In America they're big business, in Britain collectors fight for them at antique fairs and auctions, and if you find one shaped like a teddy bear you could be holding a pot of gold.
Powder compacts from the Forties and Fifties are the latest collector items. Madonna uses one in Evita, the film which started the current interest in post-war fashion. Fifties-inspired clothes dominate couture catwalks, and later this month London will be in the grip of Forties fever. Forties Fashion and The New Look, an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, will show the impact that Christian Dior's fashions had on the post-war era. And any woman who bought the New Look, also bought a new powder compact.
Compacts are practical to collect, being relatively inexpensive, easily stored and durable, and there are still plenty of them around.
Tessa Innes, a collector, says: "People collect them because not only are they beautiful objects, but the workmanship is superb."
The size and function of the compact allowed the imaginations of manufacturers to run wild. UFOs, pianos, revolvers and roulette wheels have all sprung open to reveal a powder puff. America was the natural home for the "novelty" compact, and when a New Yorker, Roselyn Gerson, set up the International Club for Compact Collectors seven years ago, she had no idea how huge the response would be. "People travel from all over the world to our annual conventions," she says. "By the end of it, you can OD on compacts." Roselyn, a collector for 20 years, has just published her fourth book, Purse Accessories.
On this side of the Atlantic, Juliette Edwards set up the British Compact Collectors' Society in 1995. "When I began distributing the newsletter," she recalls, "members were surprised that there were so many collectors around. Everybody thought they were the only one." Now more than 100 people subscribe to Face Facts, the quarterly newsletter in which collectors and dealers swap information and strike bargains.
"There are more and more specialist dealers," agrees Sarah Chestnut, a collector and club member. "Prices have just soared in the three years I've been collecting. Now you can expect to pay pounds 20-pounds 25 for a Stratton compact that would have cost you only pounds 10-pounds 15 a year ago."
Stratton, the big name in British powder compacts, probably made the one on your mother's or grandmother's dressing table. Flat and round, they often had ultra-feminine images of birds, flowers and ballerinas on the lids. The most famous Stratton range is the Fifties Waterbirds Series, which currently fetch about pounds 30 apiece. Other British names to look out for are Le Rage and Kigu, the quirkiest British label, which made UFO and Mickey Mouse compacts.
There are exceptions, but compacts are relatively easy to date. Post- war Forties compacts are square and functional. There was a fascination with suitcases and travel emblems, but if you're lucky you may find a piano-shaped compact by Pygmalion, worth more than pounds 200. In the Fifties, manufacturing advances and the new prosperity meant that telephone dials, see-through dice-shakers and roulette wheels all became objects of vanity. Some even reflected the Beat generation, with Jackson Pollock splashes of colour on silk. Many of these came from America, the home of the Shuco Teddy Bear, which has a compact hidden in the creature's tummy. It's worth between $600 and $800.
"If you've got a compact, you can date it by looking at the style, finding the manufacturer's name and tracing the patent number," Juliette Edwards explains. "Look out for compressed creme powder and inner lids, which were introduced in the early Fifties. And never buy a compact that has the price label stuck on the mirror. It ruins it. Start by going to a local antique market," she advises, "and remember to check for missing puffs and sifters - the gauze above the powder compartment." Compacts such as Forties Kigus and Fifties Strattons cost between pounds 15 and pounds 200 depending on the rarity and condition.
If this all seems rather daunting, Juliette and Tessa are working on a coffee-table compact book that should be available next year.
For the well-heeled, Sotheby's has monthly jewellery sales, and compacts by Cartier and Boucheron frequently crop up, selling for between pounds 500 and pounds 3,000. "The most expensive compact that we've auctioned belonged to the Duchess of Windsor, and sold for more than pounds 72,000," says Alexandra Rhodes, senior director head of the London jewellery collection. "It had a map of Europe and Africa and an array of jewels marking the places that meant a lot to her and the Duke."
Compacts are not only beautiful and functional, they are also extremely personal effects. Perhaps that is their allure: they take the collector a step closer to the Forties and Fifties, the most glamorous decades of the 20th century.
British Compact Collectors Society, PO Box 131, Woking, Surrey GU24 9YR. Membership costs pounds 12 a year.
International Club for Compact Collectors, PO Box 100, Malvern, NY 11565. Membership costs $35 a year.
'Purse Accessories', by Roselyn Gerson (Collector Books, pounds 24.95) can be ordered from Barmby's (01732 771590).
'Forties Fashion and The New Look' will be shown at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1, from 12 February to 31 August.
Hunt for compacts at:
Linda Bee, Grays Antique Market, 1-7 Davies Mews, London W1 (0171 629 5921);
Steinberg & Tolkien, 193 King's Road, London SW3 (0171-376 3660); Saratoga Trunk, 57 West Regent Street, Glasgow (0141 331 2707);
Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-493 8080).
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