Walnut Compact Artifact Highlight #3

This little silver and brass compact in the shape of a walnut shell was donated to our collection in 1964. It opens to reveal a small removable powder puff, a photo of an unknown woman and a small bottle for perfume or smelling salts. Decorative compacts, small vanity cases containing powder, lipstick, mirrors, or more, were fashionable in the early 1900s.

Although the use of makeup during the Victorian and even the Edwardian age was considered vulgar and only seen on performers and prostitutes, the one acceptable form of makeup was face powder. A pale face without blemishes, freckles or redness was considered beautiful. Many newspapers offered advice on choosing the right powder and local newspapers advertised face powders and powder puffs among their offerings. In 1885 an advice column in the Placer Herald informed its readers that “it would be very hard to find a woman who has never applied the beautifying dust to her face.”

Although available for purchase, many made their own powders out of chalk, rice powder, starch, milk of magnesia or talcum.

A recipe found in The White House Cook Book (1899) called for ¼ pound of wheat starch, 8 drops of rose oil, 30 drops of lemon oil and 15 drops of bergamot oil. All one had to do was to sift the starch through a sieve or a piece of lace and add the oils. Homemade powders did not provide a lot of coverage and applying a face cream first made the powder stay on longer.