The Avon addiction.

My mother’s discovery of a large cache of vintage Avon goodies in her attic started me on my compact collecting adventures. Today is my mom’s birthday–though our schedules don’t permit us to see each other today, we’re hoping to connect next weekend. Some celebratory baking, some vicious Scrabble competition, maybe some antiquing…all kinds of stuff to look forward to.

Like my mother, Avon is older than you might think. (That’s a compliment, Ma.)

One of the world’s best-known cosmetics brands was originally established in 1886 as the California Perfume Company. CPC launched the Avon product line in 1928; the company was renamed Avon in October 1939. Founder David H. McConnell actively recruited female sales representatives at a time when few women worked outside the home. From 1886 through World War II, being an Avon Lady gave thousands of women unprecedented financial independence.

Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, and Loretta Young all appeared in Avon ad campaigns. Avon’s website has a fantastic section dedicated to the company’s history: the interactive timeline can be helpful in dating your vintage Avon products.

Avon cold cream, powder, rouges and lipstick from the 1940s

When my mother showed me the finds in her attic, my inner research geek kicked into overdrive. I had to know more. Fortunately, Avon’s highly collectible value helped me out. I found books solely devoted to Avon and was able to date my collection to the 1940s and ’50s. The little blue rouge container holds a color called Radiant made between 1936 and 1942. The round metal rouges with the bamboo motif dated between 1941-1948; the matching powder was available in 1942, ’43, and ’46-’49.

Avon lipsticks

Leading Lady, Coral, Crimson Beauty, Radiant

And then–the lipstick. Glorious shades I’ve been trying to recapture for over a decade. Colors like Leading Lady, Crimson Beauty, Coral and Radiant. Pagoda Red makes me swoon. Such ripe, lush, rich delicious names and hues. Not sure which shade suits best? Not a problem–Avon armed their sales reps with extensive sample collections and selling tools. The box below bears the instructions, “In helping a prospective customer to select the most becoming Avon Lipstick shade, refer to the ‘Lipstick Color Chart’ in your Catalog.” I keep hoping my mother will stumble across one of those catalogs in a drawer some day.  

Avon lipstick samples

A box of Avon lipstick samples.

In a previous blog post, I shared some lipstick tips from the 1947 Avon Counselor, a publication designed to help Avon Ladies hone their skills and spread beauty across the nation. Your Avon Lady knew how to properly cleanse skin, apply primer or powder, and change the shape of your face with rouge. Best of all, she was willing to bring her wisdom to you–no need for a trip into town.

Avon innovations have earned the company long-lasting recognition world-wide. Their early cosmetics and marketing materials were attractive and effective. The California Perfume Company’s forward-thinking business model ensured that Avon introduced many women to the wonders of make-up. Though the compacts from the 1940s and 1950s are my personal favorites, the company produced some nice designs well into the 1970s.

I’ve noticed that Avon doesn’t get much play in most of my vintage compact books and I think that’s a shame. Roselyn Gerson devotes some attention to the perfume cases and lipsticks in her Vintage & Contemporary Purse Accessories Guide, but Avon makes infrequent appearances in most other books dedicated to compacts. I’d urge you to seek out some early 20th century Avon to see if these pieces appeal to you.


Lipstick tips from the 1947 Avon Counselor

In some ways, little has changed in the last 60+ years when it comes to lipstick. Women still want lasting color that feels as good as it looks. And, of course, that perfect red. “Somehow red lips give a lift to the spirits, and build courage and confidence.” Those folks at Avon were on to something.

Below, some application tips:  Image

Ignition: how the collection started

At what point does someone become a collector?  

While I can’t describe anyone else’s inspiration, I can give you some background on how I started collecting compacts. I wasn’t looking for compacts. I was looking for dragonflies.

My childhood revolved around my grandmother and my cousins. We kids traipsed through the woods behind her house to rescue plants we thought needed saving. We watched dragonflies skitter across the pond and flit around her peonies. We buried plastic bags full of pennies in her back yard and gave her elaborate treasure maps. We collected gypsy moth caterpillars in empty margarine tubs at her urging: “Bring all those nice furry caterpillars home to your mom. Tell her you got her a pet.”

My grandmother ruled. On Saturdays she gave us steamed cheeseburgers, card games and Hoodsie ice cream cups, the half-chocolate, half-vanilla mix. But despite all the grandmotherly indulgence, she expected us to play by her rules and offered up a variety of terrible fates we’d suffer if we failed to obey.   

The dragonflies. “Don’t you talk fresh–that sewing needle will fly right over here and sew your lips together.” I knew she was joking. Mostly.

I associate dragonflies with my grandmother. They make me smile. When she died and I longed to surround myself with reminders of her quirks, her devilish eye-sparkle and our shared jokes, I considered getting a dragonfly tattoo.  I started looking for images online. A compact popped up on ebay: a dragonfly and cattails, like the pond behind our house. Never mind that it was pink, which I hate. I liked the dragonfly, so I bought it.  When it arrived, I could see that someone had painted the compact with nail polish. Even though I wondered what was underneath, I decided the nail polish probably had a purpose. I left it intact, but displayed the compact on my dresser. It sufficed as a reminder of my grandmother and I didn’t get that tattoo.

The Stratton Dragonfly

The Stratton Dragonfly compact, sans nail polish, with some Avon pieces in the background.

Over time, I came to appreciate the compact as more than a talisman. I started surrounding myself with more and more pieces of the past that reminded me of my grandparents and developed a vintage aesthetic. Other people started bringing me their old Pyrex dishes, vintage coats and handbags, saying, “I thought this looked like you.”

Then my mother hit the Avon motherlode. While cleaning out the attic in her house, she discovered a stash of Avon powders, lipsticks, and rouge compacts from the early 1940s. “I’ve got something for you,” she said. I started researching the compacts to find out when they were made. I loved the combination of beauty and functionality.  I displayed them on my dresser, next to the dragonfly compact. And started wondering what other beauties were out there.  

 It didn’t take me too long to start looking.