This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Perfume bottles come in an amazing array of colors, shapes and styles. Filled, they can offer up wonderful aromatic scents, triggering old, familiar memories. Empty, they can be dazzling objects of art, delicate little treasures of glass, silver and porcelain.
From miniature whimsical animals, windmills and Christmas stockings to leaded crystal pieces suitable for museum display, collectors will pay anywhere from a few dollars for a more common bottle to tens of thousands of dollars for particularly scarce pieces. Some of the breadth of this collectible is on display at www.perfumebottles.org, the website of the International Perfume Bottle Association (IPBA).
Peggy Childress, a member of St. Louis' Gateway Chapter of IPBA, calls her collection "my babies" - exquisite little Laliques, intricately painted German crown tops and luminescent Czech atomizers with delicate ruby necks.
"I started 10 years ago with just one bottle," she remembers. "I thought, 'What's the harm?' But after a while, I thought it looked so lonely sitting there on the table all by itself. So I bought another. Now, it's pretty much out of control."
Childress, a retired speech pathologist-turned pre-school teacher-turned gymnastics instructor from Kirkwood, said she doesn't know the exact moment her fascination for perfume bottles became an obsession. "I love them," she said. "I love the art. I love the history. My sister is a collector, too, so it must be in the genes."
The international organization, with a membership of roughly 1,000 enthusiasts from around the globe, is holding its 20th anniversary celebration and convention May 1-4, 2008, at the Sheraton Hotel City Center in St. Louis.
Joyce Geeser of Rockford, Ill., vice president of the international association, said perfume bottle collecting usually is divided into two main categories: commercial and non-commercial bottles. Commercial bottles were those bottles specifically sold with perfume inside, usually with a manufacturer's label on the bottles. Non-commercial bottles were purchased empty and then filled with perfume by the buyer.
Like Childress, Geeser has several hundred bottles. "For me, it has to be something fascinating or unique," Geeser said. "I don't always go for the most beautiful bottle. It has to be interesting, maybe something figural like a lady's hand or a flower or an animal, or maybe a bottle made out of an unusual material."
Prices for bottles, like most collectibles, vary depending on rarity and desirability. "Sometimes, I still see a new bottle that just takes my breath away," Geeser said.
A dealer recently invited her to see a piece the dealer already had promised to another collector. "I wanted that bottle," Geeser said, but the dealer held firm. Luckily, Geeser found an identical bottle not long after at the organization's annual convention.
As is the case with most collectors, Geeser and Childress love to share stories of remarkable finds. Recently, Geeser said, she discovered a hard stone, gold-mounted Russian perfume bottle mislabeled as a cheaper Chinese bottle. She said she paid a "couple hundred dollars" for the bottle that she values at about $4,000.
Five years ago, Childress found a $500 Richard Hudnut bottle at a local antique mall for $6. Not long ago, she bought a $600 Rene Lalique bottle on eBay for $2.
"Everybody has his or her stories," she said.
Amazing perfume bottle bargains are often found at Goodwill stores in Florida due to the number of senior citizens there, Childress commented. Family members often donate household items like perfume bottles to Goodwill stores, not knowing the value.
Childress' husband says he doesn't understand her passion. "He calls antique malls 'indoor landfills,'" she says. "Still, he tells me if I am going to buy, I should buy the best, buy the quality pieces."
Geeser said this year's convention in St. Louis will feature a free presentation to the public entitled "Collecting Perfume Bottles 101." The seminar will cover topics such as how to get started in collecting, where to hunt for bottles and how to learn more about the types of bottles available. People interested in attending the seminar at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 3 must pre-register by calling Lois Trowbridge at 314-628-9887.
The public also is invited to attend an auction of perfume bottles, beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, May 2, and a show and sale from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 3, and 10 a.m. to noon on Sunday, May 4. There is a $5 admission for the show and sale. Additional information is available on the association's website.
HEARTLAND FOCUS ON:
The Lighthouse Antique Mall, Raymond, Ill., at Exit 60, just off Interstate 55, 60 miles north of downtown St. Louis.
This mid-sized mall carries a variety of collectibles and is staffed with some of the friendliest people along the I-55 antique mall corridor between St. Louis and Chicago. Clean, well-lighted and well-maintained.
Some recent items and prices from the Lighthouse Antique Mall:
- Five inch tall Gillespie, Ill., dairy glass cottage cheese bottle: $22.50.
- 1950 Fisher Price Looky Fire Truck in overall very good condition with light wear: $85.
- Donnie and Marie Osmond blue plastic transistor radio from the 1970s: $15.
- 1966 St. Louis Cardinals baseball team plastic ruler with images of players including Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Orlando Cepeda: $20.
- 1950s "Ask Me About Whirlpool Ice Magic Automatic Ice Makers" white, orange and blue pinback button: $10.
Have a question? Know of an interesting vintage collection? E-mail us at email@example.com
This is the first in a series of columns on collecting and collectibles in the Midwest. Writers Cathy and Bill Smith have been involved in collecting for nearly 20 years. While their personal interests center around vintage toys, movie and television-related nostalgia, character-related memorabilia and holiday items, their columns will cover a wide range of collecting interests.