By Mary T. McCarthy
A “cosmetic vessel” known as Pyxis in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as early as the 4th century BC, and so began the history of cosmetic containment in a rich variety of designs around the world.
The New Family Receipt-Book, containing 800 Truly Valuable Receipts in Various Branches of Domestic Economy was printed in 1811 in London, England, by Squire & Warwick. With a price of seven shillings and sixpence, and sold “by every Bookseller and Newsman in Town and Country,” it had an entire chapter on perfumes and cosmetics.
The author includes recipes to “soften and whiten the skin” and ingredients include white wax, spermaceti (a white translucent liquid wax found in the head cavity of sperm whales), oil of almonds, glycerine, balsam of Peru, otto of roses, finest pale honey, rectified spirit, and essence of ambergris. A variation of one recipe includes citric acid “used to prevent and remove freckles, and discolourations.” Another recipe from the book reads, “Cold Cream (Cosmetic Cerate, Pommade en Creme): Take an ounce each of white wax and spermaceti, and 1 quarter pint of oil of almonds; melt, pour the mixture into a marble or Wedgewood-ware mortar (or porcelain basin), which has been heated by being immersed, for some time, in boiling water; add, very gradually, 4 fluid ounces of Eau de Rose; and assiduously stir the mixture until an emulsion is formed, and afterwards until the whole is very nearly cold. Lastly, put it into porcelain or earthenware pots for use or sale.”
During Victorian times, makeup was often frowned upon, acceptable only if you were on the stage, and considered to be primarily worn by prostitutes. Proper ladies were expected to be pale-skinned and kept out of the sun. Later, during the Edwardian Era, makeup became more acceptable for women to wear.
Vanishing cream companies began advertising it as part of a woman’s daily routine. The term “vanishing cream” was probably coined by Pond’s Extract Company during the Victorian Era. Vanishing cream mainly acted as a moisturizer in a woman’s beauty routine. Vanishing just meant that it “vanished” or “disappeared” after your skin absorbed it.
One vanishing cream description read, “The hidden secret to many an older sister’s youthful complexion is Vanishing Cream. The reason why, at thirty, her complexion still compares favorably with that of the debutante is because she has conscientiously protected the girlhood radiance and clearness of her skin and has maintained its delicacy and softness long past the time when everybody prophesied it would be lost.”
Although collectors prize rare and unusual historical cosmetic jars, more common jars used in homes throughout time have their own appeal. The history of the Robert Chesebrough and Vaseline Petroleum Jelly company is a fascinating one. Observing an oil operation in 1859 at age 22, Chesebrough saw workmen applying the black substance known as “rod wax” to cuts and bruises to help wounds heal. He went home to Brooklyn, filled up all his wife’s vases with samples, and created “petroleum jelly,” naming it Vaseline after all those vases. Vaseline jar designs changed seven times from 1888 to the end of their use in the 1960s.
Perhaps the most iconic cosmetic jar is the white milk glass jar used by Pond’s and other manufacturers. Pond’s has a long and rich history in American cosmetics and is the source of perhaps the highest number of white milk glass cosmetic jars found on shorelines near coastal landfills. In 1846, Theron T. Pond, a pharmacist from New York, created “Golden Treasure,” a homeopathic remedy containing witch hazel, which was renamed Pond’s Extract in 1849 and sold by the T.T. Pond Company. In 1904, Pond’s introduced Pond’s Extract Vanishing Cream, followed by Pond’s Extract Cold Cream in 1905. Both creams were sold in white jars for the home and in tubes for the handbag.
Introducing these two creams to potential customers was not without its problems as J. K. L. Wenham, Managing Director of Pond’s Extract described in 1950: “To introduce our creams we used demonstration jars of cream. These were sent to all our clients for counter use. And to be hygienic we supplied a small silver spoon, to prevent dirty fingers from being pushed into the cream. But you eat with spoons and so the cream soon vanished from the jars. The only complaints we received were not about texture—but about taste. It never occurred to the public to try it on the skin. That was our first mistake, and the second was supplying a silver spoon. The chemist was frequently asking for more.” (Manufacturing Perfumer, 1950).
These jars can be found today in trash dumps and excavations dating from the early through mid-20th century. The broad variety of their markings, shapes, branding, sizes, and styles of these and similar glass jars is incredible. Many brand names have been found embossed in the glass itself, often placed on the base, front, or sides of the container. Originally, nearly all vintage milk glass jars would have displayed an identifying paper label.
Some brand names and company names associated with vintage milk glass containers include Ponds, Musterole, Mentholatum, Mum, Vico, Marinello, Rawleigh’s, Watkins, Carmex, Nadinola, and Woodbury. Many of these milk glass jars can be found on sites such as Etsy and eBay. Examples with original labels will typically have more value, and include information on provenance, age, and type of product originally included.
Many jars, especially those made closer to Victorian times, were made of strong, thick glass. Because of the sturdiness of the jars’ original construction, white cosmetic jars often remain intact even after 50 to 100 years in landfills. These jars are collectible and make a nice keepsake, as well as a tribute to the history of the women who used them in their homes across time.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.