Month: January 2012

Why I wish I knew shorthand.

In the world of pocket-sized digital recorders and ubiquitous laptops, people think it’s odd when I say I wish I knew shorthand.

First of all, it looks cool as hell.

More important: sometimes, it’s not practical to whip out a laptop during meetings and start typing. (I can’t touch-type, either–another regret.) In my job, I frequently interview people, report on events, and find myself in situations where I’m going to have to reproduce what was said close to verbatim. Almost ALWAYS without the benefit of digital recording and playback.  While I’ve trained myself to take good notes quickly, I’d like to take better notes faster. Ongoing, slowly worsening hand pain doesn’t do me any favors here.

Shorthand seems like the obvious solution. Though few people still use it, those that do find it highly practical. This website offers a fantastic overview of the differences in the various forms of Gregg shorthand. I’ve skimmed information on the other forms of shorthand still in current use (Pittman, Teeline) and decided the Gregg system seems to make the most sense to me. At first, I’ll probably wind up with a hybrid system, injecting some short forms into my regular note-taking system and using more and more shorthand over time.     

Right now I’m exploring. I’ve ordered a lovely old book and started identifying frequently used words I want to begin noting with brief forms. Once my book arrives and I’ve had a month or two of practice, I’ll see if it makes a difference. Stay tuned.


Elgin American

Preface: I am by no means an expert on vintage compacts. I’m more of a somewhat obsessed research geek who likes sharing what I uncover in the hopes of enticing fellow geeks into conversation. Come on, curious compact lovers. Geek out with me. As much as people love mystery, I think sometimes the more you learn about something the more interesting that thing becomes. For me, that’s definitely the case with compacts.

On to the goods on Elgin. The Elgin Area Historical Society reports that the Illinois Watch Case Co. established the Elgin American Novelty Co. as a subsidiary in 1898. Elgin initially made jewelry and lockets.  According to the EAHS website, “In 1923 Elgin American entered the ladies’ compact field with a patented ‘powder box.'”

An early Elgin box

An early Elgin American box with a great deco design. Photo (c) Jenn Waltner 2012.

Elgin American Co. sponsored the first two and a half seasons of Groucho Marx’s radio quiz show You Bet Your Life. Between 1947 to 1950, radio advertising had a powerful impact–Roselyn Gerson’s book Vintage Ladies’ Compacts  claims the show had to go off the air a few weeks early, as Elgin had sold through its entire inventory. Side note: Gerson’s book features many vintage ads, including at least 18 for Elgin compacts.

Elgin heart

One of Elgin’s popular heart compacts. Photo (c) Jenn Waltner 2012.

In the mid 1940s, Elgin introduced a line of heart-shaped compacts, cleverly sending distributors special Valentine’s Day promotional materials. The most elaborate case features love-birds hovering over a heart inscribed, “Give me your answer do!”  obviously targeting gentleman buyers planning a marriage proposal. Other cases bear cupids, hearts, flowers, and “I love you” engraved in multiple languages.  In her Overview of American Compacts, Laura Mueller writes, “Elgin hit the jackpot with this case design and occasional ad campaigns.” These sentimental pieces are easy to find and a great starting point for any collection.

Elgin made a number of gorgeous compacts, vanity cases and carryalls. A search right now on ebay for “elgin compact” yields 288 results, ranging from simple goldtone compacts to the elaborate Salvador Dali-designed “bird in hand” case. Leaping gazelles, elaborate enamelled souvenirs, mother-of-pearl and bejewelled beauties, dance cases with tango chains… Elgin made them all. Most vintage women would be hard-pressed not to find something in the Elgin catalog that speaks to them.

Elgin American compact

A compact pictured in Elgin’s 1949 ads

Copy from a 1949 ad in Harper’s Bazaar describes a new line this way: Definitely different… They’re here, the “originals” in compact shapes you’ve been wanting. Distinctive in every exquisite detail, these Elgin Americans have the contour allure, the exclusive edge edge on fashion so essential to that “yours alone” look.

While Elgin made compacts for the masses, the company recognized that women wanted their own personal style. So they offered designs to suit a wide range of tastes and budgets. Elgin produced and marketed compacts under a variety of names: Elgin American, EAM, American Beauty, and Clarice Jane. The Clarice Jane cases are smaller and somewhat more ornate–these are some of my favorites.

Elgin vanity case

An Elgin vanity case. Photo (c) Jenn Waltner 2012.

Look for more discussion about the Dali “Bird in Hand” compact and Elgin’s carryalls in future posts, along with photos of some Elgin favorites from my collection.

Got Elgin facts you’d like to add? By all means, comment. Compact geeks of the world, unite.

Lemon cosmetics

All-natural beauty products: not a new idea

Lemon cosmetics

A brochure touts lemon's cosmetic benefits.

