Selling Perfume and Glamour in the 1930s

Caron Fleurs de Rocaille perfumeA few weeks ago I bought a November 1937 issue of Harper's Bazaar at a yard sale. It was a warm afternoon, and I brought the magazine home, poured myself a glass of iced tamarind mint tea, and sat on the couch with the fan whirring quietly in the background. Then I settled for a few hours into a different world.

In those days, Harper's was a magazine of aspirations. The first few pages are ads for Bergdorf Goodman and feature a pouty Danielle Darrieux modeling a lamé gown, an ermine cape, and metallic Delman evening slippers. The lines of the dresses in the ads to follow show the late 1930s strong shoulder and shoes with high vamps. Almost five ads feature the new Talon "slide fastener" (known to us now with its catchier name, "zipper") touting how smoothly it closes a garment ("Talon fastener in the placket accounts for that slick hipline").

The magazine's first perfume ad is a two-page spread announcing the launch of Prince Matchabelli Infanta, "the most disturbing perfume of the year". A few pages later is an ad for a Charbert gift basket with a lipstick and a small cologne, available in Drumbeat, Of Thee I Sing, Gardenia, or Carnation for $5. Next comes a black and white ad for Guerlain showing a sharkskin tray holding ounce-sized parfum bottles of Shalimar, Vol de Nuit, L'Heure Bleue, and Sous le Vent. (My heart skipped a beat seeing Sous le Vent.) A few pages later is an ad for Corday Voyage à Paris — "for women who live with a lilt to the hilt for today — heedless of yesterday — and with a 'Nichevo' for tomorrow!" A little later still is a full page for Lucien Lelong Impromptu, showing a drawing of a mod bottle resembling an elongated Space Needle with a ribbon rippling up the background of the ad. And here's a simple ad for Caron Fleurs de Rocailles, "the most delightful perfume for 1937" showing the perfume bottle festooned with a giant paper doily.

Before we go on to the feature articles, let me pause for a second at the ad for a gorgeous Orrefors crystal bowl designed by Georg Jenson for $16.50 and the ad promising that anyone can Learn to be Charming by taking a mail-in charm test and receiving lessons through the Margery Wilson school ("When a woman reflects her innate Charm all else of value follows as naturally as flowers turn to the sun."). It pains me, too, not to have room to read you the essay about lipstick as "the Red Badge of Courage".

In the heart of the magazine is a profile of Contessa Nicoletta Visconti di Modrone, a morose but ethereal brunette. She poses in Ventura gowns in her palazzo in Venice with her daughter, Violante. Then comes a two-page orange and terracotta rendering of the first night at the Opéra Garnier by Raoul Dufy, followed by models in Vionnet jackets, a short story by Frank O'Connor, and Man Ray photographs of the latest hats. Then we have an essay by Elsa Maxwell called "I Have Lived by my Wits", a display of Cartier and Madame de Vilmorin jewels, drawings of negligees, and an article on women journalists. Then more pages of ravishing dresses, including a section called "Frankly Forty" for the mature woman. Just before the society section is Diana Vreeland's famous "Why Don't You--?" column encouraging us "for week-ends in the country..., wear black paillette slacks with a hand-pleated white handkerchief linen blouse, black lacquer Chanel bracelets on each wrist and a huge multicolored jeweled pin at the throat". Thanks, Diana. I'd love to.

And we're back to the perfume ads. Here's one for Elizabeth Arden Night and Day in a deco bottle. The ad is plumped with drawings of ostrich feathers. Lanvin encourages us to give its perfumes "for all occasions": My Sin, Scandal, Rumeur, Arpège, and Prétexte. (Has anyone tried Prétexte?) Here's an ad for Yardley Bond Street, packaged alone or with a powder compact, and here's one for Ciro Reflexions "The way to say 'remember me'". Another ad is a photograph of a majestic Coco Chanel leaning against the fireplace in her rue Cambon apartment with the famous coromandel screens in the background. A drawing of a mega-bottle of Chanel No. 5 sits below the photo, accompanied by this copy: "Madame Gabrielle Chanel is above all an artist in living. Her dresses, her perfume, are created with a faultless instinct for drama. Her Perfume No. 5 is like the soft music that underlies the playing of a love scene." The ad mentions a perfume called Glamour de Chanel, too.

