Collecting Vintage and Antique Vanity Sets
Antique and vintage vanity sets are elegant additions to any dresser or dressing table. They can be the perfect finishing touch for a romantic bedroom and, like potato chips, collectors often find that they can't stop at just one.
History of the Vanity Set
The Romans introduced hand mirrors to Europe. The mirrors were small metal disks that had been heavily polished to a reflective shine. While many of the disks were plain, the wealthier citizens could afford mirrors with handles and carved designs on the backs of the disks.
In the 1500s Venice artisans were enthralled with glass of all kinds and soon learned that they could cover the back of a piece of glass with a mixture of tin and mercury to create a more highly reflective surface than the metal disks. The glass was then set into silver and other metal backs and decorated extravagantly. These were used well into the early part of the 19th century by royalty and the wealthy upper classes. The mirrors were still made as an individual piece because hairbrushes had not been invented yet.
In 1840 mercury and tin backs were replaced with silver and mirrors became more common, although they were still expensive enough that only the wealthier had access to them. They were still being imported from Europe until 1950 when Hugh Rock took out the first United States patent for the hairbrush and began to create vanity sets within the United States.
By the last few decades of the 1800s the sets could be found on the vanity or dresser of almost every Victorian beauty and were indispensible to the nightly hair brushing ritual that many of the women practiced.
During this time the vanity sets were popular gifts for new brides. Babies might be given a small, silver brush and mirror set to commemorate their birth. Generally these special sets were highly decorated. The sets were made to last a lifetime and often were passed down from mother to daughter as cherished heirlooms.
Over time the brush and mirror sets were made from other materials and in many different designs. Most of the sets that you will find today were made from 1885 to 1930, the heyday of these beautiful antiques.
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Components of Dresser Sets
Antique dresser sets could be made up of just two items or they could have several matching items. Of course, the latter were much more expensive and found in the wealthiest of households. The rising middle class would often have a modest set that consisted of
The more extravagant sets might have some or all of the following items, all matching in silver or some other material. Generally these larger sets are worth more to collectors.
- Atomizer for perfume and cologne
- Brushes, often more than one
- Button hook for button top shoes
- Candle sticks or small fairy lamps
- Hair receiver to store hair that was cleaned from the brush
- Hand mirror
- Manicure set
- Pin box
- Powder box and puff
- Shoe horn
Common Materials for Vintage Dresser Sets
At first silver was the material of choice but as time went on the sets were made from many other materials.
Some of the sets were hand-painted while others were plainer. The more unique sets are very sought after by collectors everywhere.
Great Example of a Victorian Vanity Ser
How to Evaluate Vanity Sets
The vanity sets can found in almost any antique store or Internet auction site. There are numerous virtual antique malls that have them, too. While silver will be the most common material, a bit of patience may result in a really spectacular find.
Look for the larger sets, especially those in the original box. Look the set over carefully for scratches, chips, or too much wear. Silver sets should be heavy – if they are not the set is may be silver plate and worth much less than a true silver set.
It is not difficult to keep your antique vanity set in good condition. Just keep it wiped off, dusted and out of direct sunlight. Store it mirror side down to protect it from cracking and other damage. Silver sets should be wiped off with a silver cloth once a week. Tortoiseshell and Bakelite sets can benefit from a light waxing with paste wax to keep them moisturized.
You probably won't collect antique dresser sets as an investment but rather enjoy these beautiful antiques as decorative items.