A Lingering Scent: Vintage Perfume Bottles Carry Sense of Nostalgia

4/7/2012 10:00 AM
By Linda Sarubin York, Pa. Correspondent

Old perfume bottles seem to show up at just about every estate sale. Today, when ladies finish a bottle of perfume, they are likely to toss the bottle in the trash, or in the glass-recycling bin. But back in the day, these bottles were treasured even long after the contents were long gone.

And that is a good thing for the scores of people who love to collect vintage perfume bottles.

The appeal of old perfume bottles is irresistible. They conjure up images of a glamorous first date, a high school crush, or the romance of a bouquet of flowers. And the bottles possess one trait that is unique to them. After all of these years, the sweet smelling fragrance lingers on.

For a collector, there are two types of perfume bottles — decorative and commercial.

Decorative bottles were sold empty and were meant to be filled with a lady’s choice of fragrance. Collectors can choose from 18th-century French porcelain, or bottles made by famous glassmakers like Baccarat or Lalique. They might collect bottles made from Venetian or Murano glass, or bottles with gold or silver overlay. Decorative bottles are still being made today, but most antiques collectors look for examples from the 19th century, or even earlier.

The other types of bottles are referred to as commercial bottles. Before 1900, perfume was often a homemade concoction. But by the 20th century, perfume was being mass-produced. The great perfume houses of Chanel, Lanvin, Dior, and Lauder used beautiful packaging to convey a sense of luxury. Their labels and boxes are often works of art, collectible in their own right.

One good thing about commercial bottles is how easy it is to document them. Just browsing through old fashion magazines and looking for advertisements featuring a particular bottle can provide information. If there is an ad for a bottle of My Sin in 1930s’ “Vogue” magazines, a collector can be fairly sure that his or her bottle is from that time period.

There are hundreds and hundreds of perfume bottles to collect, and many collectors like to specialize. They look for bottles from a single perfume house — Caron or Guerlain, for instance — or bottles that were designed by famous fashion designers like Christian Dior, Schiaparelli or Jean Patou. Some women — and most perfume bottle collectors are women — look for bottles that are all the same color.

A favorite category is miniatures, the tiny sample-sized bottles that were given away for free at cosmetic counters in the 1960s. They look like the larger bottles but are often less than one inch tall. If only ladies kept them instead of throwing them away ... these tiny and once-free bottles now sell for anywhere from $20-$50 apiece.

If you have more room to display your collection, you can collect giant factice bottles. These are large bottles that were intended for display in department store windows and on cosmetic counters. Just as the miniatures look like the real bottles, only smaller, the factice, or fake, bottles also look like the real thing, only much larger. Many factice bottles sell for an astonishing amount of money — sometimes hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

For a fun collection, look for novelty bottles. Five- and ten-cent stores sold inexpensive toilet waters and colognes in bottles resembling purses and cats and straw hats — the cuter, the better.

Novelties were especially popular during the Depression and World War II when everyone needed a small reason to put smiles on their faces.

Sometimes the bottle itself was the novelty, sometimes the box it came in, and sometimes it was the stopper.

Boxes were shaped like candles or lanterns or skyscrapers. They came boxed up in replicas of sailor’s hats, bird cages or miniature suitcases. And stoppers were molded into the shapes of flowers or animal heads.

Bottles were sold at fairs and exhibitions, including the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This bottle featured a red Bakelite base with the glass bottle in the shape of the fair’s trademark, Trylon and Perisphere.

The rules for collecting perfume bottles are basically the same as for most collectibles. Collectors look for rarity, condition, quality and age as key points in determining value.

As far as condition goes, there are a few considerations. The bottle itself might be in excellent condition, but to be considered “mint condition” it must have its original stopper and the label must be perfect. Having the original box adds even more value. If the bottle is unopened and still retains the original perfume, that is better still. Of course, there can be no chips to the glass.

Avoid bottles that have what is referred to as “sick glass.” The funny name refers to a glass that has a cloudy surface that does not respond to normal glass-cleaning methods. It is almost impossible to remedy this in perfume bottles. The cure involves a time-consuming and expensive process of grinding the surface of the glass from inside the bottle.

The one bottle that breaks the rule equating rarity with higher value is the beloved Evening in Pairs, by Bourjois. This simple dime-store perfume with the pretty, cobalt-blue glass bottle found its way into the hearts of millions of women between the 1920s and the 1960s. Now these same millions of women, and their daughters and granddaughters, are true to the memories of the perfume in the blue bottle and eagerly collect the hundreds of different variations.

Linda Sarubin can be reached at 717-382-9252 or gatchellvillestore<\@>zoominternet.net.

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