So many ads! I have to break for another paragraph. For $27.50 you can have a bottle of Schiaparelli Shocking, "Every once in a decade comes a new perfume that attracts like a magnet". Bourjois Kobako shows a blond cozying up to a geisha, although the ad purports to show a perfume that is a secret from "the great families of China". Houbigant Présence insists that it "cannot be described" but must be lived with, and Lenthéric lays out a dozen perfumes, or "sonnets to loveliness" that you might want to buy. Molinard 1811 gives a little history: "At the prime of his career Napolean divorced Josephine. Poor Josephine...a weak sister to Maria Louisa. The modern Josephine need not suffer that scorned feeling...Molinard has just created a new exciting perfume called 1811." Hang on, just a few more: Le Clairac Kismaju invites you to "the slumberous mystery of ancient India"; Roget & Gallet Fugue claims to be "as Haunting as a Beautiful Melody", and Millot Crêpe de Chine promises the "Essence of Refinement". Finally, a quarter-page ad for Jean Patou shows a cubist drawing of a bottle of Colony.

I want a bottle of each of them. But really what I want is the December 1937 issue — it's supposed to have a perfume guide to help us choose a perfume that is "neither too bold nor too banal; neither too volatile nor too lingering". Maybe at that next yard sale I'll find it.

Note: image via Parfum de Pub.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow, Angela!!!! What a cool find! Thanks for sharing. Would love to get my hands on some vintage fashion magazines…

  2. Anonymous says:

    They are really fun to look at. You really feel pulled into a different era.

  3. Anonymous says:

    That was wonderful, thanks so much! *happy sigh* I love finds like that. I have a Life magazine from the early 50s that is all about vacationing and leisure, speculating that with all the modern inventions changing the workplace, the biggest problems of the future will be knowing how to use up all that extra leisure time. I love how advertisements in old magazines are articles in themselves, too. And to stay on topic, my grandma wore Crepe de Chine and the *essence of refinement* is a fitting slogan.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I am amazed at the amount of perfume advertised in just one issue. Thanks for sharing this with us, it was a very enjoyable read.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The Duke Digital Library also has a fantastic collection of scanned images for beauty product ads online at

  6. Anonymous says:

    If only our modern inventions didn't make us that much more busy….I know I was much less harried only eight years ago (before I broke down and got a cell phone)

    Angela, what a delicious life you lead! I will be on the lookout for some vintage magazines now at my thrifty haunts. Hmmm, I guess in my “back to the future fantasy” I would go back to this era and smuggle back a whole Delorean full of perfume….

  7. Anonymous says:

    Awesome, awesome article and find. Thanks for sharing, really. I wear Roget and Gallet's “Lotus Bleu” and am intrigued by “Fugue.” 'Pretexte” also sounds super-cool. *sigh* If only I had a time machine!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing your find with us. I collect lots of old stuff like this and love to hear about other people's unexpected finds. A couple of years ago I went to a yard sale and bought a huge box of 20's and 30's French fashion magazines. I've spent the next few years after this purchase dreaming of the fine juices pictured, oh and champagne:) I even have an original launch review of Joy. You should scan some of the ads and share. I keep meaning to do that with mine and haven't gotten around to it yet.
    And I love the Duke Digital Library's collection.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The Time magazine you have sounds great!

    I love Crepe de Chine, too. I'm lucky to have a little bottle of the parfum, and I dab it on for special occasions.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Yes yes yes! (I'll take the perfume and you can keep the Delorean.)

  11. Anonymous says:

    It really was an outstanding amount of perfume advertised. I'll have to look at this month's copy of Harper's and compare.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Thank you! (Or maybe not–since I bet I'll spend the afternoon browsing old ads….)

  13. Anonymous says:

    I know! I'd love to smell Glamour de Chanel, too.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I'm so jealous of your stack of French fashion magazines. I could hole myself up for days if I had a stash like that.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for that link!

  16. Anonymous says:

    Angela, are you sure you can't share that Lipstick is the Red Badge of Courage article? I'm dying to know.

  17. Anonymous says:

    In a few hours I'll check to see if its too long for a comment. If it fits, I'll put it in.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Oh my. I can't decide what the “most disturbing perfume of the year” for 2008 would be, but somehow I imagine it pales in comparison to whatever it was in 1937. And if I ever had a daughter, I think I would have to name her Violante. There's a novel in that name, I think. Thanks for sharing all that with us. It truly is a window into another world which seems much more elegant than our own.

  19. Anonymous says:

    It's interesting to me how different Harper's was then compared to now. In 1937 a person read Harper's to peek into a glamourous world they could only dream of. Now, Harper's seems to say “Hey, celebrities are just like you and me!”.

    I'll have to think about the most disturbing perfume of the year, too….

