The lovely decorated box rested among a clutter of other merchandise, but Brenda Sweat has an eye for such things. She hurried over to the antique show booth and eagerly picked up the box, a manicure set from the early 1900's. “I said, 'Wow this is really great', and 'How much is it; before I could contain myself,” Sweat recalls. “The woman knew right then she had me, and I paid $45 for it.” Money well spent, though, as far as Sweat is concerned.
Sweat is an avid collector and a self-appointed historian of old nail products, and she is part of a rather small, select group interested in preserving manicuring's past. The beauty industry has its own champions of preservation, including the Museum of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences in St. Louis, Mo., and the Max Factor Museum in Hollywood, Calif. Both of them contain fascinating collections: the Museum of Cosmetology features a history of hairstyling form 1870, an early permanent wave machine, ad vintage war advertisements for beauty salons, and the Max Factor Museum showcases Max Factor's legendary work with theatrical makeup.
But although professional manicuring in the United States goes back as far as the 1890s, little remains as bona fide collectors' items and the slim pickings are matched by very few individual collectors. A preliminary search, and conversations with museum curators, cosmetology instructors, and editors of antique and collectibles journals revealed no organized collectors' group that focuses on nail products. Until recently, doing nails was considered a grooming service that took a back seat to hairstyling. Perhaps this is why so little of the old-time products and implements have been saved.
“Who would ever think they should have saved an old nail polish bottle?” says Swat, a salon owner in San Jose, Calif. “Throw away items like that just don't show up very often in grandma's attic.” A nail technician since 1981, Sweat has built an impressive collection of manicuring products, implements, and advertisements from the turn of the century to the 1950s. She has become so involved in her collection that on one occasion she skipped a nail trade-show to attend an antique show. Her biggest treasure is a complete Bordeaux manicure set manufactured by Cutex in 1918 that includes nail polish in a corked bottle, cuticle removal a metal nail me with a tortoiseshell handle, a buffer, and a small pamphlet on proper nail care. Her collection also includes a 1911 edition of A.B. Moler's The Manual of Beauty Culture, a text book used in cosmetology schools.
Collecting for Love, Not Money
Antique collecting ranges from a vast international industry to a hobby for individuals who collect old things with less regard for their market value than for their sentimental value. Nail products fall primarily into the latter part of the range for several reasons. In the first place, they are not considered antiques, which, according to Diana Savastano of The Collector magazine in Matthews, N.C., is something that is at least 100 years old. Nor are they classified as a specific category of collectible, so they have never been evaluated or given a market value.
But there have been some people over the years who have recognized the historical value of the nail products they've been able to preserve. Ila Hirsch, whose mother Beatrice Kaye is a pioneer in the manicuring industry, and who is co-owner of Beatrice Kaye Natural Nail Cosmetic Company in Los Angeles, has many treasures. Beatrice Kaye was the studio manicurist at MGM during its heyday in the late '30s and '40s. Hirsch has managed to hang on to the buffers Kaye used on stars like Clark Gable, Lana Turner, and Debbie Reynolds. Her collection is quite extensive, and includes ivory- and silver-handled buffers as well as the more utilitarian black wood-handled models that date back to the late 1930s when Gone With the Wind was being filmed. She has also managed to save a portion of the Original barbershop that was once a permanent part of MGM's studio lot. “I still get requests to borrow these items,” says Hirsch, who remains as a studio executive manicurist and occasionally provides her historic items for photo shoots and movies.
Studio requests for old nail products also come to the Museum of Cosmetology Ads & Sciences. Robin Le Van, director of the museum, shipped to NAILS a collection of a seven-piece manicure set from the 1930s and nail polish from the 1960s made by a company founded by the famous Madame c.J. 'Walker. She was anxious for their speedy return, however, since they are needed for an upcoming Tom Hanks film titled That Thing You Do. “I just wish we had more,” Le Van says, noting that the museum has “an embarrassing hole” in its nail products collection.
Sweat discovered that her older nail clients were much more interested in her collection than her contemporaries in the nail industry. They were delighted when Sweat recently acquired a miniature manicure travel kit in a leather coin purse with implements that were made in Germany, because either they or their mothers had one that was similar. “My collection gives us something wonderful to talk about, in spite of our age difference,” she says.
Their appeal is partly due to the listing popularity of memorabilia from the 1920s and 1930s. Those are the years, says Savastano, that people in their sixties and seventies are looking back on as their childhood years. They are attempting to reconnect with their past,” Savastano says. Art Deco and Depression-era style is now competing with Victorian style, which has been the dominant trend in decor and collecting for many years.
Learning From the Past
Looking at a 50-year-old bottle of cuticle remover not only stirs a pleasant nostalgia for the past, it also teaches nail technicians about the history of nail care. For example, Max Factor's Supreme Cuticle Remover from the 1920s is in a heavy, frosted glass bottle with a red cellophane-wrapped stopper. The luxurious look and feel of this product reminds one that regular nail care for a long time was primarily for women who had money. Ordinary housewives and farmer's wives seldom had enough money or time for a professional manicure. They relied on homemade ointments and lotions to keep their hands presentable, and they kept their nails short.
By studying ads and textbooks of earlier times, Sweat discovered that professional nail care always included efforts to maintain proper sanitation and good health. In an old Cutex ad, for example, she notes that clipping the cuticles was discouraged; using liquid cuticle remover was recommended instead. “I thought all of this attention to good health was very recent,” she says. “It actually goes back a long way.” Her conversations with older clients have even helped her identity certain products and place them in the right time period. She was able to place a set of Elizabeth Post nail polishes and mother-of-pearl handled implements in the 1930s because one of her clients remembered when the brand was popular.
Perhaps the most important lesson learned from old nail products is that they are proof of the industry's longevity and innovation. In just 100 years of nail care history, incredible progress in techniques, products, and the image of the industry has completely transformed the relationship between professional nail care and the public. It won't be long before early acrylic products and nail charms will find their way onto collectors' shelves.