In the 1920s, American women were looking for a bit of glamour. They found it in Hollywood, the Flapper era, and in glass perfume bottles imported from Bohemia.
The bottles, made by several prominent glass making houses in what is now the Czech Republic, are the subject of the newest exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. “Bohemian Boudoir” opens April 23 and will be on display through July 17.
“They’re stunning and gorgeous and beautiful,” museum curator Stefanie Kohn said.
Exported to the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s, the bottles were purchased empty and filled at local stores. Popularized by images of Hollywood actresses sitting at vanity tables covered with glass bottles, hand mirrors and makeup brushes, the bottles were high quality but affordable. Women could see movie stars using them and purchase a hint of that scene for themselves.
American women were experiencing a change in their place in society, Kohn said, and perfume and cosmetics were part of that. Previously, makeup was mostly reserved for women on stage, but in the 1920s it became more common for all women.
“After World War I, the young people had experienced the horrors of war. They were just determined to have a more fun life,” Kohn said. “This new thing called dating came into being. It was going to the movie theaters or dance halls — the glamour of all that.”
Even during the Great Recession, the bottles remained popular. They were an inexpensive luxury in austere times, Kohn said.
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“You can look at something as just pretty for its own sake, but you can really dig into the history around it too,” Kohn said. “They’re illustrative of a time in our history.”
To celebrate the exhibit, the museum is throwing an opening party, Bohemian Cabaret, which will be complete with a show by the Va Va Voom! Burlesque Troop, live jazz by the Gatsby Gang, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and a costume contest. People are encouraged to dress in their best “Roaring 20s” attire.
“We’re really focusing on bringing in different people from the community to enjoy the exhibit,” said Laura Formanek, museum director of marketing and communications. “Having something with a different vibe to it should be exciting.”
The perfume bottles in the collection were donated by Rosemary Loss Bodien, a Czech glass collector who started donating books and artifacts to the museum in the early 2000s. The Ladd and Lydia Straka Loss Memorial Collection, named for her parents, includes over 200 boudoir items.
Bodien lived in Washington but was working with the museum to plan the exhibit. However, she died of ovarian cancer while it was still in the planning stages, near the end of 2015. She was 72.
“She was a good friend of the museum,” said Kohn. “One of her passions was perfume bottles. She was really into the history and the beauty of them.”
Bodien collected the bottles for more than 20 years, beginning with the purchase of her first Czech perfume bottle in 1994. The museum is producing a catalog to document part of her collection. The catalog book will be available at the museum store.
Perfume bottles aren’t the only thing in the collection. Cut, molded and polished glass ashtrays, hand mirrors, powder boxes and pin trays were also popularized in the era.
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“It was about having all kinds of beautiful items to dress your vanity table,” Kohn said.
The glass making tradition dates back centuries in Bohemia, but Kohn said it declined after World War II, when communism saw many of the glass houses taken over by the state. The perfume bottles remain a tribute to their history.
If you go
What: Bohemian Cabaret: An Opening Evening for Bohemian Boudoir
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
Tickets: $25; ncsml.org