If you picture a powdery Victorian boudoir, you probably imagine the gilded mirror and hand-painted tabletop with an antique brush and mirror set placed precisely in the center. Thanks to the wide variety of styles and colors, and the sheer abundance of these historic artifacts, these antique and vintage brush and mirror sets make for a great addition to anyone's beauty collection.
Feminine Beauty Routines and Antique Dresser Sets
Antique dresser sets can consist of numerous items, from trays to hair receivers and from brushes to button hooks. The brush and mirror set was simple consisting of just a hairbrush and a mirror. It was available to not just the wealthy households but to the rising middle class woman as well. These sets were treasured heirlooms, lovingly kept and cared for, and often passed down from mother to daughter.
Traditions Rooted in Gift Giving
These sets were popular as gifts and were often given to new brides to add to their growing households. Sometimes, babies were gifted with small brush and mirror sets as well. The brush and mirror sets were made from a variety of materials and included numerous design possibilities. While these sets became increasingly available during the Victorian age (1837 onward), most of the sets that you will find were made between 1885 and 1930 or so.
Historic Developments of Antique Dresser Sets
The earliest hand mirrors were used by the Romans who introduced them to Europe. These mirrors were a metal disk with a handle, and the face was polished so it was reflective. There would often be designs added to the back depending on the owner's wealth.
During the 16th century, craftsmen in Venice began to make glass hand mirrors. They would cover the back with a mixture of tin and mercury. This was used up into the early 19th century and, for the most part, only wealthy people had the available income needed to purchase these sets.
During the 1840s, silver began to be used instead of the tin and mercury, and the sets became more widely available. However, most of these sets were still imported from Europe. It wasn't until 1854 that a man named Hugh Rock took out the first United States patent for the hairbrush, and the sets began to be manufactured in the United States.
Materials Used in Antique Brush and Mirror Sets
One reasons that vanity brush sets are still highly collectible is because of their seemingly endless number of designs. Some of the materials used to make these sets were:
- Bakelite - Typically featured in early to mid-20th century sets, bakelite was one of the first synthetic plastics. It came in a wide array of colors. Perhaps the most common color/pattern for bakelite sets is brown tortoiseshell; however, you can find beautifully vibrant sets in shades of green, pink, blue, yellow, and cream as well.
- Brass - Brass was a sturdy metal which brought a sense of elegance to older dresser sets. It's common to find antique brass dresser sets that have dulled over time, due in large part to the tendency for brass to patina as it ages.
- Celluloid - Lighter than bakelite and most often found in a rich cream color, celluloid dresser sets are extremely desirable for their soft elegance.
- Enamel - You won't often find antique dresser sets completely crafted out of enamel; rather, you can easily find sets that have large enamel inlays which add color, artistry, and storytelling to the beauty items.
- Gold plate - Gold plating is a common metalworking technique which takes a heartier metal and encases it in a thin layer of gold. Thus, middle-class individuals could add some glitz and glamour to their beauty table without breaking the bank.
- Ivory - A precious, natural material that comes from elephant tusks, ivory was frequently used to make handles for various beauty tools. However, the current ban on commercial ivory in the United States means that you won't be able to legally purchase any ivory pieces, but any ivory you already own is considered yours.
- Jasperware - First designed by Josiah Wedgewood in the 1770s, Jasperware is a type of stoneware that was used to make pottery and other goods for hundreds of years. Usually typified by Wedgewood's specific blue color, Jasperware dresser sets were made even into the 20th century.
- Limoges porcelain - Dresser sets bearing the Limoges mark are considered incredibly fine pieces, constructed in a specific region of France that is well-known for its porcelain craftsmanship.
- Porcelain - The more affordable version of a fine Limoges dresser set is a regular set that imitates this high-brow product with cheaper materials.
- Sterling silver - Another metal that was used to create dresser sets was sterling silver. With its undeniable shine and long-lasting, many people gravitated towards sterling silver sets. Since sterling silver is known to easily patina with age, most genuine antique dresser sets have some degree of patina present.
Antique Vanity Sets to Collect
You can find beautiful examples of these sets all over the internet, and they're all pretty affordable. If you're thinking about adding an antique or vintage vanity set to your beauty toolkit, you can find sets just like these.
