Saturday, 10 May 2014

Throwaways - by Sally Blake

The demand for empty scent bottles known as “throwaways” in the trade (a clumsy name, but a better one has not yet emerged) has snowballed from the odd enthusiast picking up an occasional dusty, discarded one-time container of dreams, dumped unceremoniously into an “Everything 6d” market stall box containing knives and forks, broken necklaces, the odd egg-cup and tattered souvenirs from foreign parts, to a virtual stampede.

Bargains have long since disappeared. The days of the sixpenny Narcisse Noir gone forever. An inevitability in the junk world, and the originators of the demand usually sigh sadly, and switch to collecting something else. As they did when Victorian pub glasses suddenly went through the roof, closely followed by ornamental glass trees, and of course, those glass domed figures that once upon a time, everyone else had thought so hideous.

Having taken up junk dealing on the time-proven premise that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, the dealers were nevertheless surprised.

Terrible things happened to bottles as a result of misinterpretation of this new demand.

One likely lad, having come into a vast stock of large display flacons from a one-time chemist, emptied the contents, threw away the stoppers, soaked off the labels, and ran gold paint around the insides in which he considered a most artistic fashion, and put them on sale as “Vases: £3”.

It was a hard lesson to learn. They eventually ended up in an “everything 10p” box, and even then, they didn’t shift. The dealer switched to second-hand clothes in disgust.

Yet another dealer, far higher “up-market”, had the brilliant idea of soaking off all the labels – and mocked them up as “Art Nouveau” with added silver shoulders.

People would stop and say: “oh, what a pity!” And: “I don’t suppose you have any of the originals left...?”

Not one was sold in five years, and it had seemed like such a good idea at the time.

Well, if you can’t trust anything Art Nouveau to be a seller, what can you trust?

The dealer’s lot is not a happy one, they can be “taken” too – by other dealers, and often are. “Honour amongst thieves” exists only in romantic fiction.

One such soul slapped her customary £30 (minimum) profit on a bottle that had cost her £18, and put it out on her stall at £48.
The famous L'Air du Temps 'love birds' - lovely, but still very much in production...

“It’s Lalique!” She’d say proudly to any likely punter who picked it up, totally unaware that the same bottle could be purchased, full of scent [L’Aire du Temps] for £29 at any local chemist. Unaware also, that Nina Ricci’s bottles have always been “Lalique”, whether made in 1947 or 1987, and that Lalique is doing very nicely, thank you, churning them out by the hundred million.

Collectors are perpetually haunted by “the ones that got away” and the spectre of missed opportunity. Those terrible days which they don’t like to remember before they became collectors and threw things away. Phantoms of the past return when least expected to kick them in the stomach and cosh them over the head.

“Remember when you bought that?” they sneer, “what did it cost? Was it two shillings or one and six?” as you stare in disbelief at a bakerlite blue-boxed Evening in Paris shaped like a door with two miniature pairs of shoes placed outside, waiting to be cleaned, whilst Heaven only knows what was going on inside, priced £25 - £40. “Well? And what did you do with it?”
Coty - Replique and Plaisir. Created 1936 and 1956 respectively

The same as you probably did with Lancôme’s 4 Seasons (didn’t you only like Summer? And don’t you, wish hindsight didn’t tell you how much more fabulous Winter was?) and Lucien Lelong’s trio: Tout Lelong, shaped like three L’s in a row.

The same, undoubtedly, as you did with Picôt’s Le Train Bleue, and Coty’s Paris, and the Californian Poppy in the red bakerlite grand piano given to you by a nephew who is now all grown up and a High Court Judge, same as you did with Mischief in its top hat.

When they were finished, into the bin went Nina Ricci’s miniature Lalique sample bottles: Coeur Joie, L’Aire du Temps, and Fille d’Eve. So too tumbled empty jewel-topped Rubensteins and Ardens, the 4711 Tosca, Rigaud’s Un Air Embaumé, the original Bond Street in its red, white, blue and gold box, and of course the yellow Houbigant powder boxes with the flower baskets on top. Once they were finished, you didn’t need them anymore, right? You didn’t need the Tokalon boxes, or those ten-a-penny Coty powder boxes with the gold handled powder puffs on top, any more than you could spare house-room for the Snowfire Cream and used Yardley bee-topped pots and jars.

Oh indeed, wasn’t there something called Flêches d’Or, and Tresor, and didn’t you think it was “too strong”?

By now, you are as cold and shaken as if you had remembered robbing the poor-box in church, or throwing the gerbil down the stairs.

Worst of all is the knowledge that there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it. It’s over. It’s gone. You cannot go back.You simply have to live with it.

Easier to live with are thoughts of childhood, and what your grandmother might have had on her dressing table. You know she had huge black cannon-balls of Pear’s bath soap, that you could see through if you held them up to the light, and red-tasseled “Black Magic” chocolate boxes filled with old letters tied with ribbon, because you used to play in her wardrobe. You know what she had in her jewel boxes, because she let you play with those too; but what did she have on her dressing table?

Every time your grandfather went to Paris between the wars, and even before the First World War, he would bring her back perfume. As far as your grandfather was concerned, that was what Paris was for: perfume, and the Moulin Rouge. And he visited Paris frequently.

Poster for Soir de Paris - 1965

Never mind. That’s life. You were a child. You can hardly be blamed for not recognising Treasure Trove.

But what were you collecting later, much later, when you threw all that “rubbish” out? Glass animals, wasn’t it? And pictures of Danny Kaye?

Better just go home, sit down, and pour yourself a double gin…

Note - 1990:

Schiaparelli’s Le Roi Soleil is currently fetching £7,700.

Sally Blake

(Picture at top of page: set of 1950s miniatures including "Aigrette", "Canotier" and "Marotte" by the hat maker Rose Valois. Sold by Mastro Auctions, USA, 2008)