While all-natural and organic beauty products may experiencing popularity at the moment, they’re nothing new. Just ask members of the California Fruit Growers Exchange, natural beauty proponents for more than 80 years.

The Fruit Growers Exchange (AKA “Sunkist” Citrus Fruits) published this brochure describing lemon’s beneficial effects on the hair, nails, and complexion. Featuring Miss Claudia Dell, Dorothy Christy, Irene Rich, Olive Borden, and Leila Hyams, actresses popular in the late  1920s and early 1930s, the brochure pitches lemon as a wholesale replacement for pricier beauty treatments. “One of the best of beauty aids, Mother Nature has bottled in the great cosmetic laboratory of the outdoors. It is a fruit–LEMON, THE NATURAL COSMETIC! A fragrant essence of sunshine, it comes to you, compounded subtly of non-injurious, cleansing fruit acids, to solve the problem of cosmetic costs.” (The writing in these things is fantastic. Over-the-top, theatrical advertising GENIUS. I can’t get enough).

Soft, fluffy, manageable hair. Luminous, well-moisturized skin. Pretty, soft, clean hands. White teeth and healthy gums for the whole family. All attainable through regular lemon rinses, the Fruit Growers say. Vitamin C and fruit extracts turn up in today’s cosmetics and creams: they’ve certainly stood the tests of time and proved their worth. 

Lemon cosmetic 1930 brochure

Claudia Dell, Radio Pictures Player, shows off her lemon-scented tresses and lovely complexion.

This brochure’s true beauty goes beyond the photos of stunning starlets, the dated language, and the DIY beauty tips. For me, its true charm lies in the assertion, “Beauty is every woman’s right! Deep in her heart, every woman knows that she has the right to beauty.”  Even better: “Now the world knows that there are as many types of beauty for women as there are women in the world. Each woman has her own beauty, her own charm.” (The unspoken implication: Each woman can be even more beautiful as long as she keeps using those lemons.)

Next time you’re short on funds and that organic botanical all-natural shampoo/cleanser/whatever? Exercise your right to beauty. Hit the citrus.

For face and hands: mix equal parts glycerine and fresh lemon juice, or add the juice of 2-3 lemons to your bath water.
For hair: after washing, rinse with warm water combined with the strained juice of two lemons.

Meet my ultimate car crush.

Norma and the Dodge

Norma (my grandmother, far left) poses with Lu, Ronnie and Ronnie in front of a 1940 Dodge. Meriden, Connecticut, 1944. Photographer unknown.

People say a picture is worth a thousand words. I wish I knew the thousand words that told the story behind this photograph of my grandmother, taken in 1944. How did she know the other women in the photo? Did they work together at New Departure? Were they cousins? Neighborhood gals? High school friends? No idea.

Next question: where did she get the fur coat? Did she buy it herself? Was it a hand-me down from one of her six older sisters? A gift from my grandfather? Had she even met my grandfather in 1944? They were married in 1946, but I don’t know much of the backstory there either.

Then I noticed the car. The curve of the fenders, the details around the headlights, the split windshield, the grill, the vents along the side of the hood…magic. I need that. Alas, I know nothing about old cars. I DO know my grandmother liked Buicks, and since the photo was taken in 1944, the car had to be ’44 or older. I started looking at photos of old Buicks. The 1941 Buicks seemed close, but not quite right. Different grill, missing the vent on the sides of the hood: off in subtle ways.

At some point it hit me that this may not even have been my grandmother’s car. I was operating on the assumption she owned the vehicle based on the pose in the photo and the knowledge that her eventual father-in-law owned a garage where my grandfather Newell worked. After my grandmother’s death, one of her sisters told me that Newell’s job meant he and Norma had luxuries other folks didn’t, like a refrigerator. (Norma let her sister Evelyn, living in the apartment across the hall, use it for milk.) Was the car hers? One of those luxuries? Did it belong to my grandfather? One of the other gals in the photo?

Did it matter? Would I want the car any less if it hadn’t belonged to Norma?

Nope. Ownership didn’t make a lick of difference: I want that car.

I kept looking at photos online, trying to identify the car’s year, make and model.  I haunted bookstores on my lunch break, plopped down on the floor and flipped through volumes of pictures. Finally the answer popped up on ebay.  Browsing through pre-War Buicks, Fords, Lincolns and Chevrolets, I found her. Same lines, headlights, grill, chrome, vibe. I emailed friends and family members. Mission accomplished! Car identified! We’re looking for a 1940 Dodge!

My mother replied, “What is it with you and that car?” I could see her rolling her eyes, a move we both learned from Norma. What is it with me and that car? Destiny, baby. Meant to be.  Just you wait.


While hundreds of compact manufacturers brought goods to market through the years, certain makers rose to more prominence than others. Volupte emerged as market leader in the 1940s and ’50s, producing a range of elegant, functional compacts, vanity cases, and carryalls highly prized by today’s collectors.

