Curator's Corner, April 2021
Lady Aiko for Estée Lauder

MM Mailbag: partially solved mysteries featuring Mondaine, E.A. Bliss and early Stila

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.

Mondaine compact

Vintage Mondaine compact

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.)

Mondaine compact
(image from

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.

Antique? metal clutch

So I wasn't able to definitively conclude anything about the metal case. But it's certainly pretty and I wonder what the story was behind it.
Update, 6/4/2021: Some incredibly exciting news! Sarah Jane Downing (yes, THE Sarah Jane Downing who wrote Beauty and Cosmetics, 1550-1950), kindly reached out and provided some information on the mysterious "Mizpah" engraving on the metal clutch. Here's what she had to say:
"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!"
How fascinating is that?! So now I really do wonder whether the clutch was intended as a wedding keepsake. Thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing this amazing bit of history!
Next up is an antique store find. It's a round metal compact featuring a peacock or pheasant perched on a cherry blossom tree. The characters on the front appeared to be Chinese and the submitter seemed to think it was someone's name.  The only other marking it had was the word "lovely" (in English) on the powder puff in the compact (no photo of the puff was provided.)

Vintage Chinese compact

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.

Vintage Chinese compact detail

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.

Tanfani and Bertarelli box

I'm questioning if the box was meant to be a compact given that I couldn't locate any examples of this company making cosmetics or toiletries - they seemed to produce papal jewelry/clothing and medals, so I'm wondering if this box held something else. Perhaps it held a gift or souvenir that the public could purchase at their shop. Especially since the writing on the box translates to "objects of devotion memories" whereas other boxes for official papal medals say "sacred objects" - maybe people could go in and buy a souvenir like a rosary or coin or something and this was the gift box. But it's possible it's a compact or was the gift box for a compact since souvenir compacts were popular back then, and the dimensions look similar to a compact, plus it opens the way a standard compact would. I'm not sure if there was an actual powder puff or if what's shown here is just a wad of cotton, or if there was any powder residue. Those details would help identify it as a powder box or compact with more certainty.

Tanfani and Bertarelli box

Let's take a quick break from compacts with an old lipstick. The submitter had the brand's name on the tip of his tongue but couldn't remember, so he asked me to take a crack at it. The silhouette of the case is rather common and used by a lot of brands so that's not much help, but there's an L on the cap and the fleur de lis motif would suggest a French brand. Based on other vintage lipsticks and ads, I eliminated Luxor, Luzier, Lucien Lelong, Lancome, Louis Phillipe and Lady Esther. I thought L'Oreal was a possibility based on this blush compact as it incorporates the fleur de lis, but the photos of the lipstick indicate it's a metal case, which means it most likely dates to before 1960. To my knowledge L'Oreal did not sell cosmetics (only haircare) in the U.S. until the late '60s. 
Lentheric lipstick?
My best guess is Lentheric, based on this mascara case which has a similar logo of an L and 3 fleur de lis symbols. This logo dates to the early '50s.

Lentheric mascara
Do you remember this ad from the fall 2017 exhibition?
Lentheric Pippin Red ad, 1952
Lentheric appeared to have undergone a lot of packaging changes, so it's unclear when the lipstick in question was made. The company had an interesting fold-out case in the late 20s/early 30s, then a black case with a gold ribbon encircling it, then during the war they shifted to plastic. This one could be a variation from the mid 1930s to early 40s...that is, again, if it's actually Lentheric. I also asked the extremely knowledgeable expert at Cosmetics and Skin to take a peek and he thought it could be Lentheric as well. So that's what I came up with but I don't know for sure. Maybe the letter is actually a T and not an L, but that didn't align with any of the brands of the time (Tangee, Tattoo, Tussy, etc.)

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.

Antique E.A. Bliss compact or 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.

E.A. Bliss mark

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!)

E.A. Bliss belt buckle
(image from
E.A. Bliss mark
(image from
As they were a jewelry company that made tons of accessories - everything from hairpins to belt buckles - knowing the brand and the approximate dates didn't really help determine for sure whether it's a powder compact or snuff container. My hunch is that given the depth, relatively plain design and the lack of a mirror is that it is a snuff box. Ladies' powder containers tended to have more decorative details. For comparison's sake, here's a powder compact by the company from the same era. It is fairly plain, but it has a mirror and it's not as deep.
E.A. Bliss compact
I really can't say for sure what it is, but we know it's over a century old, so it's a true antique. I'm also not certain about the materials. E.A. Bliss was essentially a fashion jewelry company (i.e., not high-end like Tiffany's) so there were a lot of gilt and silverplate accessories. So this one could be all brass or gold-plated brass. While I couldn't completely unravel the mystery of this object, I was pleased at figuring out who made it and the approximate dates. There's a whole book on the history of Napier too, so maybe there are photos or ads of snuff boxes and powder compacts.

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!"

Fortunately I had good news for her. I'm not sure whether the compact in question was available in the U.S., but something nearly identical was sold in Asia and obviously in Australia where she spotted it. This one is very close to what she described, but the design does not appear to be in relief, just printed on the lid.  So perhaps there was a slightly different product with the same Stila girl image but with a relief lid.
Stila Sun compact
(image from
There were a couple of Stila compact designs with stars and one was relief and one was flat, so it's entirely possible the same thing happened with this design. As we know, just because an image can't be located online doesn't mean an object didn't exist. But the submitter replied to my findings and after thanking me profusely (always appreciated!) she confirmed that this was in fact the compact she had seen - she was quite certain that she was getting it slightly confused with the others that had a relief design.

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!

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