I collect exquisite examples of cosmetics packaging and advertising from the 1880s through the 1950s, but even though most of my collection consists of powder boxes, hairpin cards, and hairnet envelopes, I never restrict myself to those items. I appreciate the pieces in my collection that have context, so I can immerse myself in the history and popular culture of the era during which they were manufactured.
For example, I discovered this funny Valentine’s Day card at a paper show a few years ago. It is inscribed on the back with a man’s name (John) and the year (1932). If I hadn’t done my homework, I would not have known that 1932 was one of the worst years of the Great Depression. In L.A., thousands of people were unemployed and they found themselves competing for work with Dust Bowl refugees who were flooding into the city from Oklahoma and other areas that had been ravaged by deadly dust storms. Women, many of them wives and mothers, were tasked with keeping their families clothed and fed on meager resources, living day to day on the brink of ruin.
But strangely, while most industries suffered enormously during this time period, cosmetics sales actually rose. This phenomenon has since been dubbed the “lipstick effect,” the thinking being that when resources are scarce, women try harder to attract quality mates. Maybe back then, but I prefer to think that now, when times are tough, small luxuries are crucial morale boosters.
Anyway, I am touched by John’s thoughtfulness. He obviously cared enough for the unnamed young woman to select a card intended to lighten her mood, and it also conveys a heartfelt message—that he would adore her whether or not she could afford powder to touch up her occasionally shiny nose. These days, Valentine’s Day often means a box of gourmet chocolates or a pricey piece of jewelry, but I think that John got it right in 1932 when he handed his sweetheart a card that affirmed his unconditional love for her. This holiday is a good excuse to tell certain people in our lives how much their relationship, romantic or otherwise, means to us, and how abiding our affection is.
Joan Renner is an L.A.-based writer, lecturer, and social historian with an expert knowledge of vintage beauty products. She blogs at The Clutch once a week and writes about cosmetics and beauty history at her Web site, Vintage Powder Room.