Tuesday, September 25, 2018

For My Lady’s Dressing Table

QUESTION: When I was a little girl back in the early 1950s, I remember my mother’s skirted dressing table with its many glass and silver boxes, which contained her combs and her perfumes and the fine white powder she used when she went out. Sometimes when she was busy doing something, I would sneak into her bedroom and sit at her dressing table and play with her dressing set, pretending to be a big girl. Now that I’m older and have been all grown up for quite a while, I’d like to find out more about those early dressing sets. I’ve seen some at flea markets, but I have no idea if they’re worth much. Can you help me?

ANSWER:  Dressing table sets first became fashionable in the 18th century. Back then, a variety of items may have graced a lady’s dressing table, including comb and brush sets, little boxes, and perfume bottles. 

Perhaps the most beautiful items of the Victorian lady's dressing table were the brush sets, which included hair brushes, clothes brushes, hat brushes, combs and a hand mirror. These sets became fashionable in the second half  of the 18th century.

Leading silversmiths of the time backed many of them with engraved silver. Others used ivory or tortoiseshell backs, sometimes inlaid with the fancy scrolled monogram of the owner in silver.

Combs have been in existence since ancient Egypt. The Romans taught the Britons to use  combs rather than go through their hair with four fingers. An early alternative to the comb was a scratching stick, often in the form of a hand or bird's foot carved in ivory or hardwood, which ladies might also use to relieve their itching scalps.

There were two categories of combs. Ladies used back, puff and side combs to hold their hair in place after having it styled. Both men and women used dressing and folding combs to arrange their hair, These dressing combs were often part of fancy brush sets.

Early comb makers used cattle horn, ivory, and tortoiseshell for their combs, as well as wood, bone and metal. Ivory and tortoiseshell were the most desirable and costly. At the end of the 19th century, a cheaper substitute for ivory was Xylonite, also called French Ivory, an early form of white plastic sold by the Xylonite Company. Few of these sets have survived because when the brushes wore out, a woman would discard the entire set.

In addition to comb and brush sets, a variety of boxes adorned ladies’ dressing tables. First made in the 17th century, dresser boxes contained a number of tiny compartments and drawers to hold trinkets, jewelry, and other items, and often had a mirror fitted in the inside of them. Today, these have become known generically as “jewelry boxes.”

Patch boxes are small elegant boxes used to store patchet, worn by wealthy women to hide an imperfection or to draw attention to a pleasing facial feature. Made from a variety of materials, patchet were often shaped
like tiny hearts, circles or diamonds.

But powder boxes were the most essential item on the dressing table. Figural ones took the form of half dolls or ballet dancers. From 1870 to 1920 a woman could wear powder without being considered a prostitute, so these boxes appeared in large quantities. A few of them contained a tiny puff, made of fibers or cotton with a tiny handle sticking up.

Another container to hold powder was the talc, a small elongated container similar to a salt  shaker. A lady shook some talc out on her fingers to help ease the often tight-fitting kid gloves onto her hands.

But one of the largest and most ornate containers found on a dressing table was the porcelain trinket box, made by Limoges, Capodimonte, and other European and Asian porcelain companies. Ladies used it to hold button-cufflinks. odd pieces of jewelry, or small souvenirs,. Some featured hand-painted flowers, designs and portraits and came lined with colored plush or velvet. The more elaborate boxes had interior division and trays.

Another required item on a lady’s dressing table was the perfume bottle. The tradition of encasing perfumes in expensive and beautiful containers is an ancient one. Ancient Egyptians used alabaster bottles to store perfumes, due to its density and coolness to prevent evaporation, but they also used elaborate blown glass perfume containers.

The variety of 18th century perfume containers was as wide as that of their fragrances and uses. Liquid perfume came in beautiful Louis XIV-style pear-shaped porcelain bottles. Glass perfume bottles became increasingly popular.

Fine china makers brought out all sorts of dainty things for the dressing table. The hairpin holder, hair receiver, pin tray, manicure set and the small tray upon which it lies, powder boxes, cold-cream casket, lotion bottles, rouge pot, comb and brush, jewel boxes, frames of the hand and triple mirrors, bonbonniere, perfume bottles, sachet holders and the cunning little barrel for small change were all of china and all matched and decorated with small isolated flowers pansies, violets or daisies—scattered carelessly over the entire surface.

Although not as common as porcelain dresser sets, matched dresser sets in cut glass, pressed glass and milk glass appeared in the late 19th century. Cut glass colognes came in a variety of shapes. The stoppers might have matched the design or have been made of silver.

Dressing table sets can range from perhaps $25 at a flea market to over $300,000 at auction, depending on when they were made. Finding one from the 18th century in one piece will be a challenge.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about Colonial America in the Spring 2018 Edition, "Early Americana," online now.

No comments: