It all started with her mother’s compact.
Gold, with enameled yellow flowers on the lid, the compact popped open on a tiny hinge to reveal compartments for face powder and rouge below a beveled mirror.
“My mother told me it was her prized possession,” said Susan Oler, 69, of Springville. “My dad had given it to her before he went off to World War II.”
Oler revered the compact throughout her childhood and when she was an adult, her mother, Libbie Stejskal, gave it to her. It launched Oler’s collection of more than 300 compacts amassed over 30 years from antique stores, garage sales and as gifts from friends and family.
Oler’s collection is included in a new exhibit titled “Powders, Lotions & Perfumes: The Era and Aura of Powder Compacts” on display through June in the lobby of the Kalona Quilt and Textile Museum in the Kalona visitor center. Other collectors with items in the exhibit are Miriam Bergman of Mount Vernon, Betty Ivanovic of Fort Wayne, Ind., and Patty (Tumey) Sorgenfrey of Lisbon.
Doris Montag, an Iowa City freelance curator of historic collections, put together the exhibit, weaving personal stories and U.S. history to document what cosmetics tell us about American women’s lives, especially from the 1920s through 1950s.
The “Powders, Lotions & Perfumes” exhibit focuses on compacts, which, before the 1950s, were usually made of metal with decorative lids featuring beadwork, silk, mother of pearl, rhinestones or leather.
Many compacts were multifunctional, including compartments for powder, rouge, cigarettes or lipstick, as well as money clips, coin slots and combs. These ornate compacts weren’t hidden in purses. They were accessories, suspended by chains from wrists or fingers, or fashioned into small metal clutches.
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“During the 1950s, there was a metal reclamation and a lot of compacts were turned in,” Montag said. “When they came back, they were in plastic, which was throw-away.”
The exhibit features some quirky compacts, such as one with a music box and one that looks like an 8-ball with a tiny set of dice that can be set in motion by shaking the compact.
“Isn’t that just too much?” Montag exclaimed, jostling the compact to roll the dice.
Also featured is a Gold Star compact the American Legion gave Sorgenfrey’s mother when Sorgenfrey’s brother, Thomas Eugene Tumey, died in the Korean War in 1952.
When researching for the exhibit, Montag was startled to learn how women from the Middle Ages through the 1920s often unknowingly poisoned themselves by powdering their faces with toxic chemicals, including lead, lye and arsenic. These chemicals caused skin discoloration, hair loss, rotten teeth, facial tremors and even death.
Although today’s cosmetics are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, counterfeit products still may contain dangerous levels of lead, arsenic and aluminum, according to a 2017 CBS news investigation.
Montag has done other exhibits highlighting the history of ordinary things, such as Jell-O, chickens and eggs and farm implements. She also does live performances describing the items and telling the stories that go with them. She will do a live performance of the “Powders, Lotions & Perfumes” collections in July at Hills Bank in Iowa City.
Montag is looking for a Linn County venue to host the display and a live performance in the fall. A typical exhibit length is several months and the display requires locking cases. If you know of a venue, email Montag at email@example.com.
If you go
• What: “Powders, Lotions & Perfumes: The Era and Aura of Powder Compacts” — an exhibit of antique powder compacts, perfume bottles and other cosmetics, primarily from the 1920s through 1950s
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• Where: Lobby of Kalona Historical Village Visitor Center, 715 D Ave., Kalona
• When: The Visitor Center is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday through March. Starting in April, hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
• Phone: (319) 656-3232
Comments: (319) 339-3157; firstname.lastname@example.org