. Mueller, explains that "most serious collectors are interested in compacts of a particular genre, such as those made of bakelite, a certain figural shape, or from one cosmetic house." This means that beginners have the best chance of collecting less-rare, plainer compacts because of the lack of professional competition. These professional collectors will hunt down solid gold and silver, Art Deco compacts from fashion houses like Cartier and Hermes, each of which can reach up to $20,000 at auction. For example, a 14k gold and enamel, Art Deco compact is estimated to be worth between $600-$1,200.

Vintage Compact Values for Novice Collectors

However, don't let these luxury compact prices deter you from pursuing your own vintage compact collection. Vintage compacts made from cheaper materials like bakelite, acrylic, and sometimes brass, can be sold for more reasonable prices. Similarly, incomplete and/or damaged compacts - meaning they lack the original powder puff or have cracked mirrors - can decrease the vintage compact's value. For example, a simple Stratton enamel compact from the 1960s is listed for $70 at auction and a bakelite petitpoint compact was listed for $50 at auction. Ultimately, you can find most compacts being sold for $25 to $300, depending on their condition, age, and unusual design.

Putting Your Vintage Makeup Compact to Use

Unlike many antiques and vintage items, vintage compacts can actually be reused by modern makeup wearers. Before you DIY your vintage compact, you can first measure it to see if the compact is 67mm in diameter; if so, then you can find many pressed powder refills from companies like Max Factor, Rimmel, and Estee Lauder that will fit snugly into your vintage compact. If it isn't 67mm, then you'll need to mix your favorite loose powder with rubbing alcohol to make a paste that you can set into your vintage compact and will be, when dry, ready for application.

Vintage Compacts on the Go

Whether you've amassed a large collection of unique vintage compacts or you have a beloved one gifted to you from your great-aunt, you'll want to be sure to set it somewhere it'll be properly admired. After all, these vanity items were once viewed as expensive tokens gifted from one beloved to another and they deserve to be admired in the way they were intended.

Vintage Compacts: Guide to Elegant Pieces of the Past