Vanity, Thy Name Is . . .
One of the earliest forms of the vanity is the poudreuse, meaning “powder” in French or “duster of the man” in French slang, referring to the generous use of face powder in make up. It was a very rare example of the combination of an attached mirror and wooden case in the 18th century. Fixed mirrors were not usually a part of the dressing table until the early 19th century. The popularization of the poudreuse predated the heyday of the celebrated English dandy, George Bryan Brummel, 1778-1840, by several decades but his name became associated with the form merely because of his notoriety.
In Colonial America, having a decent place to get dressed was a serious problem. Decent mirrors, or even the decent plate glass for making them, had to be imported from England or the Continent and it was very expensive. In fact, mirrors were so dear that before the 19th century they were never actually attached to a piece of furniture in case it got bumped or broken in moving. Instead, mirrors hung on the wall or were featured as “dressing glasses,” framed on a stand and sitting on a table top or standing alone in the form of a “cheval.”
In the 17th and 18th centuries, when wigs and powder were used extensively by both men and women, dressing tables and glasses were equally shared. But the 19th century brought newer methods of making glass and the combination of mirror and dressing table began to evolve into the form known today as the “vanity,” aimed almost exclusively at the female portion of the market.
The idea of the vanity got a big boost just after mid century when the idea of marketing bedroom sets, or “suites” as they were called then, was introduced. Previously, each piece of furniture used in the bed chamber was manufactured and acquired individually, resulting in very interesting but highly eclectic decor. Late Victorian manufactured sets became all the rage, but every new set did not automatically include a vanity. The basic three-piece set sold to middle America consisted of a bed, a low dresser with a mirror and either a chest or bedside table. A vanity was available as an extra cost option, as was a small chair and a washstand or a wardrobe or chiffonier.
The most popular vanity of the 20th century was the three-mirror drop center version of the late 1910s to the 1930s.
By the turn of the 20th century, the sit-down vanity was increasingly popular, but few came along with the matching bench or stool. The 1902 Sears catalog illustrated two models, both on tall, spindly legs with a single drawer and an adjustable mirror but no seating. That would have to wait.
By the mid-teens of 1900s, the newest thing out was the three-mirror vanity, the queen of all “dressing tables” to date. This version featured a large central mirror, sometimes adjustable but usually not, with two side “wing mirrors. The wings were mounted on hinges and swung out to give the user a view of the “do” from all directions. When not in use the wings generally had snap locks to hold them flush to the wall. This three-mirror concept was popular throughout the Depression era and enjoys renewed interest today.
A very plain Art Moderne vanity having only its hardware, round mirror and waterfall to announce its style.
But the real shining star of the 1930s was found in the Art Moderne pieces (later known as Art Deco). Like many pieces of the era, they broke a centuries-old tradition by having the exotic veneers of the day running the short length of a cabinet surface rather than the long way. This created the trademark waterfall top edge indicative of the period. In fact, many Art Moderne pieces were quite plain, using only an unframed round mirror and the waterfall to declare their style. But the vanities of this period always included matching seating as part of the set.
Art Moderne was an acquired taste and many people still preferred the more traditional styling of the Colonial Revival. This is the most readily available model of all 20th century vanities, and like most 20th century pieces, is well constructed of hardwoods and nice veneers over the stable base of the lumber core plywood used at the time.
This is an English Edwardian version of the three-mirror vanity from the 1910s.
The swags and drops on this vanity of the late 1920s identify it a reproduction of the Adam style of the late 18th century.
Twentieth-century vanities are readily available in most areas of the country and many of them are of quite good quality. Here are some shopping tips when looking for a vanity:
• The matching stool is always a plus even if it has to be reupholstered. Just make sure that it really matches. Compare wood color, wood type and design to be sure.
• Check to make sure the glass is original. Make sure it fits properly and is securely attached to the case. Older glass from the early part of the century may be slightly cloudy or have defects in it. That shows it is authentic. If at all possible, remove the backing from the mirror and check the date. All American original plate mirrors are dated somewhere on the gray back of the glass. If you can’t find a date the glass is not original to the piece.
• Make sure the mirror and its frame actually match the case and will fit properly. Sometimes it is easy to “marry” a stray set of mirrors to a lonesome case to produce a vanity from a table.
• If the piece has a waterfall front, examine the roll closely for cracked veneer or recent repairs. Many of these old waterfalls have deteriorated over the years. Pay close attention to the mid point of the waterfall. This where the most stress is present and is the most likely place for veneer to give way or structural members to show through.
• Do your usual check for quality and condition, i.e. drawers work properly, veneer is not loose (check for loose veneer by tapping your finger across the surfaces and listen for the “hollow” sound of loose veneer), check for stability of case joints, inspect underneath as well as you can for water damage to the base, check for proper height (if the piece originally had casters and they are now gone, it may be too low for modern use).
• Make sure you are comfortable with the condition of the finish and the hardware and that it will fit with your other furniture.
Since complete sets of furniture are sometimes more valuable than the individual pieces, you may often find the best vanities included in a set. But keep looking. Somewhere down the line a good set has been broken up and a free standing vanity is waiting for you.
A fixed mirror example Colonial Revival model from the 1930s was based on the designs of Thomas Sheraton, the English designer popular in the Federal period.
This Colonial Revival vanity made by Berkey & Gay of Grand Rapids in the early 1930s incorporates a number of older styles including Late Classicism, Empire, Federal and Rococo Revival.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail email@example.com.
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