Volupte round compact

A round Volupte compact with a floral printed cover. Photo (c) Jenn Waltner 2012.

Cases came in all shapes: square, rectangular, round, butterfly, apple, and oval. In the late 1930s, Volupte introduced “Whisk-er,” a brush-fitted case designed to remove stray powder from the mirror and ensure a clear reflection. Other innovations included musical cases, the Petite Boudoir compact with folding legs, the Swinglok closure bar, and the Golden Gesture hand-shaped series (which will be explored in depth in a future post).

Ads featured the tagline, “Volupte reflects the prettiest faces” and touted availability “wherever fine compacts are sold.” These were upscale cases. A November 1948 ad in Glamourmagazine positions them as collectible. “Now your Volupte compacts serve a double purpose!  You use one each day as a beauty acessory–and you display your entire collection in your home to add new excitement and glamour to your decoration! ‘Collector’s Items’ by Volupte are exquisitely wrought compacts…gleaming examples of the jeweler’s art… each worth saving and cherishing, as fine as a beloved heirloom.” At the top of the ad, actress Dorothy Lamour proclaimed, “I get a thrill out of collecting these compacts!”

Volupte Sophisticase box

The box for a Swinglok Sophisticase: "Palm-size carryall...for evening or the cocktail hour." Photo (c) Jenn Waltner 2010

A line named the Sophisticase reinforced the compacts’ high-end appeal, as did the company’s Fifth Avenue address. Volupte owners possessed unrivaled beauty, polish and poise…and fabulous accessories with lasting glamour and collectible value.

Many Volupte compacts rank among my personal favorites due to their fine craftsmanship and careful attention to detail. From delicate demitasse snuff boxes adorned with birds and ivy to the stunning silk faille-cloaked carryalls, these cases reflect ’40s and ’50s femininity at its finest.

The lost art of duck confit

My husband and I are food geeks. We love cooking, eating new foods, and exploring different flavor combinations. We love learning about food in the process. Like most quests, however, some adventures turn out better than others.

After perusing numerous magazines for dinner ideas, I decided to try this recipe for rice and duck with apricots. While I’ve never made duck before, I’ve eaten it numerous times and know it’s good. Obstacle #1: my grocery store doesn’t sell duck. Fortunately, the owner of our favorite local Chinese restaurant loves duck and recommended another place where we might find some. She was right. I found my duck and set it to thaw in the fridge. In the back of my mind, though, I knew I had missed a crucial step. My recipe called for duck confit legs. My duck’s packaging said nothing about confit.

Since I was at work, I turned to the internet. Multiple sites reported the same basic technique: season the duck with salt and herbs, refrigerate for several days, take it out, cover it in melted duck fat and toss it into a 225 degree oven for several hours. This supposedly draws the fat out of the duck and improves the flavor. Adding fat to remove fat seems counterintuitive. Obstacle #2: I don’t have several days or four cups of duck fat at my disposal. Four cups of duck fat? Who the hell has four cups of duck fat sitting around? I asked my work BFF, Maureen. Her response? “We have vats of it at the restaurant. Have your husband stop by on the way home from work and we’ll give him some.”

She’s part owner of a restaurant. Of course she has duck fat.   

But my husband nixed that suggestion, anticipating a work departure after 7 p.m. after an arrival before 7 a.m. The guy put in yet another 12-hour day. I’m not going to make him run errands on his way home. I decided to forgo the confit portion of the recipe.

“You’ll be sorry,” Maureen said. “There’s a reason they call duck fat liquid gold.”

Dammit. I decided to at least attempt confit when I got home. The more I read, the more I saw that failing to get fat out of my duck would render my final dish a grease-laden, inedible mess. Yuck. I collect vintage cookbooks–surely, someone would have a secret alternative means for making confit.  

Nope. While The Joy of Cooking, the American Woman’s Cook Book,  The Farm Journal Cook Book, and The Storecast Cook Book all had plenty of recipes for roast duck, none of them had any suggestions for confit. My cookbooks date from the 1950s, when America shifted to convenience food. Casseroles displaced confit. My books, however, all assumed a knowledge of duck anatomy that I lack. Duck thighs nestle deeper into the body than chicken thighs, posing a challenge for folks like me attempting removal.  I cut them off without maiming myself.

Once again, I turned to the internet and found a time-saving solution. Which still took an hour and a half, but yielded delicious results that worked perfectly in the rice with apricots and duck recipe that started this whole adventure.

For the working woman–even those pursuing a vintage lifestyle–duck confit is a weekend endeavor. Pre WWII, women probably put fat-smothered ducks in the oven while doing laundry, scrubbing floors, or preparing bread, setting it to rise on top of that nice warm oven.  Despite the time required, this tasty dish is well worth the effort. It’s inspired me to seek out more classics in danger of fading from kitchens across America.