amateur history

Josephine Baker and the “hot” style of the 20th century

Vintage Powder Room is a blog about vintage cosmetics ephemera and vanity accessories:

My collection is comprised of items such as cardboard face powder boxes, hairnet packages and magazine advertisements from 1900-1950. It was the beautiful art that drew me to the items, and it is why I continue to add to my collection. The artists were frequently hired by the cosmetics manufacturers to develop advertisements and containers for their products. Most of the artists remain unknown to us – but their work is still exquisite. There were some famous artists who became involved in the design of cosmetics packaging – most notably Rene Lalique who designed the gorgeous Coty face powder box with the powder puff design. The Coty box and powder are still in production today. If you want to own a piece of cosmetics history you can buy one of the boxes for just a few dollars at your local drugstore.

When women first began to powder their noses in public, and to apply lipstick, eye shadow, and rouge it was up to cosmetics companies to get their attention, and their dollars, with advertisements and packaging. The advertising and packaging of cosmetics left a rich legacy of design.

It is amazing how many of these beautiful and fragile items have survived – some of them for more than 100 years. Rather than discard the face powder boxes, women frequently held on to them. Particularly during the years of the depression when beautiful things were hard to come by – for a few cents a woman could go to the drugstore and purchase face powder, lipstick, or a compact. Once the product was long gone, many women kept the containers and used them to hold safety pins or buttons.

What catches my eye here is that she is, like me, an amateur historian and collector of pop culture. There’s a fascinating essay on a Duska face powder box from 1925 — how did she find so much to say about it? But then again, how did gurdonark and I spend weeks following the journeyman guitar arranger E. Pique from Austria to San Francisco? And her essay on the powder box brings up the singer Josephine Baker:

Josephine Baker
Many of the people who came of age during the years following WWI rejected 19th century values, and its art, and earned the moniker the “Lost Generation“. Some of the Americans who gravitated to the expat’s life in Paris would become international literary superstars: Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos. Others of them were artists and performers, like Josephine Baker.

Josephine Baker embodied the hot (musical) style that was the negation of the 19th century culture of elaborate social protocol and layer after layer of manners. She was black and outwardly incredible during a time when blacks in America were forced into the ritualized cringing of the minstrel style, and she was openly sexual at a time when public sexuality was still defined by Victorian style.

Compare her mid-20s version of a tune called “Bam Bam Bammy Shore” (from Breezin’ Along ) with Thomas Craig’s 1898 version of “Old Black Joe” (from Lost Sounds: Blacks.)

And here’s a 1925 version by a pop band called “The Revellers”:

The Warner Chappell publishing company, by the way, thinks this tune is still copyrighted, which goes to show how the entire 20th century is off limits to free culture.

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