  20. Anonymous says:

    Here's “The Red Badge of Courage” for anyone patient enough to get this far:
    Every age has its own courageous gestures. The knight drew his sword. The gallant threw down his glove. The seigneur coolly took his pinch of snuff. There is a modern gesture to be added to the list…a purely feminine gesture. When a woman has lost her lover, when a girl has lost her job, when the doctor has told his fatal news, when the luck is leaving, the dinner party flopping, the birth pains beginning, the scandal breaking, the storm striking, the other woman sailing by in triumph…the sudden streak of lipstick across the lips spells courage. It is not done frivolously, but resolutely, desperately, defiantly, even gaily, with the dash and dignity of a courageous heart. Before the dim dressing-table of the night club, in the non-committal mahogany mirror of the doctor's waiting room, in the hushed half light of the night nursery, in the smart, hard glitter of the descending elevator, proud fingers wield their weapon. The act reinforces the spirit. The streak of red steadies trembling lips. For one poignant moment, the little stick takes on the significance of the sword.

  21. Anonymous says:

    It is a shame, you know? I can't think of any celebrities, really, that I would want to model myself after. It is as if popular culture has dumbed itself down to the level that only tabloids used to inhabit. Of course, I do recall seeing on some tv show that back in the day, when Mary Pickford wanted to move to Beverly Hills, the residents were concerned that having a movie star in the neighborhood would ruin the place, which made me laugh.

    I loved that the 1937 Harper's had an article geared towards 40-somethings – that seems so enlightened.

    Perhaps we can get Robin to host a poll for Most Disturbing Perfume of 2008.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I know what you mean. I think we know too much about celebrities these days. There's just no glamour left.

    Most Disturbing Perfume of the year is a great idea!

  23. Anonymous says:


    They just don't write 'em like that anymore, do they?

  24. Anonymous says:

    Wow! Just — wow. “… in the non-committal mahogany mirror of the doctor's waiting room…” Really, though, when you think about it, Cole Porter was POPULAR music back then! (oh and I love the name “Night and Day”). Sometimes I fear we are regressing. And I want to say that articles like these have made this my new favorite blog.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Reminds me of that scene form “Breakfast at Tiffany's” (Love!) where she's just about to have a breakup letter read to her, but she stops and applies her lipstick, saying “A girls can't hear that sort of thing without her lipstick” or something to that effect. Audrey Hepburn is the best. I'd probably give a lot of money to know what perfumes were in her rotation. Great post, though! I'll have to ask my grandma if she's stockpiled any old magazines…she has everything else!

  26. Anonymous says:

    Isn't it marvelous? It makes me want to throw out all my lipsticks but the deep red ones.

  27. Anonymous says:

    D, I am a sucker for old-time glamour (and I adore Cole Porter). Maybe we need a perfume called “Miss Otis Regrets”–what would it smell like? Leather, face powder, regret, and gallows, maybe.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Breakfast at Tiffany's is brilliant, of course (note to self: rent for the hundreth time). Definitely check for grandma's magazines!

  29. Anonymous says:

    I own a vintage bottle of pretexte and it is quite lovely. I don't have the descriptive powers of you guys but I would describe it as a soft powdery floral. Taking a whiff from the bottle gives you the feeling that it is past its best but once dabbed on the skin, smells fab. I also own vintage bottles of My Sin and Crescendo as well as Caron's Farnisiana. I ADORE this scent and wish that I could get my hands on more vintage perfume. All of these formulas probably would be banned now for the potential irritants they may contain but I don't care.

  30. Anonymous says:

    I own a vintage bottle of pretexte and it is quite lovely. I don't have the descriptive powers of you guys but I would describe it as a soft powdery floral. Taking a whiff from the bottle gives you the feeling that it is past its best but once dabbed on the skin, smells fab. I also own vintage bottles of My Sin and Crescendo as well as Caron's Farnisiana. I ADORE this scent and wish that I could get my hands on more vintage perfume. All of these formulas probably would be banned now for the potential irritants they may contain but I don't care.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Oh, I love this! The part of the feminine pysche that believes, deep down, that the right shade of lipstick truly will make our lives better; that part that wants to ornament our own corner of the world.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Wow, no, they don't write em' like that any more. These days, it's too much information and not enough mystery……

  33. Anonymous says:

    What a great find Anglea, I love looking at old magazines and ads, it's interesting to see the tone of the day. Much more glam, one almost gets the impression that the perfume advertised is a treasure, to be cherished, and a mystery to be discovered…

  34. Anonymous says:

    Yes, and the five almost-exactly-the-same shades of brick red rolling around in my purse testify to that!

  35. Anonymous says:

    Isn't it great?

  36. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the description of Pretexte! It makes senses that it would be a powdery floral, given the rest of the Lanvin line that is so different.

    Somehow our grandmothers survived wearing these old perfumes supposedly packed with irritants…

  37. Anonymous says:

    It sure does!

  38. Anonymous says:

    Oooooh, liptick that pop up in the shape of swords! We need to find a great niche lipstick line to make them! (Lipstick Queen perhaps?)

