I'm always so honored to hear from people wanting to know more about the (usually) vintage objects they come across. While the volume of inquiries can be a bit overwhelming sometimes, it's so interesting to see what's out there and I enjoy expanding my knowledge. For this installment of MM Mailbag, I'm looking at a few inquiries that I managed to partially solve. I wish I could have answered with 100% certainty, but at least I found a little information.
First up is a metal clutch containing a multi-use compact. The submitter lives in California and was cleaning out a house of a family member who had passed away when she stumbled across these items. At first glance I thought the compact was physically embedded in the clutch somehow, but they're separate.
The compact was easy to identify. It appears to be one by Mondaine, a compact manufacturer in the 1930s that was better known for their book-shaped compacts. Here's another example of it. (The interior has the same layout and products as the one that was sent to the Museum...I'm just too lazy to add photos.)
(image from worthpoint.com)
The metal clutch, however, was trickier. I couldn't make out the monogram or figure out what the "Mitzah" engraving was, but my best guess is that someone selected a clutch to put the Mondaine compact in, had it engraved and presented it as a gift - maybe for a birthday, or perhaps a wedding anniversary given the June date. Or maybe someone just had an old engraved metal case and decided to put the Mondaine in there to store it. They may be totally unrelated.
"During the 19th century the Regency taste for sentimental jewellery developed into an obsession by the Victorian era and there were many pieces (in the UK at least) that bore the inscription 'Mizpah' or 'MIZPAH' which I suspect is the inscription on the clutch. This would substantiate your theory that it was sent as a gift to a loved one. Mizpah was a derivation from a Hebrew word meaning something akin to 'watchtower' which was used in jewellery to mean 'the Lord watch between me and thee', an innocent religious reference used to convey a far greater depth of meaning. This could be used in mourning jewellery to refer to the distance of a loved one sadly departed or as an early form of sweetheart gift for a loved one far away. It was also a wonderfully romantic way to exchange tokens with a secret or forbidden love without fear of accusation or discovery!"
I posted it on Instagram stories because I know a few very supportive Museum friends read and speak Chinese. I must give a huge thanks to Mimi of Makeupwithdrawal and Mina of Citrine's blog for kindly translating the characters for me! As it turns out, the first character means "beautiful" and the second means "peak" or "summit", so they believed the inscription is the name of the company that made the compact. Also, Mimi thought the compact dated to the 1960s or later, as simplified Chinese was standard by the '60s. How the English word "lovely" got on the powder puff I'm not sure, but perhaps it belonged to a different compact.
Unfortunately I don't know of any vintage Chinese compact companies or makeup brands - I'm only familiar with 21st century ones - but it's a pretty design even if we don't know exactly who made it.
Next up we have the opposite problem: the company was identified, but it's a strange find that I'm not entirely convinced is even a cosmetics object. It's made of velvet (unusual for a powder box) and paper (unusual for a compact). After a little digging I learned that it's a box by Tanfani & Bertarelli, who supplied papal jewels and religious accoutrements - basically they were the Vatican's official supplier of decorations starting in 1905. From the few documents I found online (ads and receipts) it appears Tanfani and Bertarelli were at the address listed on the box from at least the 1920s to the early 1960s. The company changed its name in 1967 so we know it dates prior to that. I asked the husband about the font of the company name since he's a graphic designer, but he indicated it's pretty generic so I'm not sure what decade it's from.
Getting back to compacts, here's one someone dug up at an old bottle dump in Western Montana. This was another that at first glimpse I wasn't sure if it was a compact. The shape and depth seemed to indicate that it could be a snuff box.
The submitter thought the EA on the monogram might stand for Elizabeth Arden, but it didn't look like any of the ones from Elizabeth Arden, and as far as I know the company was never referred to as Elizabeth Arden Co. or E.A. Co. After poking around a bit I have come to believe it's the mark of the E.A. Bliss Co., which eventually became Napier Jewelry.
This particular mark, with a bee at the top, was used from about the 1890s through 1917, according to a listing at Ruby Lane. (Other listings indicate the mark was phased out in 1915...either way, this piece is much older than I originally thought!)
The last one for today is one that I think is 99.9% solved. A very nice Museum supporter in Australia emailed to say that sometime in the late '90s she spotted a Stila compact in David Jones, a department store down under. As with my memory of a Stila mermaid, she thought maybe it was a figment of her imagination. "It was circular, with the rounded lid and relief design, and it was obviously for bronzer since it was a copper colour. This is the part that is driving me crazy: I swear it had a Stila girl on the lid! She closely resembled the girl on the Sun Gel tube (with the sun behind her) but the girl on the compact had a loose braid falling on her left shoulder instead of loose hair, and freckles. I have never seen this compact anywhere since. The only bronzer rounded relief compacts I've seen have the sun's rays or the little scattered stars. Did I imagine it?? I would so appreciate if you could please tell me if this compact exists!"
And that wraps up today's edition of MM Mailbag. I have so many more inquiries to share...recently I tried to organize all of them into several email folders and noticed that the Museum has received over 320 inquiries since 2009! No wonder I feel like I can't keep up. But your queries are always welcome, so if you have an object or topic you'd like to know more about just send it my way. :) And if anyone can help fully solve the makeup mysteries outlined in today's Mailbag, I'm all ears!