MM Mailbag: Egyptian treasure
Curator's Corner, January 2019

Museum spotlight: Kao and Kanebo

This will be a short post as I don't have much information on these, but I still feel the need to highlight other cosmetics museums around the globe and online.  A couple years back Project Vanity led us on a virtual tour of the Kao Museum in Tokyo and I've been wanting to write about it ever since.  Kao, a global company based in Japan, has roots stretching back to 1887 and now distributes many lines including Bioré, Molton Brown, Jergens, and Kanebo.  Like other historic Japanese beauty companies such as Shiseido and Pola, Kao has its own museum, which is divided into three sections.  The first examines the "culture of cleanliness" from ancient through modern times, i.e. traditional practices related to personal hygiene including bathing, laundry and yes, makeup. 

Kao Museum

The second section pays homage to Kao's history and includes products and advertisements dating from the launch of the company's soap (their first product) in 1890 till today.

Kao Museum

The third section is a "communication plaza" which honestly just sounds like a glorified store.  "Peruse exhibits of the latest products that represent Kao product lines, use devices that assess the state of your skin and hair, and experience first-hand the workings of key features of Kao products."  Eh.  

Kao Museum

Most of the Kao Museum would grab my attention, but what I'd give my eye teeth to see is their display of all the Kanebo Milano compacts!  If I ever visit Japan you know I'll have to take a tour.

Kanebo Milano compacts at the Kao Museum
(images from

Also, while I was trying to find more information and photos for the Kao Museum, I stumbled onto Kanebo's online museum of vintage compacts.  I have many questions about this which I will get to later, but according to the website, the Kanebo company started a collection of vintage compacts in 1990 and now has 1,074 items in its collection.  I was really wowed at the variety and quality of the objects, which date from the 1850s-1950s and span 22 countries of origin.  Everything is arranged chronologically so I thought I'd share some of my favorite pieces from each era.  First up is this beautiful late 19th century wristlet from Russia, which was most likely owned by a member of the Tzar's family.

Russian compact/purse, c. 1885

These two items are extremely unique:  a bracelet and matching necklace from Nepal.  These are from about 1900 and belonged to Nepalese royalty.  Apparently these pieces served as the catalyst for starting the Kanebo collection.  I believe only the bracelet stores powder.

Makeup bracelet from Nepal

Makeup necklace from Nepal

I adore this exquisite blue enamel butterfly compact from Austria.

Butterfly compact, c. 1920

A three-tiered compact like this is something I've only seen in collector's guides. 

Tiered compact, c. 1923

This red, blue and black compact is a stunning example of Art Deco design.

Art Deco compact, c. 1924

This is another great example of a famous design.  Fan-shaped compacts had a moment in the 1940s thanks to Wadsworth, and this one is by the Pink Lady company (which, as you may remember, I wasn't able to turn up much information on.)

Pink Lady fan-shaped compact

You know I have a weakness for novelty compacts, and this blue starry Kigu is one of my favorites.

Kigu flying saucer compact

Naturally I have many questions for Kanebo regarding this collection.  First, where are these compacts physically located and stored?  As far as I know they're not displayed anywhere except online.  A museum space for their parent company already exists, so it would make sense to perhaps house them somewhere in the Kao Museum.  Second, who at Kanebo decided to start a vintage compact collection and why?  The website vaguely states that the compacts' "historical background and the culture of women’s makeup are being researched together with the era, materials, and country of manufacture...While valuing the history and culture of 'beauty,' Kanebo Cosmetics Inc. will continue to research beauty and offer further proposals for the future.  Through this collection, we hope you feel a sense of 'women and beauty' and 'the pleasure of applying makeup."  So no real answers there.  Finally, who is doing the research on these items and where are they getting their information?  I'm assuming it's a Kanebo staff member or group, but I also wonder if they've used an outside consultant or researcher.  And while most of the information seems correct, some of it doesn't seem to have any evidence to back it up.  For example, they claim this Scottie dog compact depicts FDR's beloved terrier Fala.  I mean it's plausible since Fala popularized the Scottie motif, but is it actually the famous dog?  Plus Fala's birth year was 1940 so that means the Scottie craze didn't fully hit until that decade, and this compact is listed as being from the early '30s.  If the compact does indeed use Fala as a model, Kanebo has its date wrong.

vintage Scottie dog compact
(images from

Also, the "flying saucer" Kigu compact above is incorrectly listed as coming from the USA - Kigu is a British brand.  So I'm not sure how reliable all of the information is.  In any case, it was great to see another fabulous online collection of vintage pieces, and I admire the more "museum" feel of it versus, say, the blog format of the Makeup Museum.

Would you visit the Kao Museum?  And what do you think about the Makeup Museum blog adopting a more formal virtual museum design?

comments powered by Disqus