    Thanks for sharing “the red badge”…I do love red lips…

  39. Anonymous says:

    I have a friend who seems to automatically shape her lipstick into a sword after a few weeks of use.

    There definitely should be a shade of lipstick called Red Badge of Courage, if there isn't already.

  40. Anonymous says:

    About 10 years ago, a study was based on personality “types” based on lipstick shape. Interesting.

  41. Anonymous says:

    I remember seeing that! I'll have to look it up.

  42. Anonymous says:

    I admit it: the part that makes me most jealous isn't Shocking for $27.50 (and isn't it interesting that fragrances were advertised as shocking and disturbing?) What really kills me is “… settled for a few hours into a different world.” Where can I buy some of THAT?!? ;-P

  43. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful article and very enjoyable comments. I particularly liked the lipstick excerpt.
    I'm not a big makeup wearer, but I have way, way too many lipsticks. Not quite as much as I have fragrance, but a lot for someone like me.
    I work in health care, and it still makes me smile whenever I see a woman who has been very ill ask for her lipstick and apply it. It usually means she's going home soon!

  44. Anonymous says:

    No kidding! Fashion magazines today won't do it. The next best substitute is “A Passage to India” and a gin and tonic on the porch, I guess.

  45. Anonymous says:

    I pretty much only wear lipstick, too, but I wear A LOT of lipstick, it seems. I love your comment about noticing that women who put on lipstick are on the way to recovery!

  46. Anonymous says:

    I have to say that even in 2008 I find the amount of civet in this one Schocking! My personal civet detectors are keen as luminol and there's a goodly dollop in there.

  47. Anonymous says:

    Yes to both of those – my favourite tipple and second favourite book after The Magus!

  48. Anonymous says:

    You know, I haven't read the Magus. I must correct that right away!

  49. Anonymous says:

    It definitely smells civet-y. And it is full of honey. My first impression of Shocking was of warm, honeyed tea.

  50. Anonymous says:

    It isn't such a great work of literature as Passage to India, but it is sinister and haunting and atmospheric. I had to have a holiday on the island of Spetses after reading it, and you can see the house where the action is mostly set – but only from the sea. There is a rare B/W DVD of the film of the book starring Michael Caine, which was my very first purchase on Ebay, before the avalanche of perfume minis that are still coming! You will need several stiff G & Ts at certain points in the book, I should warn you! : )

  51. Anonymous says:

    It sounds suspenseful. I'll stock up on the gin, then. I want to make a trip to the bookstore this morning, and I'll put The Magus on my list.

  52. Anonymous says:

    I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! It would give me vicarious pleasure if so. If The Magus were a perfume it might well be Tom Ford Velvet Gardenia, which Farah kindly sent me to try. But the passages where you will need the gin for fortification are pure Yatagan! : )

  53. Anonymous says:

    I can't wait!

  54. Anonymous says:

    Oh, and in case it wasn't obvious what I meant by Velvet Gardenia and the tone of the book, it was something along the lines of: “dark, secretive, bewitching, languid, heady, intoxicating, decadent, and rotten at the core!”

  55. Anonymous says:

    One of my all-time favorite fragrances, Shocking!, which I first smelled on my Tia C, back in the 50s. It is so not of this time that it, like other classics, manages to be both timely and classic. I always wear a touch of pink when I wear Shocking, even if it's just my lingerie!

    Mind if I join you on that porch for a G&T?


  56. Anonymous says:

    Forget about The Magus, now I want some Velvet Gardenia!

  57. Anonymous says:

    I hope you will!

  58. Anonymous says:

    LOL! I would warn you – VG is dangerous stuff. Check out the reviews on it: “difficult”, “challenging to wear, “indolent and dark, brooding and extremely alluring”, “hypnotic in its over-the-top slightly rotten lushness”, “borderline to completely revolting”. The scary picture the Perfume Posse use in their review completely captures the atmosphere of the perfume…and the book.

  59. Anonymous says:

    V, I'm well prepared for my old friend, indole, don't worry. your description is magnificent.

  60. Anonymous says:

    Wood, for the gallows. How poignant.

  61. Anonymous says:

    And heavy rose-cotton for the velvet gown. And oil for the gun.

  62. Anonymous says:

    You do have to wonder about that…. they must have been made of stronger stuff in those days. :-) I love the names, too. Pretexte! And the whole concept of “disturbing” as a desirable attribute in a fragrance. I know I already made some comment about that, but I keep thinking about it.

  63. Anonymous says:

    The “disturbing” perfume, Infanta, was by Prince Matchabelli. I just read something the other day saying that there was a real Prince Matchabelli! I though for sure he was made up.

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