Jade-topped compact

The mystery compact

Shortly after my mother remarried, I visited her in her new home–a 1940’s cape that had always belonged to her husband’s family. “I found some things upstairs that look like they go with you,” she said. Darn right: the stuff she found went home with me. A collection of Avon compacts from the 1940s, some lipstick samples, and this:

Jade-topped compact

The mystery compact: a jade-decorated vanity case. Photos (c) Jenn Waltner 2009

A gorgeous compact that fits perfectly into my palm. The carved jade center ornament sits against a creamy background with silver and black trim. My husband and I both love Asian-inspired art; the jade decoration felt like it belonged with other things in our home. “Mom, it’s gorgeous,” I said. “You’re sure I can have it?”

“It’s been sitting up here in the attic. No one’s used it. Take it: it’s yours,” she said.

I listened. Who am I to argue with my mother? (That’s for some other post.)

As soon as I got the compact home, I started trying to learn about it. Despite the lack of maker’s mark, I was optimistic. I hadn’t actively started collecting compacts yet, so I didn’t have any of the reference books in my library today. I brought the compact to work and showed it to a coworker who also loves all kinds of old things. “It looks like Japanism,” she told me. “I’d guess it’s pre-war. After Pearl Harbor, you can imagine anything Japanese wasn’t very popular.” Good point.

I hit the library, consulting books on early 20th Century fashion. Nothing. I hit bookstores and found books about compacts. Gorgeous pictures and all kinds of great information, but still nothing on my compact. I started cruising ebay. Still nothing, but hey, that Volupte compact–that’s kind of pretty, don’t you think? 

Mystery compact open

Rouge on the left, powder on the right.

Checking a ton of websites about compacts revealed that my piece is technically a vanity case, not a compact, since the inside holds multiple cosmetics: in this case, powder and rouge. I found a few other pieces that kind of looked like mine, but nothing definitive. I found a ton of information about the Avon compacts my mom had given me. great. But nothing on this one. 

I started buying more compacts on ebay. Then books about compacts. And vintage magazines with compact ads. Today, almost five years later, I have more than 50 compacts in my personal collection. I’ve got dozens more on my website and still more sitting in my office, ready to get photographed and added to inventory. Still, I have yet to learn anything new about my mystery compact. Maybe I never will. And that’s okay. It will always be one of my favorites.

Mystery compact rouge

Look at that gorgeous rouge!



  1. I do like having a mystery compact because it’s like always having a work in progressive and one to always keep hunting for more information on. And I’m also one of those collectors who doesn’t mind having unmarked ones either because I’m collecting them because I love them, not necessarily their worth. I particularly collect old tourist compacts but linked to places I’ve been too, so because back in the day they were just cheap souvenirs they were unmarked. I do have a couple of compacts that even though they are branded I literally can’t find anything in either my books or online one being Hemrich [which I know is German and possibly 1950ish] and although being Pegi of Paris which is marked upon a puff, whether they were a compact manufacture or just a cosmetic house i’m unsure. But these little challenges really do keep me interested!

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