HOME DECORATION : Dressing Up a Table in Victoriana


In the Victorian era, an elegant dressing table was a sign of culture and gracious living. And while modern plumbing and appliances have diminished the necessity of dressing tables, many people are still drawn to the elegance and style represented by Victorian accouterments.

Battenberg lace runners, hand-held mirrors and porcelain pitchers and bowls for dressing tables are in demand at the Victoria Co., a Fullerton store filled with antiques and collectibles.

"The idea is to create a serene, beautiful setting," store proprietor Donna Baker said. "Women who are creating a dressing table aren't doing it because it's practical, but because they love the look and feel. And while many people do mix and match items from different times and styles, the Victorian items have always been very popular."

Among the dressing table items she sells are powder jars used to hold talcum powder. These jars were often created of sterling silver, crystal, cut glass or what is called quadruple plate, meaning they were brushed with silver-plate four times, creating a pewter-like look.

A comb and brush, also made of silver or quadruple plate, were other necessities, although, as Baker pointed out, they didn't necessarily need to match.

Most women also had a "hair receiver" on their table.

"When women brushed their hair, they would remove the excess hair from their brushes or combs and place it in the hair receiver," Baker said. "They used this hair to make a 'rat' that was later used to create a pouf with their hair."

Today, most hair receivers, shaped like small, partially covered bowls, are used to hold cotton balls, bath oil beads or other small items.

A nail kit made of "French ivory" (actually a precursor to today's plastic) may have been found on these tables, along with family photos (often in silver frames) and a lined jewelry box used for holding hair ornaments or a special locket.

Most dressing tables also featured a hurricane or kerosene lamp, and these lamps are still popular today despite the advent of electricity.

"Hand-painted kerosene lamps are very popular," Baker said. "It doesn't matter that they are no longer practical. People choose them to create a look or a certain feeling. Most people are trying to duplicate a look they saw in a magazine, or they're looking for something that reminds them of a family member.

"Often, women will remember an atomizer or brush of their mother's or grandmother's, and once they see it, they want it because of the memories associated with it."

Sugar shakers and small jars also have found their way to dressing tables.

"Of course, these items, while they are Victorian, wouldn't be used on a dressing table at that time," Baker said. "But today, many use the sugar shakers for talcum powder, and the little sugar bowls or glass jars are often used to hold jewelry, potpourri or other small items. Although they weren't used on a dressing table, they enhance the overall look of a table."

Violet soap leaves, candle holders, glasses and tumblers and bottles to hold lavender water can often be found on the dressing tables of women today.

"I like the idea of using scents that were popular at that time: heather, rose, lilac," Baker said. "The cologne of that day would have been lavender water or rose water. The petals of these flowers were taken and pressed into a liquid."

Perfume bottles and atomizers made of colored glass were used to hold the fragrant scented water on the dressing table.

"I also have customers who stick reproduction postcards of the era into mirrors or frames to complement a look," Baker said. "There really aren't any hard-and-fast rules anymore. Whatever looks nice can be used."

Although not as common, men's items are available as well. Mirrors, shaving brushes, nail buffers and toothpaste holders are items with a more masculine touch.

"These are heirloom items," Baker said. "And almost everyone comments on them. They're so unusual and lovely that you just want to pick them up and hold them. They almost seem to have a calming influence. I think people buy items for a dressing table because they want to feel good.

"Creating an elegant dressing table is a form of therapy. When you're dealing with a stressful job or a busy lifestyle, it's nice to sit back and feel nostalgic, even if it's only for a few minutes."

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