Celluloid vanity sets were particularly popular during the early 20th century, so you can find examples of Art Deco influence in their sleek lines and geometric shapes. Given celluloid's durability, all sorts of beauty tools and containers were made out of the material, meaning these sets could easily go from two to 12-pieces. Also, as a plastic, celluloid vanity sets are significantly cheaper than other materials; you can get celluloid sets for around $20-30 on average. However, sets that come in their original packaging can go for $50-$100 thanks to their rarity. Take this 15-piece celluloid set that sold for $75, for example.
Bakelite, as another inexpensive plastic, allowed mid-century manufacturers to mass-produce a hoard of uniquely patterned and brightly-colored vanity sets. These bakelite sets are available in the same price range as celluloid sets and can be found from the same period (the 1920s-1960s). If you're a fan of colors, bakelite is absolutely the material for you. For example, this bright green and lustrous bedroom vanity set recently sold for a little over $20. Additionally, these are less expensive due to their more modern manufacturer dates and abundance.
Although silver vanity sets were manufactured into the 20th century, they're typically associated with the late-19th century as this was prior to the mass-production of plastics. These silver sets are noticeably heavier and come with a more typical antique flair. Since they're made out of either sterling silver or silver-plate, they can be more expensive than plastic sets at times, but older examples with significant patina might end up selling for closer to plastic prices. For instance, this heavily aged silver set only sold for $30 on eBay.
When it comes to enamel vanity sets, they're usually not created entirely out of enamel; rather ,they're made out of plastics or metals and set in with decorative enameling. Enamel sets are some of the most traditionally artistic, and they feature soft Rococo-inspired artworks or motifs painted on them in pastels. If you're going for something romantic, enamel sets are a great idea. Take, for example, this blue enamel hairbrush and mirror set with a painted rose on the back that sold for about $30. Keep in mind that you'll normally only find hairbrush/comb/mirror sets in the enamel style.
Brass is another metal vanity set style that was popular during the 19th and early 20th century, such as with this brass brush and mirror set from the 1920s that sold for just $13 on eBay. A great simulation for gold or gold-plate, brass also collects a patina overtime making it slightly dulled. However, this dulling effect doesn't take away from the pieces' beautiful engravings/filigree, and these details can increase their values.
Porcelain vanity sets are less common, but those you can find often have higher values than metal or plastic ones do. This comes from the nature of porcelain work and the historic costs of fine porcelain and chinaware around the world. These sets don't usually include beauty tools; rather, they just have the plates, boxes, hair receivers, and so on that women might have needed in their daily beauty routines. This small antique white porcelain vanity set from Bavaria sold for $89 despite only having four pieces in total. This is a great example of how fine craftsmanship can drastically alter an artifact's value.
Where to Find Dresser Sets
These sets were so popular that they can be found in almost any antique shop in your local area. As you shop around for the perfect set, make sure to carefully examine them for scratches, chips, or nicks. If the set is silver, pick it up and check to see if it's got the appropriate weight. Some antique style sets made in recent decades are made from hollow metals and will be very light, and picking the set up can help you determine if they're a genuine antique.
If your antique stores turn out to be a bust, you can search on any of the following sites:
- Antiques Off Broadway - Since 1998, Antiques Off Broadway has been selling antique home goods, beauty tools and products, and fashion for interested buyers. They take credit card and PayPal, and have an interesting collection of both hand mirrors and vanity accessories to browse through.
- eBay - EBay is the best of the best when it comes to purchasing antique goods for relatively cheap; by having a multitude of sellers and a wide range of regions for antiques to be sourced from, there's a very slim chance that you won't be able to find the exact style of vanity set you're looking for there.
- Ruby Lane - Ruby Lane is one of the largest online auction websites around and has a massive, ever-changing, collection of antique and vintage items for sale. From the most luxurious to the most mundane, you can find precisely the vanity set you've always dreamed up on this website.
- Etsy - Similar to eBay, Etsy is an independent seller website that's grown to be known for it's antique and vintage shops. While they have a lot of inventory which sellers are individually listing, they don't have a standard practice for returns, prices, and shipping. Thus, you'll want to check with the seller to see how they run their Etsy shop and determine if they're someone you're comfortable buying from.
Bring History Into the Bedroom
You don't have to be a 1950s socialite to feel like one, and antique vanity sets can transform your drab apartment bedroom into an aesthetic masterpiece. Wether you like sets that are spartan and practical or ones with as much decoration as the artisans could manage to fit on them, these antique and vintage vanity sets will bring a pop of historic whimsy to your bedroom decor.